By Donovan Alexis and Megan Valle
DEER PARK, NY–The 6th annual DogFest ‘Walk n Roll’ gathering last Saturday at Tanger Outlets has so far raised $4,501, surpassing their goal of $1,000. During the event, local dog owners and enthusiasts gave their support to those with special needs hoping to acquire the service of an assistance dog.
The event was hosted by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a non-profit organization specialized in breeding, raising and placing assistance dogs for people with physical disabilities other than blindness.
This was Jamie first year [attending], because we graduated in August,” Jamie Allen-Zic, assistant Principal at a District 75 school in New York City said.
“She goes into classrooms and helps students with tasks to make them more independent throughout the day,” she said.
Having attended the event with Delight, a black labrador facility dog for a New York City school in District 75 which houses all students with disabilities, Allen-Zic said she will always come out and support CCI as often as she can.
“I think it’s absolutely amazing that we are able to provide this service to anybody with a special need including students that would prefer to work with a dog than with a human most of the time,” Allen-Zic said.
The event featured live cover band, No Stone Unturned, who played throughout the morning, a dog costume contest, an agility course, and a group dog walk for all participants.
The matching process consists of an initial application submission, a phone interview, in-person interview, and medical history paperwork before meeting the dogs.
“When I found CCI, they matched me with my first dog right as I was graduating from high school,” Lauren Hemmerly, a CCI graduate, said. “I got to take him all through college, graduate school, and everything. It allowed me to go to school independently.”
Diagnosed with a rare form of dwarfism, Hemmerly said that she initially had a difficult time looking for a college that would accommodate her needs.
Nearly 15 years later, after acquiring the services of CCI, whom she initially found out about from a flier on a pet store window, Hemmerly and her dog Ralph IV have been able to tackle life’s daily challenges with ease.
“He actually comes to work with me every day, they’re [the dogs] trained to know 40 different commands,” she said. “He can tug open doors for me, push the little elevator buttons or the handicap accessible buttons in places, so they know a lot.”
The matching process in which a service dog is paired with their prospective owner is where the magic happens, Wendy Pascale, volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions said.
“We match the dog with the person who really needs the dog, and it’s just a magic match,” she said. “You see it all the time, you’ll see a lot of the graduate dogs here with their person and it’s incredible what these dogs do for people. We’re all focused on the same goal, we make sure that it’s fun.”
The organization has a current waitlist of 415 people. Take Marie Hiltunen for example, who moves around in a wheelchair. She applied at CCI for a service dog that can pull her and allow for greater mobility.
“This is my first time applying, so I’m really excited and waiting to get a dog,” Hiltunen said. “I just need that extra help and it makes a big difference.”
The northeast chapter of CCI has placed almost a thousand dogs since 1989. Since then, they have moved from the State University of Farmingdale to a facility out in Medford. Nationally, next month it is projected that they will reach about six thousand placements since they began in 1975, the Executive Director of the Northeast Region of Canine Companions for Independence, Debra Dougherty said.
“It is growing exponentially,” Dougherty said. “There are a lot of people here from different parts of the northeast region, it is a big family. Canine Companions is a tremendous national family.”