Helping Paws

Due to a fear of dogs, Amsterdam native Rachelle Cotugno didn’t receive her first guide dog until she was 34 years old.

Cotugno was born premature with retinopathy of prematurity, a disease that affects the eyes of premature babies. She was born with no sight in her right eye and little vision in her left, which she lost completely at age 11. Numerous surgeries over the years to her left eye brought her vision back for a while, but today she is functionally blind in both eyes.

Prior to 1990, Cotugno relied on her parents to help her get to and from work and the other places she needed to go. But when both her parents became ill that year, she realized she needed a little more independence. She turned to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an international, nonprofit organization that raises, trains and matches guide dogs to clients.

“I had heard about Guiding Eyes for the Blind from someone else who had received a dog from there, and I just felt that I needed to make that step and go there,” Cotugno said recently from her home in Amsterdam. “It was the best thing I ever did.”

Cotugno was matched with her first dog, Mandy, a female black labrador, at the Guiding Eyes training center and headquarters in Yorktown Heights, Westchester County. From the moment she met Mandy, her fear of dogs was put at ease, she said.

“I still remember meeting her; she was very exuberant, but smart and intelligent, just a sweetheart,” Cotugno said. “I was never afraid of her. I think that helped me overcome my fear, too, getting a wonderful dog like that for the first time.”

Since then, Cotugno has received two other dogs from Guiding Eyes. A male black lab, Duncan, came next in 2000, and most recently she received another female black lab, Oriole, who is her current guide dog.

There are a number of organizations around the country that provide assistance dogs to people with disabilities. The term “assistance dog” can refer to guide dogs, which provide help for the blind; hearing dogs, which help the deaf; and service dogs, which perform tasks for disabled people who are neither blind nor deaf, according to Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of organizations such as Guiding Eyes that provide these dogs to clients.

Madison Swart, 16, of Johnstown received her first service dog, a female black lab named Sardee, in March from Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit specializing in service dogs. Madison’s parents, Jim and Veronica Swart, said Sardee has primarily served as a companion for Madison, who has Down syndrome.

“She’s really completed the family,” Jim said recently, sitting with his family in their home.

The Swarts learned about Canine Companions through New York State Partners in Policymaking, a program for parents and individuals with disabilities to advocate changes in policies on the state and national levels to help people with disabilities.

In order to be matched with Sardee, Madison and her family had to complete and application and send in letters of recommendation, according to Veronica. The family was then interviewed together at Canine Companions’ Northeast regional office in Medford on Long Island. In March, the family went through a two-week training course to learn how to work with the dog and issue commands.

According to Canine Companions for Independence Executive Director Debra Dougherty, the process is the same for every person that is matched with a service dog through their organization.

“We get a very thorough understanding of [the client’s] lifestyle and needs as we’re training the dogs,” Dougherty said. “So OK, maybe this person has a very active lifestyle, so they’ll need a dog that has to keep up.”

A similar application and training process for clients occurs with Guiding Eyes for the Blind. With each of her three dogs, Cotugno filled out paperwork and had a physical done before completing a 26-day training program at the organization’s Medford campus, she said.

For the dogs, the training process begins from birth. At 8 weeks old, the dogs with both Canine Companions and Guiding Eyes are placed with a volunteer puppy raiser for roughly 18 months, where they are taught basic commands such as sit and stay, and socialization skills.

Elise Smalley, now 21 and living in New Paltz, raised a puppy for Guiding Eyes in Johnstown when she was 17. She trained a yellow lab named Barbara for about 14 months, she said.

“It was very tiring, but very rewarding,” Smalley said. “The thing about raising an assistance dog is, you have to make sure they have impeccable manners; you cannot leave them alone for even one minute, because they cannot develop bad manners or bad habits.”

The dogs learn more advanced commands with the organization itself, which can take another six months, according to Michelle Brier, director of marketing and communications with Guiding Eyes.

During the training classes, clients work with a number of different dogs before the organization matches them up with their dog. With Canine Companions, the client will provide a list of the top three dogs they would like to be matched with.

In the Swart family’s case, none of the three dogs they listed were matched with Madison. Because Madison is sensitive to loud noises, the family wanted a quiet, calm dog that would be good in thunderstorms, Jim said.

“And the dogs that we picked, they probably saw something in those dogs and said, ‘Well, what they want is not in this dog, but it’s in Sardee.'”

According to Veronica, it was immediately apparent that Sardee was the right choice.

“It’s interesting that, this is a companion dog for Maddie, but in a way, she’s just such good therapy for all of us,” Veronica said. “She’s just so kind, and the dog can do so much for our family.”

Cotugno, who works at St. Mary’s Institute in Amsterdam as a music teacher and also teaches private music lessons out of her home, said her life changed dramatically since she obtained her first guide dog. She now walks to work and no longer uses a cane to get around. She’s also able to travel on planes with the dog.

“I feel so much more confident having the dog,” Cotugno said. “For example, when I shop, I may have to get myself to a store by taxi, but my dog knows. I give her commands and she takes me into the store. … We go out to eat alone. I do things with her I would never have done without the dog.”