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Canine Companions

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By Amanda Olsen

Being matched with a service dog can sometimes feel like hitting the jackpot.

That’s certainly how Jamie Sileo, of Setauket, feels. Her daughter Drew, 10, and “best friend” Dasha, a pure yellow lab, were paired in October 2021.

“I always say we’ve won the doggy lottery,” Sileo said. “She’s just amazing.” 

Drew has global developmental delays, executive function issues and ADHD. The pairing was made possible through Canine Companions, whose northeast location is based in Medford. The organization is the nation’s largest provider of service dogs, at no cost to the recipient. 

When Sileo first started looking for a dog, she first contacted the Guide Dog Foundation of Smithtown.

“I knew that with her needs, getting a puppy would be very hard,” the mother said. “So I called the Guide Dog Foundation and asked them about it. And they said that we don’t do it, but you can call Canine Companions. It took one month shy of two years to get the call to join team training and get matched with a dog. It took a long time, but we were patient.” 

When they finally got Dasha, she integrated into their lives immediately.

“I think it’s better than we thought it would be,” Sileo said. “I didn’t realize how highly trained these dogs are, and how they’re bred to be such amazing, kind animals. They’re very routine based, so the dog just kind of fell right in with everything that we do.”

These dogs spend 18 months with a puppy raiser and then graduate to formal training at the Medford center. Training focuses not only on commands but also behavior. These dogs have a job to do, and they take it very seriously.

“She really knows when her vest is on that she’s working,” the mother said. “If we’re going to a restaurant, most people will tell us, ‘We didn’t even know there was a dog in the restaurant,’ because she’s quiet. She just lays under the table. They’re trained to not touch anything off the floor, So they don’t touch a single piece of food or anything. We take her with us, even if we just run into the grocery store.”

All Canine Companions service dogs learn the same commands, including retrieving dropped items as small as a dime, pulling a manual wheelchair, and turning light switches on and off. Certain commands are more useful for Drew and Dasha than others. Dasha helps with Drew’s sensory needs and keeps her safe.

“She does cover, which is basically like laying across her lap to apply pressure and fulfill her sensory needs,” Sileo said. “We also use the push command. If we’re upstairs getting dressed, and she’s got her drawers open, the dog will help push things closed. Drew has a tendency to get up and then not realize that it’s the middle of the night. So, if she does get up, the dog stays with her.”

For anyone considering raising a puppy for Canine Companions, Debra Dougherty, executive director of the Northeast region, emphasizes commitment over experience.

“We’re looking for someone that’s committed,” Dougherty said. “Someone that wants to give back. It’s a great experience raising a puppy and then watching it go on to help someone.” 

There is an extensive support system for puppy raisers to draw from, and previous dog experience is not required.

“We go through a process with them,” she said. “They apply, and then we do a phone interview with them. Then we have them come to a couple of classes on our Medford campus to observe and maybe talk to some of the other raisers. At that point, if they’re still interested, then they go on the waitlist. When they get a puppy we have a pretty structured program for them. We try to pair people up with a mentor if they want, someone who has more experience so that they have someone to go to. So it’s not necessary for someone to have raised a dog before, because we support them.” 

Dougherty also wants people to be mindful of the future recipient, and the weight and emotion attached to their decision to raise a puppy.

“Be open to new things and have a big heart to share with that puppy as well as with the recipient,” she said. “It is a commitment because these dogs are bred for a very special purpose and you know the end purpose, you know the end goal being to be matched with a person with a disability to help them. So we want them to be serious about it.”

As the family of a Canine Companions service dog, Sileo is thankful.

“I’m forever grateful for all the puppy raisers out there,” the mother said. “We can’t thank Canine Companions enough for this opportunity. Because of the puppy raisers, trainers, and the generosity of the donors and everyone in between, my daughter was able to receive this beautiful and extremely smart dog named Dasha. Dasha has improved Drew’s life in so many ways from daily routines and her speech to social interactions and anxiety control. Dasha is such a welcome part of our family, and everyone who meets her just falls in love.” 

Nico VI, above, is being trained by volunteer Andrea Spencer, of Stony Brook, to one day assist people with disabilities. Photo from Canine Companions

By Amanda Olsen

There can be little doubt that Andrea Spencer is a dog person.

Nico with volunteer trainer Andrea Spencer. Photo from Canine Companions

The Stony Brook resident has rescued Labradors since 2011, fostering and training them while they were waiting for their forever homes. She also co-chairs the DogFest Long Island fundraiser at Marjorie R. Post Community Park in Massapequa and is currently raising a puppy, Nico VI, for Canine Companions.

This is a national nonprofit organization founded in 1975 that provides highly trained assistance dogs to people with disabilities free of charge. Puppy raisers provide specially bred puppies a safe home, take them to obedience classes, serve them a healthy diet, provide socialization opportunities and give them lots of love. Each hour spent caring for a Canine Companions puppy is vital to its development as a future service dog. 

Spencer’s puppy-raising journey began with a rescued yellow Lab named Ruby, who came from Louisiana to live with Spencer and her family. She remembers her fondly.

“She was really my heart dog,” Spencer said. “She was really the dog that brought me into all of my volunteer work.” 

Around 2017, a friend first mentioned Canine Companions as a possible service opportunity, and the organization kept entering Spencer’s life. She attended a couple of puppy matriculation ceremonies, a kind of graduation where the dogs move on from living with their raisers to formal training at the Canine Companions center. It was a turning point for Spencer.

“The graduation was an inspirational, beautiful, wonderful thing,” she said. “It was basically just life changing for me as far as working with Canine Companions.”

After a long, happy life, Ruby passed from lung cancer in August 2020. Spencer credits this loss as the catalyst for her puppy raising.

“And once we kind of settled from that storm, my husband said, ‘We’ve always thought in the back of our heads, you’d like to do something more for Canine Companions. Why don’t we raise a puppy in Ruby’s honor?’ I said, ‘You know what, that’s such a great idea.’”

The family began the process, first with the application in January 2021, then an extensive interview in March of that year. Once that part of the process was over, and they were approved, all that was left to do was wait. 

That September, Nico arrived in New York, and the Spencers were now raising a future service dog for Canine Companions. 

Nico is a Lab/golden retriever cross, which is a special mix Canine Companions breeds for its service dog program. This mix is both personable and very trainable. Spencer said that there are many things Nico picks up on without training, and when she does train him, he learns quickly. 

“With the Spencer family’s love and guidance, Nico is on his way to becoming a Canine Companions service dog, and will someday be matched with an adult, child or veteran with a disability free of charge,” said John Bentzinger, Canine Companions regional public relations and marketing coordinator, in an email. “Nico is being taught basic commands and socialization skills and, in another seven to 10 months, he’ll be returned to Canine Companions where he’ll work for six months with our professional instructors learning over 40 advanced commands that are useful to a person with disabilities. Nico will learn how to open and close doors, turn lights on and off, and pick up dropped items to name just a few.”

One of the biggest challenges is training the puppies to control their excitement. 

“They’re really bred to love people and be with people and be with everybody,” Spencer said. “So that actually provides a little bit of a challenge as a puppy raiser because they really want to go see everybody and they get excited. So, we work on having good manners in public.”

Being in public and being well socialized is critical to the service dog’s success. The dog has to be comfortable in multiple locations on a variety of surfaces. “We want him to be completely focused in these locations, not just in the home where he is the majority of the time,” Spencer said. 

Some commands are specific to his training as a service dog.

“They’re taught to bark a sequence of three, four or five times, and then quiet is paired with that because they don’t want the barking for 20 minutes,” she said. “They just want you barking to kind of alert someone.”

There is a huge network of support for people who decide to raise puppies for Canine Companions. Not only are there informal connections with other volunteers, but the national nonprofit provides each raiser with a mentor called a “puppy pal.”

“It’s a mentoring program with a raiser who’s raised at least three dogs,” Spencer said. “They hook you up with that person and throughout their puppyhood, you can call them or email them or text them.”

Of course, the No. 1 thing Spencer gets asked is how she will feel when Nico leaves her care and goes on to formal training.

“The Lab rescue was like my training or my internship,” she said. “I would have fosters in my house anywhere from one week to two months, and then they would go on to their adoptive homes. And believe me, it wasn’t easy, but you see that you’re helping. I think having a resident dog in the house helps. I look at this not like Nico’s my pet, but he’s my job. You have to have the right mindset for it.”

She also credits her son, Jared, who has Autism, for helping to forge a connection with Nico’s future recipient.

“I think having a child who is disabled and seeing that this organization serves that community has made that connection for me.” 

For Spencer, the decision to raise again is a given.

“I will definitely raise again, because it’s just such a wonderful experience,” she said. “I think as you subsequently raise, even though it’s different, you have all of the basic knowledge, the training tools, the understanding of what they need to learn. Of course, you’re going to have different obstacles with each puppy, because puppies are like humans, they’re all different. But yes, I definitely think we’ll raise again.”

Her advice for people considering raising is straightforward.

“I think if you’re considering raising you have to have a certain mindset, that you’re raising this puppy not for you but for to help somebody,” she said. “You definitely need to have the entire family on board, because it does become a family affair. You’re going to have challenges, but you’re going to also have great successes. There is a very strong network of support right here on Long Island. And really, we’ve become a family. We call it the Canine Companion family. And it’s something that is so rewarding on so many levels. And you know, hopefully more people will join in and take part in this because without the puppy raising there are no dogs.”

Deputy Chief Michael Presta with Huckleberry from Canine Companions. Photo by Julianne Mosher

By Julianne Mosher

[email protected]

Port Jefferson EMS has a new volunteer on staff — a golden lab named Huckleberry.

Known to his counterparts as “Huck,” the 2-year-old Canine Companions for Independence facility dog has been hired to respond to stressful situations and bring a sense of relief to those in need. 

Huck is ready for action in the Port Jefferson EMS car. Photo by Julianne Mosher

His handler Deputy Chief Michael Presta said that he became interested in adopting a facility dog when a friend — who is a police officer down in Maryland — told him about the program. Presta began researching Canine Companions and found that there are many different benefits to having a facility dog on premise. 

“A facility dog would be a dog that works in an educational, legal or some sort of clinical hospital health care setting,” he said. “For example, in the legal setting, they work as crime victim advocates for kids that have to testify and things like that, and it’s really kind of gained traction nationally in the education setting of the schools that have them.”

Presta added that hospitals like Mount Sinai and Calvary Hospital in the Bronx have facility dog programs, but Port Jefferson EMS is one of the first on Long Island within the health care industry.

“The dogs work with patients, work with people that are receiving PT, OT services, work with kids — anybody that’s really suffered any trauma,” he said. “And that’s what we’re using Huck for; we’re using him to really engage with the community’s vulnerable populations.”

Presta and his new furry friend will be working side by side engaging with children and adults affected by trauma who they deal with on a daily basis. 

“Not every solution in medicine is giving a medication or starting an IV,” he said. “Sometimes we can slow down work with the patients, and the dog is a great tool
for that.”

Since 1975, Canine Companions has bred, raised and expertly trained assistance dogs in over 40 commands designed to assist people with disabilities or to motivate and inspire clients with special needs. Huck can pull toy wagons, push drawers closed and retrieve all kinds of items. He has specific commands that allow him to interact with patients in a calm and appropriate way.

But it’s not just fun and games having him around. He has a lot of responsibilities while on call. “Right now, he responds in the car with me when I’m working clinically,” Presta said. 

Huck’s badge on the back of his harness.
Photo by Julianne Mosher

Not every opportunity is a good fit for Huck, Presta added. If a patient is extremely ill or isn’t a dog person, Huck usually stands back. But within the last few weeks — Huck just joined the team last month — he has calmed people in distress.

Presta said that while working with patients who have developmental disabilities, sometimes the lights, trucks and uniforms can be a sensory overload for them. 

That’s where Huck comes in.

“We’re hoping that the dog is going to be a great icebreaker tool to kind of break down that barrier,” the deputy chief said. “Establish a lot of communication and get them into the ambulance, get patients to the hospital.”

Port Jefferson EMS is a combination EMS agency of career and volunteer paramedics and EMTs providing 24/7/365 advanced life support ambulance service to the communities of Port Jefferson, Belle Terre, Mount Sinai and Miller Place. 

There is also a unique live-in program for Stony Brook University students where about 15 of them live on premise. They get free room and board in exchange for riding in the ambulance 24 hours a week.

“They get an immersive clinical experience,” Presta said. “They’re here all the time. They get a lot of clinical hours, which makes them really competitive for programs, and we get EMTs in the community here which is needed.”

And Presta said Huck has made friends with each and every one of them. 

“In addition to his role, he helps serve the 200 people in this organization,” he added. “We see some pretty gnarly things from time to time, so Huck is our de-facto licensed therapist here.”

Since his first tour in October, Huck is already off to an excellent start helping out others. 

“It’s been great for us,” Presta said. “He’s been really engaging with the community. We’re out in the village walking around, meeting people, talking to people from all walks of life and he really has been a great tool for us.”

DogFest Walk ‘n Roll Long Island takes place on Sat.

Giavanna DeStefano, flanked by mom Cynthia, and Harry, a golden Labrador retriever, meet at a training session in February. Photo from John Bentzinger

They say dog is man’s best friend, and for one Northport family, the adage couldn’t be any truer.

The DeStefanos are on a quest to raise money this week for Canine Companions for Independence’s DogFest Walk ‘n Roll fundraising event. The nonprofit group matches assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities at no cost to the individual.

It was through CCI that Northport 9-year-old Giavanna DeStefano, who is disabled, met Harry, a golden Labrador, in February. And life has changed significantly for the DeStefanos since he joined their family, according to Giavanna’s mom, Cynthia DeStefano.

“Harry cleans her room for her,” DeStefano said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “For me, I should say. She likes having him around. It’s like her little buddy that’s there for her.”

Harry is Giavanna’s friend and helper. The girl, who was born with a genetic anomaly called Trisomy 9 Mosaicism syndrome, is nonverbal and has global developmental delays and balances issues. For instance, if someone were to bump into her, she would fall and wouldn’t know to brace herself to cushion the fall. She can only speak about seven words.

The dog is trained in more than 40 commands, and can do things like open and close doors, turn light switches on and off, and pick up dropped items for Giavanna, according to John Bentzinger, public relations spokesperson for the group.

“But his main job will be to give her constant companionship, and he is a social bridge to her peers,” Bentzinger said in an email.

The dogs go through a rigorous training process. It costs about $45,000 to train each of the dogs, and it’s through the DogFest Walk ‘n Roll that CCI helps raise money to fund some of those expenses, Bentzinger said. Last year, the group raised more than $40,000, and this year, they are aiming for $60,000.

There’s a waiting list of about a year and a half for one dog. CCI owns 53 dogs in the northeast region, and the nonprofit owns more than 500 dogs nationally.

Harry is Giavanna’s companion. The two-year-old lab sleeps with her at night. When Giavanna returns home from school, Harry gets antsy awaiting her arrival, when he hears the bus. He picks up her stuffed animal toys around the room. He swims in the family’s shallow pool with her. He attends doctors appointments with her.

When his vest is on, Harry is ready to go to work, Giavanna’s mom said.

“He’s helpful for her,” she said. “He’s very funny.”

Through Harry, Giavanna is gaining a greater sense of responsibility. Giavanna helps her mother groom and feed him, take him for walks. Having Harry by Giavanna’s side makes her more approachable and gives her more attention, which she likes, her mom said.

“They see him, they see her, and it softens the whole ‘what’s wrong with this situation’ kind of thing,” she said.

Experiencing life with Harry motivated the DeStefanos to give back by fundraising for CCI, Cynthia DeStefano said.

“It’s a great organization,” she said. “Going through the program was amazing, and to see what these dogs can do, and how they adapt to each person’s needs, is an amazing thing. We’re blessed to have been able to do this.”

So far, they’ve raised $185 out of their $300 goal. To donate to the DeStefanos’ team, go to their fundraising page at www.tinyurl.com/nn3sn4y.

The fundraiser DogFest Walk ‘n Roll Long Island takes place this Saturday, Oct. 3, at Marjorie Post Park in Massapequa. For more information, visit www.cci.org.