Oceanside resident Nicole Milano was inspired to help raise a service dog when she saw the positive impact a yellow lab named Octavia had on her brother, John, when he was younger.
In 2008, Milano and her family received Octavia from Canine Companions for Independence, the largest nonprofit provider of trained assistance dogs in the country, which has six regional training centers across the U.S. The puppy offered service and companionship to John, who has Down syndrome.
Milano, 25, works for the Hauppauge-based Independent Support Services as a life skills and job coach for special needs adults. Remembering the impact Octavia had on her family, Milano said, she decided to raise a service puppy from Canine Companions with PJ Marckesano, 24, a special needs adult who she works with at ISS. The two received Hilo, a black lab, from the organization in January after he went through an orientation process at its headquarters in Medford.
Milano said training Hilo has had a positive impact on Marckesano. “He’s on the quieter side, so seeing him be able to put his voice out there by working with the dog has been wonderful,” Milano said. “He’s been doing well with training the dog and it’s nice to know Hilo will end up with a family that needs him.”
Milano’s family sought out Canine Companions when John was younger as a way to give him a buddy. After Octavia died last April, Milano decided she wanted to give back to another family in need by contacting Canine Companions about training a dog. After an application process, she was approved.
Milano and Marckesano work together to train Hilo so that he will be ready to serve a family in the future. They teach him commands and attend two formal trainings per month, which includes private lessons at Petco and sessions at Canine Companions headquarters. Milano and PJ will keep Hilo for 14 to 18 months and teach him up to 30 commands, which range from learning to sit to jumping up onto tables. They will also show him how to eat and bark on cue. In addition to attending trainings and teaching the dogs, volunteers are also responsible for purchasing toys, collars, food and other necessities.
“This is my first puppy, so it’s going pretty well,” Milano said. “He definitely picks up the commands pretty easily, but there are times where I remember he’s just a puppy and still a baby and needs to be taught certain things.”
Once Hilo is trained, Milano will return him to Canine Companions, which will expand on his lessons before finding a suitable home for the puppy. Milano said that she has been a dog lover for her entire life and would likely train more dogs in the future.
Stacie Sodano, the administrative assistant for the puppy program at Canine Companions, praised people like Milano and Marckesano, who take on the task of training puppies despite how time consuming it can be.
“We couldn’t do what we do, we couldn’t change people’s lives without them,” she said. “They are the people who really give these puppies love and train them.”
The puppies, which are golden retrievers and black labs and mixes of the two, can grow to become a skilled service dog for someone in need or can be used as facility dogs in settings such as courtrooms, Sodano said. Canine Companions has about 200 dogs from Maine through Virginia.
Milano said she has enjoyed the process so far, but will miss Hilo when he is ready to move on. “The hardest part of this whole thing is going to be next year when we have to hand him back to Canine Companions,” she said.