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More than companionship

Dog is bridge back to life for Seaford resident

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The door of the suburban Seaford home had just opened slowly, and somewhat eerily, when a very large, very friendly black dog came bounding through the entryway to greet the visitor. His name is Lennon IV, and for the past year he has been Brigid Vogt’s almost constant companion.

Vogt and Lennon met through the auspices of Canine Companions for Independence, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based charity that provides service dogs for people with a range of needs. For Vogt, Lennon has been the “best thing that’s happened to me” since she became seriously ill.

Six years ago, Vogt, now 51, was a medical billing specialist, active in her church and leading a full, independent life. Then she was stricken with pneumonia. The illness did not respond to standard treatment, ultimately developing into septic shock, which impaired her circulatory system and necessitated amputations of both legs below the knee.

Septic shock is a relatively rare life-threatening condition, with fewer than 200,000 cases in the U.S. each year, according to the Mayo Clinic. It most frequently stems from severe infections, such as pneumonia. As the condition worsens, blood pressure can drop to dangerously low levels, sometimes causing death. At one point Vogt was resuscitated for 25 minutes after her heart stopped.

She spent six months in a number of local hospitals during the early stages of her recovery. In addition to the amputations, she also experienced some impaired brain function due to damage to a part of the frontal lobe known as Broca’s area, which governs speech and memory. She had to relearn many of the skills most people take for granted, including walking and talking.

Through months of grueling physical therapy, Vogt said she struggled most with the loss of independence. “I had to depend on other people for everything,” she said. Meanwhile, her family — husband Ben, 48, son Brandon, 12, and daughter Bethany, 8 — was busy looking for ways to help. Ben is the senior director for major gifts at Hofstra University, and learned about CCI through his network of alumni contacts.

After initial inquiries, the family filled out the paperwork and waited. “The forms are extensive,” Ben said, and the process was complicated by Brigid’s own initial reluctance. Her pug, Regis, had recently died at age 12, and, she said, “I didn’t want to go through that again.”

Finally, though, the family traveled to CCI’s northeast regional center in Medford to meet CCI’s staff — and the dogs.

Puppies undergo roughly two years of training before being placed with companions. At the age of about 8 weeks, they are assigned to volunteer “puppy raisers,” who spend 18 months teaching them a series of basic commands that all CCI dogs must learn. The puppy raisers also help socialize the dogs, which must be able to function in a wide range of environments.

The final phase of the dogs’ training takes place at one of CCI’s regional centers. There the animals are evaluated to determine the kind of service they are best adapted to, and given specialized training. For wheelchair-bound companions, for example, dogs must be able to carry items, open doors, pick up items that are dropped, turn on lights and even pull the chairs. Dogs whose companions deal with emotional or mental issues must be sensitive to moods.

The dogs provide a buffer between their owners and the people they encounter. “People see the dog first instead of the disability,” Vogt said. And the dogs, uniformly friendly and outgoing, can help their human companions connect with other people in ways that might otherwise be challenging.

All CCI dogs are golden retrievers, Labradors or mixes of the two breeds. Lennon, though completely black, is a mix. “The whole litter was either blond or black,” Vogt said of his seven siblings.

“CCI has its own kennel program where the puppies are bred,” said Debbie Knatz, head of the breeding program. “Most of our dogs are Lab-golden crosses,” she said, because they combine the characteristics of strength, intelligence and eagerness to please that make them ideal as service dogs.

The cost of breeding and training the dogs runs to about $50,000 per animal, according to CCI spokesman John Bentzinger. The dogs are provided at no charge to their human companions, and CCI also provides veterinary care for families that cannot afford it. CCI retains ownership, but the dogs are companions for life.

Before taking Lennon home, the Vogt family spent two weeks at the Medford facility learning more about the program and giving Brigid a chance to work with some of the dogs. Despite her initial hesitation, when the time came to match dogs and companions, she was eager. “They asked who wanted a dog first,” Bethany recounted, “and my mom put her hand up right away.”

The only limitations Vogt has encountered have come when she has traveled. “We like to take a lot of cruises,” she said, “and the hallways on the ships are too narrow” for the two of them together. During those trips, they leave Lennon with a babysitter.

Vogt said it would be almost impossible to exaggerate the positive changes Lennon has brought to her life. She is considering going back to St. William the Abbot Catholic Church to resume teaching religious education. She has more independence, and that, in turn, has made her more upbeat.

Lennon is a big, affectionate presence in the Vogt household. “He loves it when my husband tells him to roll over and scratches his stomach or play dead,” she said. One of her own favorite times is at the end of the day, when Lennon jumps up on her bed after a favorite snack of peanut butter.

For more information about Canine Companions for Independence, go to www.cci.org or call (800) 572-BARK (2275).