Photo by Mike Hartsky
A new friend for life
ISLIP TOWN—Kevin Schmidt, a resident of Islip Terrace, recently welcomed a new member into his family to serve as a dedicated companion and assist with some of his basic needs. That new friend is Kipling, a highly trained assistance dog trained by Canine Companions for Independence—a national nonprofit organization geared to enhance the lives of people with disabilities by providing dogs that cater to their specific needs. Last Friday, Schmidt and Kipling graduated from their two-week team training session and are embarking on a new phase of their lives together.
Back in 2006, Schmidt, an avid marathon runner, was training for a triathlon in Heckscher State Park after already making a full recovery from Stage 4 cancer. It was then when he suffered a life-changing accident.
“I was doing a pretty intensive ride and going about 30 mph when the front fork of my bike just failed,” said Schmidt while sitting with his wife, Evelyn, and Kipling at the northeast regional Canine Companions facility in Medford. “There was no rhyme or reason to it other than it just being a product failure. I remember being on the ride and waking up in the hospital to hear the tragic news that I had a spinal cord injury and could never walk again.”
Eventually, Schmidt was able to continue his career as a programming executive for Hewlett Packard, but was ultimately forced to retire after complications resulting from a serious bout of pneumonia. Living at home in a motorized chair, he considered the possibility of getting a companion dog, but did not want to have to go through the whole training process.
“My younger daughter wanted me to get a dog, but I said I wouldn’t have what it takes to train one,” said Schmidt.
About three years ago, however, he and his family found out about the Canine Companions program and decided to apply. Now, less than a week after first meeting Kipling, Schmidt remarked on the incredible impact he has already had on their lives.
“It’s hard for me to put into words,” said Schmidt, who can utilize Kipling’s services for many practical tasks, such as opening doors and picking up objects. “This is an absolute blessing that’s beyond what I could have ever asked for. It’s hard to fully understand unless you’re actually in the program. I don’t think you can believe how well everything is run and how unbelievable the dog is. I feel very lucky to be a part of this.”
The organization generally breeds Labradors, golden retrievers, and crosses between the two due to their overall intelligence, strength and devotion to service. When the dogs are weaned at about 8 weeks of age, they are flown to any of the six state-of-the-art regional headquarters across the country, where they are temporarily adopted by volunteer puppy raisers. When the dogs reach about a year and a half old, they are returned to their respective regional headquarters. The dogs then begin six months of advanced training with nationally renowned instructors, where they learn over 40 useful commands. During that time, their instructors have a chance to give a detailed evaluation of each dog, and based on the dog’s different strengths, a person with disabilities on the waiting list is invited to attend two weeks of team training and be matched with their assistance dog.
The standards for dog selection are extremely high, with only about four out of 10 dogs that actually make it through the program. There is currently a year and a half wait to be invited to team training. At the end of training, there is a graduation ceremony, where both the companion recipients and the volunteer puppy raisers can meet for the first time. Up on stage, diplomas are handed out and the leashes are ceremoniously handed over from the puppy raiser to the new graduation team.
“It’s incredibly emotional,” said Canine Companions spokesperson John Bentzinger. “It’s not easy to give up a dog after raising him or her in your home for a year and a half, but when you see the tremendous difference the dog is making in the life of someone who needs it, it makes it all worthwhile. Many puppy raisers and graduate teams form lifelong bonds, with regular communications and visits.”
In the end, Kipling is now part of a loving, tight-knit family with a strong, resilient, positive attitude towards life. Schmidt’s son, Eric, is an Air Force veteran currently attending Hofstra University, while older daughter, Kristin, is an emergency room nurse at Stony Brook Hospital, and his youngest daughter, Kaylin, is studying speech pathology at Adelphi University. After all of the trials and tribulations his family has been through, Schmidt said that it has helped make them better people.
“Through it all, my kids learned that you have to be strong, because things happen that are beyond your control,” he said. “I think it developed them into the strong, hardworking, thoughtful people that they are.
“Life isn’t roses all the time, and we all face adversity,” added Schmidt. “I used to run marathons because I liked to challenge myself and push through it. I think it’s a great metaphor for life, and that’s how I live. Don’t go too fast, pace yourself, and no matter how tough it gets, don’t stop until you get to the end. If you get knocked down, you have to get back up. You can’t give up.”
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