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WWII veteran gets around Smithtown, thanks to trained poodle

America's VetDogs, including Charlie, the "Today" show's "Puppy with a Purpose," and his trainer Olivia Poff, went to Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Saturday, July 29, 2017, for the 3rd annual Long Island Run and Dog Walk to raise awareness about the company's mission and services.  (Credit: Barry Sloan)

When Sy Lederman started losing his sight, he maintained his independence with help from a cane.

But when the World War II veteran got his cane stuck in a door, marring an outing, he decided it was time to try a dog.

“The Germans didn’t kill me — I figured what do I got to lose?” the Smithtown resident said.

Lederman, 90, has used specially trained sight dogs for decades now. He and his latest, a poodle named Merlot who has guided him for more than seven years, were the guests of honor Saturday in Bethpage at America’s VetDogs’ third annual 5K and dog walk.

The Smithtown-based organization provides service and guide animals to veterans, including sight and hearing dogs. More than 600 participants ran or walked a 2-mile course with their own dogs at Old Bethpage Village Restoration to raise more than $70,000, organizers said.

That’s about enough to raise, train and support at least one service animal for a veteran, said Wells Jones, VetDogs’ chief executive officer.

For Lederman, the dog the organization provided him is a lifeline. Merlot helps him take walks near his home and stay independent.

Lederman grew up in Brooklyn and joined the Army at 17. In 1944, he participated in the D-Day landing at Normandy, then went on to survive the Battle of the Bulge.

It wasn’t until he returned home that his vision began to fade. But Lederman said with the help of his dog, he can navigate the subway and the streets of Smithtown.

“His job is keeping me alive,” he said of 9-year-old Merlot, who patiently sat by his side. “The most important thing was the traffic here. Some of the drivers I guess think they’re NASCAR drivers.”

Sight dogs like Merlot learn to look for certain cues and alert their owner to potential obstacles, like cars in an intersection, or pull forward when it’s safe to walk.

Other attendees at the event included dogs in training, like Charlie, a 1-year-old black Lab bred by VetDogs and the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind and featured as the “Today Show” Puppy With A Purpose.

Regina Priest, 43, of East Patchogue, brought her therapy dog Lucy to participate in the walk. Though she is not a service dog, Lucy, a 2 ½-year-old rescue, works with Patchogue Rotary Animal Assisted Therapy and accompanies Priest nearly everywhere.

“My dad was in the Navy and service dogs are key to recovery for PTSD and other issues veterans face,” Priest said.

Scott and Linda Fairgrieve of Mineola don’t have a connection to service dogs, but they’ve come to the fundraiser every year.

“It’s an important thing for veterans that need help,” said Linda Fairgrieve, 63. “Dogs are just a wonder.”

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