Boy’s Best Friend

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Assistance dog helps Westbury youngster find his confidence

There’s a new dog in town. Emmitt, a two-year old lab/golden retriever cross, recently joined the Fonal family, and has already made a huge impact on the Westbury residents. But Emmitt is no ordinary dog. As an assistance dog trained with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), Emmitt was placed with the Fonals to help 7-year-old Harrison, who suffers from mild cerebral palsy.

Emmitt, a dog raised by Canine Companions for Independence, recently joined the Fonal family.

Leah Fonal was inspired to contact CCI about getting a dog for her son as a way to increase his confidence and socialization.

“I wanted to get him a best friend,” said Leah. “I thought it would be nice to have a friend he could take with him everywhere.”

Leah and the Fonals underwent the yearlong application process, and were recently matched with Emmitt. Though Emmitt’s only been part of their family a few months, he’s helped Harrison transform.

“Harrison has become so confident with Emmitt. He wants to be more social and is making new friends,” said Leah. “He’s more independent and Emmitt can retrieve things for Harrison if his legs are tired. Emmitt is a blessing from heaven.”

Emmitt accompanies the Fonal family to places such as the grocery store, and can help with carrying packages and exchanging money.

Since 1975, CCI has been providing highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities across the country. Dogs provide not only assistance but open pathways to independence to individuals with physical and developmental disabilities, as well as those who are deaf. There is no cost to the family who receives the dog, which is trained for 18 to 22 months to learn more than 40 advanced commands. CCI service dogs learn commands such as how to pull wheelchairs, push elevator buttons and transfer money during store transactions, and are individually matched with their recipients.

CCI Northeast Region Executive Director Debra Dougherty described the bond between service dogs and the people they’re helping as a strong partnership.

“Anybody who has had a pet understands the emotional support they provide in being calm and a best friend and nonjudgmental and always happy to see you,” Dougherty said. “These dogs are so special in the way that people bond with them. It’s deeper than a pet, it’s a team and partnership and they depend on each other.”

From Aug. 6-12, CCI will be celebrating International Assistance Dog Week, a celebration of the assistance dog industry. Dougherty said they’re always looking for volunteers to help in their Medford location as well as for financial donations. To learn more, visit www.cci.org.

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Betsy Abraham is senior managing editor at Anton Media Group and editor of The Westbury Times. She also writes for Long Island Weekly.

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