Dogs at the national nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence go above and beyond the call of duty.
Declan Cunningham, of Malverne, and Cameron Bica, of West Hempstead, both 7-year-olds on the autism spectrum, were matched with highly trained assistance dogs at no cost on Aug. 1 by CCI, which trains service dogs for those with a variety of special needs. Both of the boys’ mothers agreed that it was a moment their children would never forget.
“It was a bond made in heaven,” said Cameron’s mother, Kristy Bica. “He’s been looking forward to this day since we got the OK . . . He’s been counting down the days.”
“Declan has always had this affinity for dogs,” said his mother, Megan Cunningham. “It’s really special to see him start to connect with an animal.”
CCI, which was founded in 1975, is headquartered in Santa Rosa, Calif., and has a regional office in Medford, in Suffolk County. It trains service dogs for people with physical disabilities; hearing dogs for the deaf or hard of hearing; facility dogs that work with special-needs adults; and companion dogs for children and adults with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities.
“Kids on the autistic spectrum miss social cues, and so the dogs really help them with that,” said Jessica Reiss, CCI’s participant program manager. “Instead of having to come up with a conversation to talk about, the dog is the conversation piece.”
Cunningham came across CCI through her family’s nonprofit organization, the Lindy Loo Foundation, which supports programs such as CCI. Bica heard about the organization through Cameron’s pediatrician. While the children have only been with their assistance dogs for a week, they were both excited about their futures with the animals.
“Since Cameron was little, he’s been hospitalized a lot due to his breathing problems,” his mother said. “Because he’s been hospitalized a lot, he’s a little hesitant on trustworthy adults. I really hope that his dog, Fleet, will bridge the gap [of] communication with his friends, and adults, too.”
Cunningham said that Declan does not have many friends because of his limited social skills, but she hopes that Vinny will help him connect with others. “It’s kind of two-fold for us,” she said. “On a personal level, for him to understand and connect with somebody other than myself, his father or his sister, and develop that bond and that friendship, that would be a big step for him.”
The two mothers met each other at CCI, and since they live in neighboring communities, they agreed that this would be a great chance for their children to build a potential friendship. The two have already exchanged phone numbers, and plan to have several play dates.
“Megan had expressed to me that her son has problems making friends, and I said the same thing about Cameron, so it’s been nice to see them kind of interact with each other,” Kristy said.
Over 18 months of training, the dogs learn more than 40 commands, from the basic “sit” to opening doors, picking up items dropped on the floor and listening for the telltale noises of an emergency. Reiss, who has been with CCI for 14 years, said that one of the greatest moments for the group is seeing the growth of its recipients.
“We have seen a lot of kids who are unsure and have higher levels of anxiety, and don’t really talk to adults or people that they don’t know,” she said. “The dog has really brought them out of their shell and has helped them realize that the world is not such a scary place. ” Reiss added that the ultimate goal for all clients, including Declan and Cameron, is to help them find independence.
“We’re very thankful for this opportunity, and we’re super-excited that Canine Companions is here,” Megan said. “We’re very excited to see what the future holds.”