Companion dogs meet their new Long Island owners

Special assistance dogs trained by Canine Companions for Independence are paired up with people needing help with everyday tasks, from getting milk from the refrigerator or retrieving household items. Videojournalist: Ed Betz (Aug. 7, 2013)

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The 11-year-old Plainview boy who has a mild form of autism was the first person to receive a specially trained dog Wednesday. For good luck, Frankie Cavalli had crossed his fingers and placed his hands behind his back as his name was called.

The trainers from Canine Companions for Independence brought out a yellow Labrador named Schaffer, the dog Frankie wanted.

"You happy?" his mom Kelly O'Brien, 51, asked.

"Yeah," Frankie said as the dog licked his hand. The pair walked back to their seats, but within a few minutes, the boy was on the floor next to Schaffer, petting the dog's head.

Since it opened in 1989, Canine Companions' northeast regional center in Medford has placed more than 600 assistance dogs with people who have physical and psychosocial disabilities. The center trains dogs to do a variety of tasks: pick up dropped objects, turn on light switches, open a refrigerator or even pull a lightweight wheelchair.

Ten children and adults finally reached the top of a yearlong waitlist to take home a 2-year-old golden retriever, a black Labrador or golden lab mixed-breed at the end of next week. The new owners, including one woman who drove up from West Virginia, were briefed on basic commands and general handling, but each learned which dog was their specially picked match for the first time Wednesday.

O'Brien said Frankie's dog would make everyday tasks, such as doing homework or meeting new friends, easier for her son, calming the boy if he panics and teaching him responsibility.

"With this, Frankie can get to be the best he can be," she said.

Another boy, Brendan Gillespie, 8, of Massapequa, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, smiled as he was introduced to his black Labrador, Fenway, named for the Boston Red Sox stadium. Even though Brendan is a self-professed Yankees fan, he whispered in his new dog's ear, "You're a part of our family now."

His mother, Jennifer Gillespie, 41, said Brendan doesn't usually play on sports teams or go to camps, places where people his age usually meet friends, so the dog will be a loyal companion and a way to meet people.

Allyson Martin, 29, of Lindenhurst, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She is now working toward a master's in rehabilitative counseling at Hofstra University and hopes to pursue a career as a medical specialist or as a disability rights advocate. She said her dog, Daton, will give her "freedom" from depending on other people when she drops something or needs help opening a door.

Though the cost of training and follow-up is about $50,000 for each animal, donations and volunteers allow the center to provide the dogs for free.

For the next week and a half, the new guardians will learn the advanced commands for which the dogs have been trained at the Medford center.

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but the center's staff hopes the recipients will learn something from their dogs: increased self-confidence, independence and, of course, a long relationship with a four-legged friend.

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