Giving Back

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Shelby and Chilli with their human, Renée, of Yorktown Heights. Credits: William Brown
Chilli, a service dog from Yorktown Heights, works with Alzheimer's patients. Credits: William Brown
Delvictoria Otero of Mahopac, who is on hemodialysis, is helped by her dog Benny. Credits: William Brown

YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y.— The heat was kind of “ruff,” but every dog had its day earlier this month at FDR State Park in Yorktown when Putnam Service Dogs hosted its first-ever “Day in the Park.”

The event, held Sept. 16, was designed as a celebration of the bond between humans and dogs and also to help raise awareness of the valuable role service dogs play in the lives of those in need.

Nancy Teague, the founder of Putnam Service Dogs, explained that service dogs are different than emotional support or therapy dogs, in that they are trained to perform jobs that their owners might not be able to. These jobs can range from opening doors to pushing laundry baskets or even pulling wheelchairs.

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“Dogs are unconditional love,” said Yorktown native Karen McIlvenny, the treasurer of Putnam Service Dogs. “And we’re trying to raise awareness to promote the fact there are so many disabilities that dogs can help with. Things like epilepsy, they can smell it, or they can smell cancer.”

The day was filled with a number of dog-friendly activities, including an adoption event, a “Strut Your Pup” parade, and a host of activities that illustrated the intensive training the dogs go through in order to learn to be a service dog.

“It is a lot of time and discipline,” Teague explained regarding the responsibility of teaching a service dog. “It’s a lot of training. It’s much more than just raising a pet dog.”

To find the proper dogs, Rachael Beuchler visits shelters and assesses the puppies, looking for key attributes that will make them a good service dog.

“They have to be really attentive to people,” Beuchler said. “And really want to be with people more than other kinds of distractions...A dog has to want to do this work. Not just be trained to do this work.”

Once a puppy is selected, they’re matched with a puppy raiser, who will work with them on basic training, which includes weekly classes taught by Putnam Service Dogs.

“We start working on the basic manners,” Beuchler says, “like ‘sit’ and ‘down’ and ‘stay.’ And then we start working on the service things like ‘push’ and ‘tug’ and ‘under.’”

Once the dog has made it through training (an achievement generally reached by only a third of the dogs selected), they graduate and are paired with a person in need.

“I’m not a crier, but when I start talking to you about the sensation of a graduation where you see the dogs leaving with the person, you know the incredible difference they’re making,” Teague said. “Not only in the recipient’s life, but also in the family’s. Because the family has quite a burden of guilt and care and the dogs take some of that off them.”

The impact these dogs have had on the lives of their owners was keenly felt during the day at the park.

Delvictoria Otero of Mahopac has been on hemodialysis and is waiting for a kidney transplant. She had been very ill when Benny, her service dog, came into her life.

“When Benny was brought to me, it just lifted me up,” she explained. “I’m walking, I’m doing more activities, I’m working. I think there’s a great need for service dogs.”

Benny has not only impacted her life, but also the lives of others around her. Otero works with troubled children in Peekskill and brings Benny with her to visit, only on the condition that they do well in school.

“I tell them, ‘As long as you’re doing good in school, Benny will come!’” She also brings him with her each week to her dialysis sessions, where he provides comfort not only to her, but to the other patients as well. “There’s a 90-year-old woman there, and he lays on her chest. She said he’s like a little teddy bear and she feels so good with him!”

Renée, a home companion from Yorktown Heights, also noted that her dog, Chilli (who also took home the trophy for “Best Wagger”), has brightened the lives of the people she works with.

“He just keeps the people happy and calm,” she said. “Sometimes when I have to help the person maybe go to bed, I’ll say, ‘Chilli, you go first,’ and he’ll lead. Because sometimes with an Alzheimer’s patient, they don’t want to go, but if they see Chilli, they’re happy.”

Putnam Service Dogs has only been operating for a year, and was born out of the growing demand for service animals in the area. Teague, who previously worked in hospital administration, real estate and owned a successful art gallery, began working first with Guiding Eyes for the Blind and then Canine Companions for Independence.

At Canine Companions, Teague saw that the need for service dogs was greater than what the organization could realistically accomplish. With that in mind, she decided to strike out on her own. “They have a two-year waiting list, so I knew the need was huge,” she said. “And it’s not like I’m competing with them, since they can’t satisfy the need. So I started this and now I’m starting to feel overwhelmed by the need!”

The goal now is to build a facility in Putnam County to rescue and raise dogs before putting them into service and fulfilling what Teague sees as a great need in the community. “Our people, God bless them, they don’t have a lot of sunshine in their life,” she said. “They have a hard road. So I figure our dogs are therapy dogs and then some.”

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