Kevin Schmidt approaches the entrance to Canine Companions for Independence in his motorized chair. Before he can reach out to press the button to open the front door, his assistance dog Kip does it with his nose.
The nearly 4-year-old golden retriever/yellow Lab mix knows 40-odd commands, but he does something even more important than retrieving dropped items or opening doors for the Islip Terrace resident, who is unable to walk after a 2006 bike accident.
“He’s made my life better. He gets me out more, and I don’t know if he’s a service dog or I’m a service person,” Schmidt said with a laugh as he nuzzled Kip’s head.
Since 1975, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) has enabled people with various disabilities to live more independently. The nonprofit organization has six locations nationwide, including Medford, Long Island, which serves the East Coast from Maine to Virginia.
Though a service dog can cost more than $40,000, CCI recipients receive their furry companions free of charge thanks to donors, corporations and fundraisers like DogFest, which takes place Sept. 23 at Marjorie Post Park in Massapequa.
How CCI trains dogs
CCI breeds Labradors, golden retrievers and mixes of the two. The puppies are raised for 18 to 24 months by volunteers, who socialize and obedience train them while giving frequent progress reports to CCI.
“We get reports like, ‘Puppy met a horse today,’ or ‘Puppy saw a man open an umbrella,’” said instructor Marissa Guidoboni.
Eventually the dogs return to CCI, where they begin six to nine months of professional training, some of which Guidoboni demonstrated with Carey. The good boy showed Metro how he can open a drawer, turn on a light, pull a laundry basket and pick up a pill bottle and cellphone from the floor.
“Having the dogs to help with those tasks helps ease the burden for an individual so they don’t have to rely on human help so often,” Guidoboni said. “These dogs are helping do daily tasks, but they’re here to love you, to be that support for you as well.”
Each instructor works with six to 10 dogs, which can be at different stages of training. Each dog has a binder that documents its progress.
“We’re looking for appropriate behavior, calm out in public, not barking or jumping at loud sounds,” Guidoboni said. “We want to make sure they want to do their jobs.”
The dogs usually train once or twice a day for up to 30 minutes and have daily play times with the other CCI dogs.
Just four out of 10 dogs make it through CCI’s training, which culminates in a graduation ceremony after a two-week training session with their human.
How CCI trains humans
CCI recipients undergo a rigorous screening process, which begins with a basic application that could lead to a one-on-one interview at the Medford facility, Development Director Debra MacKenzie said.
If applicants make it to the one-on-one interview, which includes working with a dog in advanced training, they are put on a wait list, which is currently about a year and a half, MacKenzie said.
Once there is an opening, the applicant comes to CCI for a two-week training session, when they are matched with a canine that best meets their needs. The Medford facility offers on-site – and free – accommodations for students and their families. Within a few days, they start rooming with their new canine companion.
After the two-week training, there is a graduation in which the raisers ceremoniously hand over the leash.
“It’s like sending a kid off to college. There’s crying,” Guidoboni said. “For me, I get to see the dog working with that individual, so it helps with that little bit of closure and seeing the end result.”
Seeing a bond like the one Schmidt has with Kip surely helps.
“He’s always at my side. I’m his guy,” Schmidt said. “It’s been tough, and he gives me a smile on my face every day. It’s called Canine Companions, but the companion part is what really fulfilled me.”