Residents of Oyster Bay and East Norwich may have noticed a certain black Labrador retriever who has been making waves throughout the community in recent months. Champ, as he affectionately called, is a young veteran support dog in training, who has been partnered with the local company Contour Mortgage through America’s VetDogs Foundation during his training period.
America’s VetDogs is a nonprofit located in Smithtown that trains service dogs to provide enhanced mobility and renewed independence to veterans, active-duty service members and first responders suffering from physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing and vision loss and seizures. It is one of the only organizations of its type in the country accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs International.
America’s VetDogs frequently partners with local organizations, businesses and political bodies, including the New York Islanders to provide homes and early stages of training for their service dogs through their program, Corporate Puppy with a Purpose. Contour Mortgage, a mortgage lending company based out of Garden City, donated $25,000 to VetDogs to get the opportunity to raise Champ and help get him through his basic training, according to his handler Malia Freeburg.
An East Norwich resident for 25 years, Freeburg is the business development manager for Contour, and has had dogs her entire life, although she is not a professional trainer. She explained that Contour Cares, the philanthropic branch of the company, had initially helped VetDogs by giving their employees discounts on closings, when they decided to do more to help.
“There’s 400 VetDOgs currently in training, so we really wanted to make Champ stand out and do more with him than just socializing him and teaching him basic commands,” Freeburg said. “We wanted to take it a step further and have Champ be a puppy with a real purpose.”
To that end, Champ has been on a whirlwind tour of the community, helping local groups in any way he can. For the last roughly 12 months, Champ has done everything from doing walks to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital to meeting with Marine Corps veterans and gathering donations of toys for children and families in need through the Town of Oyster Bay’s Toys for Tots program.
Each month Champ has had a different theme for his service. For example, since National Girl Scout Day falls in March he spent that month working with Girl Scouts, helping between 150 and 200 local Girl Scouts earn their guide dog merit badges.
Most recently Champ has been engaging with local police, since Police Appreciation Week is in May. Champ helped deliver donuts to nearby precincts, and Freeburg said that the local officers really appreciated the lab’s efforts.
Freeburg added that by taking Champ to many different events, he becomes better able to socialize with a wider range of people. As a service dog in training, she added that it’s important that he learn to stay calm and focused in diverse settings and with many people, so that he can better help the veteran he gets assigned to should he pass his advanced training after he’s completed his puppy with a purpose training.
Vicki Walsh, a spokeswoman for Contour, added that throughout the experience Champ has been wonderfully friendly and engaging with everyone he’s met.
“Champ has really been, instead of hands on, paws on in terms of helping people,” Walsh said. “He really is a puppy with a purpose.”
Champ will continue to stay and train with Freeburg and Contour for several months before returning to VetDogs for his advanced training. Although there is a chance that Champ may not pass his advanced training and become a service dog, he could still serve as a seeing-eye dog or help people in other capacities.
Freeburg added that the experience has been a wonderful one, if a bit exhausting at times. She added that Champ has been such a pleasure to work with, and that if she has the chance to adopt him she would in a heartbeat.
“It’s a lot of work, like having a toddler again,” Freeburg said. “I’ve cried many times knowing that between August and October they’re going to call him back and that’s going to be that.”