VIDEO: Canine Companion Service Dog Aides Riva Teen
Sean McDonough, of Riva, is mostly confined to a wheelchair, the result of Cerebral Palsy, which, physically, has diminished his gross and fine motor skills. Sean was born at just 31 weeks. He may have some intellectual disabilities as well, but he’s very social and verbal, with a wicked sense of humor. He especially delights in getting one over on his mom, Karen.
Sean, 17, is a sophomore at South River High School in Edgewater.
A few years ago, Sean saw a segment on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams about Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nonprofit agency that breeds, raises and trains service dogs for the disabled, including wounded warriors.
After Sean saw the segment, he asked his parents about looking into it, and after a process that took a year-and-a-half for the McDonoughs to complete, in February, they got a Yellow Lab-Golden Retriever mixed-breed dog named Belmont.
While Canine Companions for Independence doesn’t place seeing-eye dogs specifically, the service dogs they do place follow a similar concept. The dogs can be trained to do a variety of things: use pull cords to open and close doors and drawers, pick up things dropped off the tray of a wheelchair, or help a hearing-impaired person navigate the world safely. Belmont helps Sean pull his socks off.
After Karen, Sean’s mother, filled out the application, they waited to hear back. They were called for a telephone interview and then later brought to the center in Medford, New York, on Long Island, for a visit to see if CCI would be able to find an animal to fit Sean’s needs.
While the McDonoughs were being put through their paces, their dog was undergoing his own audition. Belmont was with a puppy raiser in New Jersey. A woman named Lissel raised the dog from eight weeks of age until 18 months when she returned Belmont to the program.
Imagine living and loving a sweet dog for 18 months only to give it up. According to the McDonoughs, Belmont’s puppy raiser has done this nearly a half-dozen times.
After puppy raising, Belmont went to Medford for his six months of intensive canine training. That is where he learned the commands and skills that make him an excellent service animal.
Think it is hard to get your dog not pull your arm off when you’re on a walk and a squirrel runs past? These dogs are trained to be immune to such distractions. How about watching a yellow lab ignore a minefield of kibble spilled on the floor—that he has to walk through? Sounds tough, doesn’t it? Well that is another test for these dogs.
Once the dogs have passed the necessary tests (not all do), and the people have cleared their interviews and requirements, then groups of families, dogs and instructors are put up together, at no cost to families, at the CCI facility in Medford, known as the Miller Family Center. For two weeks, they sleep in dorms and spend time with other families, the dogs and the instructors. Communal lunches help everyone get acquainted.
Over the first couple of days, all of the families meet all of the dogs in the class for socialization. A few days later, the dogs and their people are paired up and the real work begins. For six to seven hours a day for the next ten days (they get Sunday off), they learn everything about the care of their animal, the commands the dog knows, how to keep strangers from distracting the dog and more. Each day they are tested with written tests to be sure they are retaining the information.
At the end of the two weeks, the dogs and the people graduate in a ceremony that brings back their puppy raisers for a tearful farewell.
Once home, Belmont lives with the McDonough family, but still belongs to CCI. Each month the family is expected to chart information about Belmont, like his weight, activity level and other vital information, including veterinary visits. The McDonoughs use Greater South River Animal Hospital, where they receive a discount on vet service.
Because of his Cerebral Palsy, Sean needs 100 percent adult assistance. He was a premie, weighing just 3.5 lbs at 31 weeks. Sean came home after five weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He wasn’t correctly diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy until a massive seizure at 18 months.
Sean requires 100 percent adult assistance for daily living. There is no possibility of Sean and Belmont living independently. Aside from his physical disabilities, Sean is also intellectually disabled, about first grade in some areas, lower in others.
“Sean is a very verbal kid. His social skills, language and speech are very good,” his mom Karen said. “An unfamiliar listener may have some difficulty understanding him at first but Sean has very good skills to express himself in other words when not understood.”
The McDonough family is hopeful that Belmont will help Sean primarily as a companion animal.
Karen said that the first week they were at the training, the candidates were lined up with the dogs to practice a command.
“Without being prompted, Belmont tucked his head right next to the right side of Sean’s chair, as if by magic Sean’s hand relaxed and he laid it on top of the dog’s head,” she said.
Karen said that the response wasn’t typical for Sean, and the scene brought her to tears.
She said that since the dog has been a part of Sean’s life, she notices him spending less time in front of the television and more time concentrating on the welfare of the dog, with grooming and walks.
“He gets a real sense of pride when Belmont responds to him giving a command,” Karen said. “Independence and control Sean otherwise never experiences.”
Around Riva, Edgewater and Annapolis, Belmont, Sean and Karen can be seen out and about at the mall, school events, physical therapy and around the block in their Riva neighborhood.
Karen said that they surely they haven’t come to appreciate all the dog means to Sean.
“But I know he makes Sean feel secure, loved, looked up to—like someone needs him instead of him always being the one in need of others’ help,” she said.
And for those of you who want to rush up and pet Belmont when you see him out and about, please don’t. If he is working, you’ll need to ask Sean for permission to allow the dog to be distracted for a quick pat.
Karen said that she is so excited about the program that she rarely says no—unless they are in a situation that poses a danger to Sean or Belmont. There is a local chapter of Canine Companions for Independence, and they often put on events to showcase locals who have service animals through their service.
For more information locally, check out Canine Companions for Independence, Capital Chapter. There will be two upcoming events at the South County Senior Center for CCI. The first is a fundraiser for the Capital Chapter from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on June 6. The second is a CCI presentation at 1 p.m. June 20, also at the senior center, 27 Stepneys Lane in Edgewater.