A helping paw

Disabled Rockville Centre man bonds with service dog

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In December 1989, Dan Gropper’s life changed drastically when he was severely burned in an apartment fire in Island Park and nearly died.

“They gave me a 2 percent chance to live,” he recalled. “The good thing about it is I don’t remember it, so I don’t have any flashbacks or nightmares.”

Gropper, 52, was 21 when the fire burned 80 percent of his body. He lost both of his hands, and had both of his legs amputated above the knee due to infections after the blaze, which was deemed an electrical fire. Though he can still do many of the things he enjoys, he said he felt the need to have some help around his house on Raymond Street in Rockville Centre.

He recently acquired a service dog, a Labrador retriever named Zinger, from Canine Companions Training Center, a national nonprofit based in Medford that serves people with physical disabilities. Gropper said he decided to get the dog after his previous pet, Luca, also a lab, died.

Gropper had training sessions with Zinger at Canine Companions. After filling out paperwork and answering questions, he was paired with the 2-year-old dog and stayed with him in a dorm room for nine days while Zinger learned commands from an instructor, and then “graduated,” at which point Gropper was able to take him home.

“I’m getting older, so it’s harder to bend down and pick things up, and my other dog, who wasn’t a service dog, died two and a half years ago,” Gropper said. “The companionship and the beauty of a service dog is they can come pretty much anywhere with you. He’s great in public, and he’s a very relaxed dog.”

Gropper grew up in Oceanside and moved around a lot, including stints in New Hampshire and California before he settled in Rockville Centre seven years ago. After the fire, he spent six months in the burn unit at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, and then another year doing physical therapy there.

“It was tough, but I have great friends and family that stood by me,” he said. “. . . It was learning how to do everything again. Learning how to eat and feed myself, and take care of myself and drive. It’s hard because I tell people this every day, but my life is better now than it was back then. People see me and think, poor Dan, but people who know me, I have a fun life.”

At the time of the fire, Gropper was studying finance at Hofstra University, and he eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, but he didn’t pursue a career in finance. Despite the loss of his limbs, he still lives a full life, which includes traveling, concerts, sporting events and exercise. He boxes, skydives and plays golf, and said he is fond of horseracing.

After the fire, he used prosthetic hands, but he changed to prosthetic hooks because he found them more comfortable. Though he was initially self-conscious about them, Gropper said, he eventually became more comfortable, and he has learned how to drive, cook and write with the hooks. “I can do pretty much everything — the only thing I can’t do is juggle,” he said with a laugh. He also uses Ottobock Geniums, prosthetic legs for above-the-knee amputees.

Gropper has lived with Zinger since the beginning of August, and said the dog has been helpful. Zinger retrieves his phone and other items, can turn lights on and off, pushes and pulls drawers and doors open and closed and can fetch things on command, including Gropper’s prosthetics.

Alex Diviney, who lives in Virginia and is a puppy raiser for Canine Companions, trained Zinger for 18 months. She said she discovered the company through her college, the University of Mary Washington, and saw an opportunity to help those in need. Diviney described Zinger as “a miracle” and “very intelligent,” and though it was difficult to part ways with him, she said, she saw that he and Gropper were a good fit when she came to Zinger’s graduation.

“Watching Dan and Zinger together is everything I’ve wished for as a puppy raiser,” she said. “A major goal of a puppy raiser is for the dog to graduate with a job, but it’s infinitely better when the graduate team is as in sync and well paired as Dan and Zinger. This team is already doing amazing things working together, and it will only get better. I’m beyond grateful that Zinger has found his match with Dan.”

Gropper’s mother, Anne Epstein, visited him last week, and had nothing but positive things to say about Zinger. “It’s obviously a fact that this dog loves people, because he goes to everybody so readily, kisses them and just adores the attention,” she said. “He really has the exact same personality as my son, because my son loves people, and it’s just a fantastic match.”

Gropper said that although it could have been jarring for Zinger to go from being raised by Diviney in Virginia for 18 months to receiving more training at Canine Companions in February to moving into his home in Rockville Centre, the dog has handled the situation well, and they have developed a solid bond.

“You come home and there’s always someone there to see you,” Gropper said. “I come home and he’s here, and [he] looks forward to seeing you every time you’re out of the house.”

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