A service dog makes a difference in the lives of the Situket family

Written by Amanda Olsen

Matching a service dog can sometimes feel like a jackpot.

That’s definitely what Jimmy Sileo, of Situcket, feels like. Daughter Drew, 10, and “best friend” Dasha, a pure yellow Lab, were paired up in October 2021.

“I always say we won the dog lottery,” Sileo said. “It’s just amazing.”

Drew suffers from global developmental delays, problems with executive functions, and ADHD. The pairing is made possible by Canine Companions, whose northeast location is in Medford. The organization is the largest service dog provider in the country, at no cost to the recipient.

When Sileo first started looking for a dog, she first contacted the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown.

“I knew that with her needs, getting a puppy would be very difficult,” said the mother. “So I called Guide Dog and asked them about it. They said we don’t, but you can call your dog companions. It took one month shy of two years to get a call in to join team training and get a dog. It took a long time, but we were patient.”

When they finally got Dasha, she immediately integrated into their lives.

“I think it’s better than we thought it would be,” Sileo said. “I didn’t realize how highly trained these dogs are, and how they were bred to be such wonderful and gentle animals. They are very routine based, so the dog has totally fallen in love with everything we do.”

These dogs spend 18 months with a puppy breeder and then graduate to formal training at the Medford Centre. Training focuses not only on commands, but also on behaviour. These dogs have a job to do, and they take it very seriously.

“She really knows it works when it’s her jacket,” said the mother. “If we go into a restaurant, most people will tell us, ‘We didn’t even know there was a dog in the restaurant,’ because it’s quiet. It’s just lying under the table. They’ve been trained not to touch anything from the floor, so they don’t touch a single piece of food. Or whatever. We take it with us, even if we get to the grocery store.”

Canine companion service dogs learn the same commands, including recovering dropped items such as a dime, pulling out a manual wheelchair, and turning light switches on and off. Certain commands are more useful for Drew and Dasha than others. Dasha helps meet Drew’s sensory needs and keeps her safe.

“She’s doing covering up, which is basically like laying on her lap to apply pressure and satisfy her sensory needs,” Sileo said. “We also use the push command. If we’re getting dressed upstairs, and her drawers are open, it will help the dog push things to close. Drew tends to get up and then not realize it’s the middle of the night. So, if she does, the dog will stay with her.”

For anyone considering raising a puppy for canine companions, Northeast CEO Debra Dougherty emphasizes commitment over experience.

“We’re looking for someone who is committed,” Dougherty said. “Someone wants to give back. It is a wonderful experience raising a puppy and then watching him help someone.”

There is a comprehensive support system in place for puppy breeders to benefit from, and no prior dog practice experience is required.

“We’re going through a process with them,” she said. They apply, and then we have a phone interview with them. Then we let them come to a couple of semesters at our Medford campus to observe and perhaps talk to some of the other educators. At this point, if they are still interested, they will be put on hold. When they get a puppy, we have a very structured program for them. We try to hook people up with a mentor if they want to, someone with more experience so they have someone to go to. So it is not necessary for someone to have raised a dog before, because we support it.”

Dougherty also wants people to be aware of the future recipient, and the weight and affection associated with their decision to raise a puppy.

“Be open to new things and have a big heart to share with this pup as well as with the recipient,” she said. “It’s a commitment because these dogs are bred for a very special purpose and you know the end purpose, and you know the end goal is to be matched with someone with a disability to help them. So we want them to be serious about it.”

As a companion canine service dog family, Sileo is grateful.

“I am forever grateful to all the puppies out there,” said the mother. “We cannot thank the canine companions enough for this opportunity. Because of the puppy breeders, trainers, generous donors and everyone in between, my daughter was able to welcome this beautiful and extremely intelligent dog named Dasha. Dasha has improved Drew’s life in many ways from daily routines and discourse to social interactions and anxiety control Dasha is a welcome part of our family, and everyone who meets her falls in love. “

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