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Making a new best friend

West Hempstead resident is paired with service dog for the second time

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For the past 44 years, national nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence has worked to find the right match between its service dogs and people with special needs. Some program participants, such as West Hempstead resident Leslie Cohen have the opportunity to get paired more than once.

“I could not believe that they found another dog that seems to be just perfect for me,” Cohen, 62, said. “This new dog seems to be very calm and understanding, and I think that the trainers at the facility found a perfect match.”

Cohen was teamed with an assistance dog, Sancho, at no cost on Oct. 30 by CCI. Cohen, who has had multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years, was paired with her first dog, Nardo, in 2010. Nardo retired earlier this year, and she adopted him.

“I just don’t have the physical strength to stand anymore,” said Cohen, who has been in a wheelchair for the past decade. “But having a service dog gives me hope just in the sense that he inspired me to wake up and get up and out of bed every day.”

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 or developmental disabilities.

“The anticipation is that since things have progressed somewhat, she might need more assistance than she did before,” Jessica Reiss, CCI’s participant program manager, said of Cohen. “The dogs are trained to do those skills so that they can maintain a level of independence that’s comfortable for her.”

Reiss compared the idea of getting paired with another service dog to having a second child. She also said that people often struggle with transitioning to a new dog because they must build up a sense of familiarity again.

“It’s a whole new experience,” Reiss said. “For people getting their second dog, they just have to remember that the dog doesn’t know them at all. But Leslie understands that it’s not going to be magic. She has to put a lot of work in, and I think that she’ll continue to do that with her new dog.”

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 sounds of an emergency. Cohen’s service dogs have helped to pick up items around the house such as her keys and phone. Cohen, who worked as a receptionist at local orthodontics office before retiring in 2008, said that having a service dog to keep her company has boosted her spirits.

“All of my children are grown up and are off doing their own thing,” she said. “The dog encourages me to do things, so without him, I’d just lie in bed all day and feel sorry for myself. I know I have to get up because the dog relies on me to do certain things.”

Cohen’s husband, Daniel, said that the family learned about CCI through their daughter, Talia, who thought it would be a great idea for her mother. “The first dog we had was amazing,” Daniel said. “Just to see the smile on her face . . . it’s been an unforgettable experience for the last nine and a half years. Honestly, I don’t know how these trainers do it. It’s a mystery that I’ll never be able to solve.”

The Cohens will spend the next few weeks at CCI’s facility to work with Sancho and the trainers for the pairing process. Leslie is one of 11 people who are a part of CCI’s current training class, which is held four times each year. Through her experience with CCI in the past, she said, she surprised herself with what she was able to accomplish.

“No matter what I can or cannot do, the service dog just loves me, and he’s there to encourage me,” she said. “It’s almost as if they have a sixth sense that something isn’t quite right. They just understand, and they accept me for the way I am.”