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Bark Up The Right Tree

In a perfect world, stopping at the local pharmacy would entail a quick romp with a pen full of puppies as a way to raise endorphin levels and get the brain firing those mood-elevating synapses.

But since the Food and Drug Administration probably won’t be stocking the shelves with palm-licking pooches any time soon, Sass Levine of Old Westbury has the perfect alternative — a sort of unconditional love distribution center right in the heart of Plainview.

Formerly of the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown and a dog trainer for 20 years, Levine founded DogAbility last year as a canine program for both kids and adults with and without special needs. Hosted graciously by the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC), 25 Country Dr., DogAbility provides opportunities for motivation, education or recreation to enhance the quality of life through the human-dog relationshiip.

“Using dogs to help people was an important goal for me and I had the idea to set up a place with qualified people and invite others to come to us,” said Levine. “Our goal is to avail ourselves to people of all ages on Long Island and tap into every possible benefit of human-dog interaction.”

Levine said the obvious benefits of that interaction include companionship, entertainment, laughter, forgiveness, esteem, devotion and abundant, unconditional love. But she believes the benefits go far deeper than the superficial and dogs offer medical perks as well.

She said studies show the presence of a dog can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, slow heart rate, relax muscle tension, improve mood and facilitate communication. And when it comes to young children with special needs, the power of the pooch cannot be overstated.

“Specifically talking about autism, the benefits of dogs range from A to Z,” she said. “Talking to parents, a major challenge in managing autism is having safe activities available to the children. Autisitic children struggle with focus and staying on task; there is something about animals, dogs particularly, that grab hold of something in children. It’s the touching, feeling, smelling, holding walking — it inspires kids to achieve what can’t be done in the traditional education environment.”

DogAbility also acts as a resource for any family considering getting a dog of their own, but who first want to learn more about dog ownership. Also, DogAbility offers programs to help individuals get over a fear of dogs and it is also a place that fosters a career with canines in young people. It is all part of a one-stop-shop that Levine said is unique to DogAbility.

“We are constantly looking for volunteers to lead different aspects in what we do here,” she said. “And we keep coming up with new ideas. I feel like I have 50,000 ideas of things we can do here.”

DogAbility welcomes volunteers from all areas, as well as high school and college community service students and interns.

DogAbility meets at HANC on Sundays, with therapy dog trainng from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. and public participation from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. To learn more about what DogAbility does, visit Visitors to the site can also register for DogAbility’s Sunday sessions and learn about how to volunteer. For more information, call Sass Levine at 516-356-3452.

“I’ve seen dogs bring tears to people’s eyes and I’ve seen dogs make people laugh until they cry,” said Levine. “It is an experience that I’m working to share with everyone.”