A guide dog saved Matt Sherwood’s life.
More than a year ago, the Bethpage resident, who is visually impaired, was running late to catch a train to work and moving as fast as he could with Chris, his 7-year-old black Labrador, leading the way.
“I asked him to hop up, but he just stopped. My foot hit a garbage can, I felt tree branches on my hand and I was so confused. Next thing you know, a big truck backed out of a driveway speeding out in front of me,” recalls Sherwood, 40, who works as a hedge fund manager. “Chris has intelligent disobedience, it’s when I ask him to do something and doesn’t do it because it’s smart for him to disobey. That could have been my life.”
Chris was trained by the Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs in Smithtown, which teaches Labradors, golden retrievers, golden labs and full-size poodles how to lead a legally blind individual to and from a destination while navigating crowded areas, various obstacles, sidewalk cracks, curbs and street traffic.
“The difference between a guide dog and a cane is a cane can get stuck in cracks whereas a guide dog will move around those obstacles and alert the person before they get stuck,” says guide dog mobility instructor for the Guide Dog Foundation Cristina Mirabile, 35, of Centereach. “This allows the owner to have quicker and safer travel.”
The organization also provides service dogs for first responders and veterans.
“We can teach dogs to retrieve medication, help mitigate any PTSD symptoms through grounding techniques if someone is having an anxiety moment,” says Mirabile. “They are also taught nightmare interruption. The dog will nudge a person with their nose if they are having a nightmare.”
Here are three other dogs that have had a massive impact on the lives of Long Islanders.
BREED Yellow Labrador retriever
AGE 3 years old
Air Force veteran Nathan Gardner, 34, of Patchogue, who served 2008-2012, has been grappling with lower lumbar disc herniations which turned into nerve damage that atrophied his muscles. However, his service dog Kenzo has made life easier for him for the past year and a half.
“He retrieves items for me like my water bottle or car keys,” says Gardner, who is a work study student getting his masters in business administration at St. Joseph’s University in Patchogue. “I’m 6 foot 5 inches. Anything I drop and try to reach down for on my bad back days, forget it.”
Kenzo, who is his first service dog from America’s VetDogs, is especially helpful when Gardner finds himself in a bind.
“If my back locks up or if I fall, I can say, ‘Kenzo, go get my cellphone.’ He will immediately do it,” says Gardner. “Kenzo is smart enough to know if it’s an emergency or not. He can feel it and is rapidly responsive.”
Having Kenzo has even helped Gardner with his anxiety, depression and anger.
“Having Kenzo around has been fantastic. Even when we are home, he’ll simply check to see if I’m OK,” says Gardner. “I want him with me everywhere.”
BREED Greater Swiss mountain dog
AGE 3 years old
Belle spends her days literally looking after the heart of Sara Bergonzi of Levittown.
“I have a condition called POTS, which is a form of dysautonomia that causes my heart rate to go really high into the 200s. I can pass out and I’ve fallen in places causing me to dislocate body parts and crack my head open,” Bergonzi, 23, says of her postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome diagnosis. “Belle is trained to alert me to my heart rates as they rise beforehand. Any heart rate over 120, she alerts me so I can sit down and take preventive measures so I don’t pass out.”
The service dog is scent-trained by Maximum K9 in Deer Park to identify her sweat samples.
“We took sweat samples and froze them from when my heart rate was really high and she was able to smell the cortisol level in my sweat. That scent means a reward to her,” says Bergonzi, who works as a college secretary. “She will start pawing at me incessantly until I sit down, at which time she will hop in my lap until my heart rate goes down. By laying across my legs, she applies deep pressure therapy.”
Additionally, Belle’s alert reminds Bergonzi to take her medication as well as eat something salty and drink water.
“With Belle, I’m able to go out in public on my own,” says Bergonzi. “I wasn’t able to do that before.”
BREED German shepherd
AGE 6 years old
In 2020, Jennifer Cintron, 37, of West Babylon had brain surgery after suffering a major stroke where blood had to be supplied to the right side of her brain. She has a rare progressive brain disease called Moyamoya, which causes seizures, strokes, transient ischemic attacks, multiple migraines and brain aneurysms. But her service dog Sheba has kept her out of the hospital.
“When I get these migraines that are so severe they look like strokes,” says Cintron, a professional dog trainer who trained Sheba herself. “Sheba can tell a migraine is coming 10-15 minutes before it arrives based on a scent from my saliva.”
Sheba was trained on a positive saliva sample taken during one of Cintron’s active migraine episodes.
“Sheba sends a pre-alert by staring at me, then she licks my hand and then boops my leg with her nose. If I push her away, she gets insistent and uses her paw,” says Cintron. “I have to stop what I’m doing and take medication. If I’m driving, I have to get off the road because I lose my vision and my speech plus I experience weakness on my right side. It becomes very dangerous.”
The pre-alerts from Sheba are very important to Cintron who gets two to three migraines per week.
“Sheba knowing that they are migraines and not strokes has become vital to me,” says Cintron. “This way I don’t have to go to the emergency room every time I get them.”
WHAT ABOUT MY DOG?
If your pup is neither a guide dog nor a service dog but is in need of some training, Conor Driscoll of Wantagh may be able to help. The 30-year-old dog trainer of Conor’s Canines will come to your house and help with behavior modification.
“The biggest problem with new dog owners is they give the dog too much freedom too early then they wonder why the dog doesn’t listen to them,” says Driscoll. “Dogs require a lot of time. It’s a very big commitment and there are no shortcuts. It’s all about discipline.”
Driscoll mainly deals with basic dog issues such as pulling on the leash, jumping up, not listening and mouthing.
“When a dog jumps up, people tend to push them down with their hands and hands to dogs are associated with playing. This causes an error in communication. Bonds are created over time through consistent communication,” he says. “It’s about establishing ground rules — showing how to say, ‘No!’ and also how to tell the dog they are doing a good job and reward them. The dog very quickly will naturally start to move toward the path that gives them the reward as opposed to the consequence.”
Spending quality time with your dog is also essential for achieving healthy behavior.
“People spend time with their dogs in their homes, but dogs need meaningful engagement. Without that, the relationship between you and the dog is devalued because the dog is getting its food without having to work for anything,” says Driscoll. “The dog sees you more as a roommate rather than someone they have to listen to, which can cause a lot of problems. Dogs need to know that positive things happen when they listen to mom and dad.”
More info 603-296-7503, conork9-training.com