LI service dogs to march in inaugural parade

Anne Johnson and 17-month-old Ditto, the dog she is raising in her Bellmore home for Canine Companions for Independence, are preparing to march with CCI in the Jan. 21 parade for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Videojournalist: Thomas Ferrara (Jan. 11, 2013)

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Anne Johnson has taken her assistance-dog-in-training, Ditto, to grocery stores, doctor's offices, hair salons and even Roosevelt Field mall at the height of Christmas shopping season. But their destination in eight days will be a first.

The 17-month-old golden retriever/Labrador retriever mix and his trainer will be on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, marching in President Barack Obama's inaugural parade on Jan. 21.

"I think it's a really big deal to go to the inauguration," said Johnson, 56, an environmental educator from Bellmore. "It's quite an honor to get selected."

Johnson is a volunteer "puppy raiser" with Canine Companions for Independence, which provides assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities and to wounded veterans. Johnson works with the national organization's Northeast U.S. office in Medford.

Canine Companions was one of about 60 groups selected by the Presidential Inaugural Committee to march in the parade from the Capitol to the gates of the White House, where Obama and his family will watch from a reviewing stand. Some 2,800 groups applied, the committee said.

"President Obama is deeply committed to the idea of service -- including a National Day of Service as part of the inaugural tradition," the committee said in a statement. "Many of the groups chosen to march in the parade reflect the idea of serving one another and giving back to the community."

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The canine group trains golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and crosses of the two to assist disabled people. The dogs can flip on light switches, get socks out of drawers, open and close doors, pick up dropped items as small as a dime and fetch food from a refrigerator.

At 8 weeks old, the dogs are given to volunteer families who keep them for 18 months, instructing them in basic commands and socializing them by taking them on crowded streets and restaurants, for instance. Then the dogs go through advanced six-month training with nationally renowned instructors at the Medford facility and four other sites the group runs.

Only four of 10 "graduate" from the program and go on to live with disabled people, who receive the dogs for free. The organization is funded through donations.

Johnson is among nine puppy raisers on Long Island who are taking part in the parade. In addition, an Iraq veteran from Queens, who is the recipient of one of the dogs, will be in the procession.

In all, 134 people and 57 dogs from the organization nationwide will participate, said Debbie Dougherty, executive director of the Medford office.

"It's a great opportunity to celebrate our country and it's a wonderful awareness opportunity for assistance dogs," Dougherty said.

The puppy raisers are paying their own way, Johnson said, and hotels must allow the service dogs to stay because of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Canine Companions is picking up the tab for the veteran, retired Army Capt. James Van Thach.

Van Thach, 36, of Bellerose Manor, said his dog, Liz, has turned his life around since he received her in May.

"It's been a great help physically but also on mental health issues," said Van Thach, who sustained a brain injury during a 2008 rocket attack in Iraq and also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. "I'm very humbled and honored to be invited."

Johnson said she is confident Ditto will behave himself during the parade. She figures that if he could handle the mall at Christmas, he can handle anything.

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Another trainer, Cathy McComas, 53, of Bohemia, is a bit nervous about her rambunctious charge, a Lab named Emmett. "He's a great puppy, but he's only 8 months old," she said.

She hopes to find an open area so Emmett can burn off some steam before the parade.

Dougherty says there is little worry that nature will call for some of the dogs in mid-parade. The dogs are so well-trained that they respond to a "hurry" command to do their business immediately -- and before hitting Pennsylvania Avenue, she said.

Still, the group will bring pooper scoopers.

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