At the start of her sixth Fear of Dogs session, a girl bounded into the DogAbility classroom, eager to pet Willie, a 7-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel.
“I see Willie every session, so I really like him,” said the 10-year-old who lives in Syosset.
Since a dog jumped on her when she was 2, she has been afraid of dogs. Six years later, after encountering a large group of dogs at a hotel, her fear had become paralyzing.
That’s when her mom, Brooke, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her daughter's privacy, decided to take her to DogAbility, a nonprofit organization in Melville that offers canine-assisted activities for a variety of purposes. But, just when they were about to start the program, DogAbility shut down in 2020 because of COVID-19, so her daughter had to wait until this March to start.
At the first session, the girl sat outside a penned area, simply observing the two dogs, recalled Kevin Clark, a dog handler and Willie’s owner, who gradually introduces clients to the canines. Over the next few sessions, she got incrementally closer to the dogs; during the second session, for example, she walked the dogs on a leash; on her fifth, she fed them treats.
At her sixth session, the 10-year-old brushed Willie, took him for a ride in a wagon, ran alongside him and Dusty, a 4-year-old Shih-Poo (a cross between a shih tzu and toy poodle), through an outdoor agility course, rewarding them with treats for jumping through hoops and traversing tunnels. By the session’s end, she commanded Willie to get down on all fours, let him jump on her back, then lean down and hug her with his paws.
“I’m amazed, I didn’t think we’d get there this quickly,” Brooke said. “She was really, really scared. She’d run away from dogs.”
Clark, a volunteer who runs the Fear of Dogs program and has been with DogAbility since its inception, said that for him, this program is the most rewarding of the organization's offerings.
“You see such a drastic change from week to week in the child’s behavior,” said Clark, 62, of Syosset, who works as a general contractor.
For Brooke, the goal was for her daughter to overcome her fears.
“She doesn’t have to be a veterinarian,” Brooke said. “But, it would be nice for her to enjoy some dogs.”
Founded in 2012 to help people with special needs, DogAbility’s mission has evolved over time, explained Sass Levine, founder, executive director and head trainer.
Consequently, Levine changed the slogan to “DogAbility: Where Dogs Touch Lives” and began offering programs to engage isolated senior citizens; distract people in crisis; comfort people with PTSD or who are suffering from abuse, chronic or acute conditions, eating disorders and bullying; provide socializing skills for preschoolers; help kids with communication delays and even Scouts seeking pet merit badges.
Finding her niche
Growing up in Westbury, Levine, 69, of South Huntington, had trained her pet dogs, figuring out how do so on her own, and then took an adult-education dog-training class in her teens.
In 2000 she started The K9 Club, a dog boarding and training business she disbanded five years later to work as a puppy adviser for Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown. There, she instituted a more progressive training method, using a clicker after the animal does the task, followed by a reward. She left that job after about 2½ years — and wondered how to reinvent herself.
“I said, ‘I don’t work well in a corporate setting. I challenge everybody’s ideas all the time: that’s my style,’ ” she explained.
Next, Levine started LI Dog Directory, a website listing dog-related businesses on Long Island. That endeavor lasted a couple of years, until advertising fell off drastically after the 2008 stock market crash.
Influenced by HorseAbility, an equestrian organization with programs for people with special needs founded by her friend Katie Kilcommons McGowan, Levine decided to create a canine counterpart.
“I didn’t want to use DogAbility without her consent, because it sounded too similar,” said Levine, who got her friend’s OK and opened DogAbility on the same Westbury property. After Superstorm Sandy destroyed that facility in October 2012, Levine temporarily moved the operation to the gym at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, running programs on Sundays.
At times, Levine felt defeated by the hurdles of entrepreneurship, like trying to find a location where dogs were allowed at an affordable rent in a visible location with sufficient parking, and finding volunteers — many were already involved with animal shelters or rescue operations.
For inspiration, she looked toward her mother, Mary Frances Smith. Smith had served in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots Auxiliary, transporting military supplies and training for target practice throughout the United States for over two years during World War II. Her mom described wartime experiences like sleeping on the floor of the airport in Westchester hoping to get flying time. A peripatetic, enterprising woman, Smith was also a ballroom dance instructor, actress and director of the Westbury Players theater group, president of American Field Service (an international student exchange program) and volunteer for a literacy program at Hofstra University while working full time at Westbury Public library.
“When you have a mother like that, you keep going,” Levine said. “You don’t stop. And, if there’s something you want to do, as a person, nevermind a woman, you just keep working at it.”
In 2014, Levine moved DogAbility to a storefront in Hicksville where, operating seven days a week, she expanded programming to education, recreation, socialization, inspiration and comfort.
After briefly operating out of a warehouse in Syosset, shortened by the COVID-19 shutdown, DogAbility opened two months ago in Melville at the Presbyterian Church of Sweet Hollow. Now the program has access to two classrooms and a large outdoor space, with splash pools, sprinklers and an agility course.
“Our Fear of Dogs program is one of the most attended, most desired programs anywhere,” Levine said. “We have had people travel from Jersey and Connecticut because there’s nobody doing what we do and the way we do it.”
Participating dogs are pets who belong to and live with their dog owners/handlers. To make sure they are a good fit, the dogs must pass a DogAbility evaluation for temperament, impulse control and energy, as well as attend training classes.
“We have had hundreds of dogs through the program. And they age out,” Levine said.
The owners/handlers, all volunteers, pay $150 for extensive training sessions and must be at least 10 years old and qualify in temperament, personality and control of their dogs, Levine said. There are now 50 dog-handler pairs in the program,
DogAbility’s program director, Vicki Rogers has been with the organization since 2014 and is the human half of a team with her 4-year-old rat terrier, Chloe.
After repeated requests from parents, Rogers, a retired teacher, created the Fear of Dogs program. She trains the dog handlers for it, and Levine trains the dogs
“We explained to the parents that we’re not therapists, but we understand dogs and dog behavior, and how they [dogs] can help people,” said Rogers, 70, of East Meadow. “And in every case, whether it was the smallest child or adults that were afraid, people with special needs or not, we have been amazingly successful.”
For almost any situation, DogAbility can design a program according to the specific needs of the individuals, Rogers explained.
“And it’s extremely rewarding to see the progress that not only our handlers are making as they share their dogs with the public, but the people that come,” Rogers said. “It’s just really very enlightening, and just a wonderful thing to see. That’s why I keep doing it for all these years.”
Bill Ceffalia, 28, of East Northport, who is on the autism spectrum, initially went to DogAbility about eight years ago to conquer his fear of dogs.
“We couldn’t go to friends’ houses that had dogs or even my brother’s house, who had several dogs. He was terrified,” said his mom, Carol Ceffalia, 57, a computer specialist.
At DogAbility, Bill had a very positive experience, falling in love with Penny, a pug he met there.
“Now, not only is he so much better with dogs: We have one now,” Carol said, describing their 4-year-old pug, who Bill named Fay.
Still regularly attending DogAbility classes, Bill has advanced to training different dogs, giving them various commands, all of which helps him with his relationship with Fay.
“He loves it. and he feels good about himself,” Carol said. “And it’s something that he can be proud of, an accomplishment, because it’s limited what’s out there for these guys once they grow up.”
On a recent Friday, 10 8- and 9-year-old girls from Brownie Troop 2399 in Massapequa had a blast visiting DogAbility to earn their Pets patch, said Keri Dejak, who leads the troop with Jen McCrystal.
“The girls enjoyed every second of it,” said Dejak, of Massapequa, who is an elementary school psychologist for North Bellmore schools. “Even girls who may have been hesitant were very comfortable with the dogs.”
Over the next few months, Levine hopes to develop canine educational workshops, including how to choose a pet dog; how to select a trainer, veterinarian or breeder; and even “doodlemania,” exploring dog lovers’ latest obsession with poodle mixes.
Levine and her husband, Edward, 68, have three children: Tobias, 43, who works in the clothing business; Dehri, 42, a horse trainer; and Abigail, 40, who works in technology. Levine, who hopes her work will inspire future veterinarians, groomers, behaviorists and therapists, says she is perpetually encouraged by the feedback from those who care for children with special needs.
“The groups leave and the feedback we get is ‘he’s never really spoken words before’ and this special-needs person starts talking,” said Levine, adding, “Being with kids with dogs and seeing somebody who was crying, stop crying — it’s a big deal.”
For more information about DogAbility, go to DogAbility.org or call 516-387-0066. DogAbility, a 501(c)(3) organization, accepts donations by check (mail to DogAbility, P.O. Box 7437, Hicksville, NY, 11802), and online payment through Venmo (#DogAbility-Center), and Zelle and PayPal (via info@DogAbility.org).