Service dogs do more than help the blind. They are effective for people with all types of disabilities. For one little boy with Angelman Syndrome, a mild form of autism, his service dog, Mack, has opened up a whole new world for him.
Josh Feygin, 9, from Westport, received Mack from Canine Companions for Independence, a national organization located in Medford, N.Y., which, since 1989, has graduated more than 626 canine companion teams.
Josh's mother, Kim, is especially grateful.
"Mack has changed Josh's life," she said.
The dog provides the young boy with attention he craves, allowing his mother to take care of her other two children. The dog loves to play fetch with Josh's toys.
"Josh doesn't have friends and has poor motor skills. Mack helps him become more a part of society," Kim said. Kim and Josh went through intensive training sessions at Canine Companions for Independence before they brought Mack, a golden retriever, home. The organization has found that Labradors and golden retrievers, and a mix of the two breeds, work best with its clients.
Ellen Torop, the program manager for the Northeast region, oversees the selection, training, placement and follow-up of assistance dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness.
"For someone like Josh, who has largely been marginalized by society, a dog is a way for him to gain acceptance. Suddenly, people are responding to him because he has this big, friendly dog at his side," she said.
The dogs are trained to pull wheelchairs, retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, and provide comfort to those in challenging circumstances. There are currently 89 people on the CCI's waiting list. The organization has a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, which means most of the money it raises goes directly to the program rather than administrative expenses. Volunteers are key to CCI's success. There are 294 volunteers and another 168 puppy raisers, who take dogs into their homes and prepare them to become service animals.
CCI also works with veterans' organizations and has great success with providing dogs to soldiers who were injured on the battlefield.
"We have many requests from veterans for a service dog," Ellen said. "Because we are a nonprofit organization, we can not fulfill all our requests because we need more charitable contributions."
The organization does not charge for the dog, its training and ongoing follow-up services.
International Assistance Dog Week is being celebrated this week. I encourage you to go to www.cci.org or call 1-800-572-BARK and see how you can help this wonderful organization. For a boy like Josh, a dog can open up a new world. For an injured veteran, a dog can be a companion who understands and helps him adapt to society. We all love our dogs, but these service dogs are very special and CCI deserves our support.
Cathy Kangas is a member of the Board of Directors of the Humane Society of the United States. She lives in New Canaan with her husband and three rescued dogs, and can be reached at email@example.com.