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Help Is A Four-Legged Word

The emotional healing power of a good dog is no secret. From getting their human owner out of the house for a healthy walk to filling an otherwise boring Saturday afternoon with a fetch or a tug-of-war, canines are nature’s furry antidepressant.

But one organization takes that theory to the next level, training dogs to produce more than just cuteness induced squealing from their owners. Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization with bases across the country, provides highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities and veterans for free.

And last week, close to a dozen special needs individuals each received a new breed of adroit doggies from the organization’s northeast location in Medford. Canine Companions for Independence marked the occasion with a ceremony at the Islandia Marriott, as the pooches graduated from training school to real work.

Among the recipients of a talented tail-wagger was Brendan Gillespie, an 8-year-old Massapequan diagnosed with ADHD, who was placed with a black Labrador from Boston named Fenway who became a bit of a celebrity at his namesake ballpark.

“It is absolutely amazing to receive a gift like this,” said Brendan’s mom, Jennifer. “From the time Brendan met Fenway, we knew he would help.”

CCI prides itself on the quality and longevity of the matches it makes between dogs and people. For dogs enrolled in the program, their life-changing companionship begins with the CCI breeding program. From there, puppies are placed with volunteer puppy raisers across the nation for socialization and obedience training. And after 15-18 months, the puppies return to one of five CCI regional training centers for six months of training where they master over 40 specialized commands.

The dogs then spend two weeks their potential patients at the CCI facility and if all goes well, they all attend the graduation ceremony where the puppy raisers officially pass the leash to the new owners.

Gillespie said Fenway will help her son open up socially, helping to bridge the gap between Brendan and other children his age who might not understand his condition.

“Fenway is part of the family now. He will help Brendan be more confident and that will improve his social interactions,” she said, adding that Fenway will help Brendan attend sporting events, something that was previously difficult for him to sit through. “This is truly an immeasurable gift. Fenway is joining our journey.”

The precise emotional lift of having Fenway around might not be completely understand by young Brendan, but the precocious and energetic youngster certainly realizes the value of his new companion.

“We’re going to play fetch and cuddle,” he said. “I’m going to go everywhere with him.”

Another recipient of a special assistance dog is 11-year-old Frankie Cavalli of Plainview, who took home an affectionate yellow Labrador named Victory.

“He is so cool,” said Frankie. “He’s in our family now.”

Frankie’s mom Kelly O’Brien said the new pup will change the way her son interacts with others and will also bring a calmness into his life.

“A lot of people who need service dogs need them to physically open doors for them; Frankie needs social doors opened up,” she said. “I believe Victory will help us in ways we don’t even realize yet.”

But Debra Dougherty, executive director of northeast CCI, said the benefits of a service dog will be quickly realized by the families who receive them.

And since opening in 1989, the northeast CCI has placed 612 assistance dogs with people who have far more to gain than the occasional game of fetch.

“These dogs will always be there,” she said. “They will always be there without judgments; always loving, always helpful.”