Creating companions

Seaford family makes tradition of raising assistance dogs for charity


Maureen Kass, 53, of Seaford, said that her family’s former dogs live all over the country. 

Zolo, their first dog, has lived in East Brunswick, N.J., since 2009. His owner and best friend, Anthony Zaccaria, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.  Zaccaria sends the Kass family photos of them wearing birthday hats, sunglasses and other “funny outfits” throughout the year, Maureen said. 

Another dog, Fred III, moved to Longmont, Colo., in February. Colette Cole, his new owner, who is partially deaf, said that he is her “hip candy.” He listens for her morning alarm clock, goes for hikes around lakes in Boulder with her and plays in the woods with his new “sisters,” SheBe and Smudge. 

Zinger, the Kass family’s newest puppy, will live with them in their Seaford home until next spring. Like Zolo and Fred III, Zinger will be an assistance dog for a disabled person, placed in a new home through a nonprofit organization called Canine Companions for Independence.

Choking up with tears, Maureen said that while it has been difficult to say goodbye to all of the service dogs they’ve raised for the charity, it’s worth it. “When you meet the families and you see what a difference these animals make for these people … they’re a lifeline for them,” she said. “They really change their lives.”


Helping paws

Canine Companions for Independence — ia national nonprofit organization that provides trained assistance dogs for children, adults and veterans with disabilities -— is preparing to celebrate the Labradors and golden retrievers that puppy raisers such as the Kass family welcomed into their homes during International Assistance Dog Week, Aug. 6 - 12. 

John Bentzinger, a spokesman for Canine Companions, said that the organization is the largest provider of assistance dogs to people with disabilities in the country. The organization has its own breeding program in Santa Rosa, Calif. Lauren Ferraioli, manager of the Canine Companions graduate program, said that it raises Labradors and goldens because they are adaptable, motivated, respond well to food-based training and love being around people. 

When the dogs are weaned at about 8 weeks of age, they are flown to six regional headquarters across the country — including one in Medford — where volunteer puppy raisers such as the Kass family adopt them. The volunteers teach them basic commands and socialization skills.  “The dogs need to be exposed to any and all types of surroundings,” Bentzinger explained. 

When the dogs reach about a year and a half, they begin six months of professional training with nationally renowned instructors, Bentzinger said. They learn more than 40 advanced commands that are useful to thosewith disabilities. 

Ferraioli said that her team offers support for the dogs’ owners, helping them get their dogs recertified and answering questions they have about the dogs’ health. She said that the organization serves a wide range of people, including those who use wheelchairs and crutches, amputees, veterans, children and older adults. 

“One recipient, who uses a wheelchair, once dropped keys in a parking lot, and it was snowing and cold and freezing,” Ferraioli. “If it weren’t for his dog, he would need to wait for someone to come along, and that could’ve been in five minutes or five hours.” 


A family affair

The Kass family has raised four Canine Companions dogs: Zolo, Trotter, Fred III and Zinger. Like scores of other pups, Trotter did not pass the advanced training, so he still lives with Maureen, her husband, Bradley, and their daughters, Morgan, 21, and Meredith, 16. 

Canine Companions officials noted that if trainers determine that a puppy is not fit for service work, the charity first offers it to the family that raised it. If it cannot keep the dog, it is given to someone on a five-year adoption waiting list. 

Maureen started volunteering for Canine Companions when she was pregnant with Morgan. A former psychologist for the New York City Fire Department, she answered phones and put training packets together at the charity’s Long Island office. 

When Morgan and Meredith got older, Maureen began to dog-sit for some of the puppy raisers she had met through her volunteer work. Inspired by the charity that her mom loved, Morgan took a photograph of Stewart Altman — a Massapequa resident with ALS who has received several dogs through Canine Companions — for the Seaford Harbor Elementary School PTA Reflections contest in 2007. The theme for the annual art and writing competition, Maureen noted, was “a different kind of hero.” 

After Maureen and Morgan met Stewart and saw the impact his dogs had on his life, they decided to raise a puppy. They have now been bringing Canine Companions dogs into their home for a decade. 

Zolo, Trotter, Fred III and Zinger have gone just about everywhere with the family, Maureen said, including trips to Hersey Park and Cape Cod, Meredith’s lacrosse tournaments, visits with Morgan to the University of Rhode Island and to local shops and restaurants. Meredith has taken extra interest in working with the dogs, her mother noted, teaching them how to sit and jump.  

Meredith said that when she was a child, it was hard for her to understand why she had to give up her dogs. But the fact that they made more of a difference in someone else’s life than hers provided consolation, she said.  

“When my mom explained how it worked, I thought it was really cool because I realized how much we would be able to help someone,” Meredith said. “It was really cool to be able to make a difference when I was really young, and have a dog that I love.” 

Zinger and Trotter have helped Meredith as well, Maureen noted. The Kellenberg High School student was diagnosed with lupus this summer, and the puppies have spent time with her while she rests at home.

“They can give anyone a sense of calm,” Maureen said. “Especially if you are in a wheelchair or if you’re nonverbal, they provide an unconditional support system. They can really help with anxiety, and they are just so loving and sweet.” 

Colette Cole said that Fred III is affectionate, likening him to a clown. Describing him as her partner, she said that he lets her know when her alarm clock goes off, when someone is knocking at the door, when the microwave beeps and when someone is coming up behind her so she can move out of the way. 

“He’s absolutely amazing,” she said. “He is not my dog, he is my right hand man. I am forever indebted to the fantastic puppy raisers and volunteers for all that they do not only for me, but hundreds of other people who need the help.” 

Maureen said that raising puppies has become a tradition in her family, and that the Kasses will continue to do so for as long as they can. She encouraged local folks to get involved with a charity that she said has changed her family’s life and the lives of many others. 

“A lot of people will say, ‘I’d love to do it, but I can’t give them up,’” Maureen said. “It’s not easy, but when you educate yourself about the program and learn about the dogs and what they are going to do, and you meet the people and see what it’s going to be like, it is so gratifying and wonderful.”