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A Special Pack Of Compassionate Pups

Several hundred people filled the grand ballroom of the Marriot Islandia from all parts of the northeast waiting to see a class of canines embark on a career in companionship.

Brothers Dagger and Diesel, wearing blue vests and gold tassels, playfully wrestled on the floor while proud moms Yvonne Dagger of Massapequa and Sandra Slomovitz of Old Bethpage looked on with misty eyes. The surrogate dog mothers knew this would be the last time they would see their pups before they are sent off to boot camp, as with tails wagging both dogs moved to the next level with the Canine Companions for Independence class of 2014.

Founded in 1975, CCI is a nonprofit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs free of charge. The dogs are bred and then turned over to puppy raisers for 16 to 18 months, and then they matriculate into additional training programs at one of the regional centers for six more months. The ones that succeed will go on to special training to be either service dogs, skilled companions, hearing dogs or facility dogs. Black labs Dagger and Diesel were matriculating along with 25 other dogs while seven dogs graduated and met their future owners and people that they will be assisting in the future.

Deborah Doughty, executive director of CCI, expressed her feelings about this event.

“It is a wonderful day. We do this four times a year and it’s my favorite day,” said Doughty. “If you ever come to a graduation then you will have no doubt as to why you need to raise a puppy for us.”

Puppy raiser Sandra Slomovitz of Old Bethpage proudly showed off her matriculating dog, Diesel III.

“Diesel is Dagger’s brother,” said Slomovitz. “This is my second dog and we just took another puppy a few weeks ago who is eight weeks old. The other dog we had did not succeed and so he was a pet of ours for eight years. I have always loved animals and my children love animals so we decided to find a reputable organization that we could share our love of animals and do a good deed for somebody else. This fit all of the bills.”

Slomovitz said the sadness felt parting with the pup is tempered with the knowledge that someone in need will receive its valuable companionship.

”I tell my kids this is a win, win. If he succeeds he will be a wonderful companion for somebody. If he doesn’t he will be a pet,” she said. “But for 18 months he has been a great sponsor of CCI. People know about Canine Companions who never knew about it before because of him.”

Puppy raiser Yvonne Dagger was wistful about this day.

“It’s a letting go,” she said. “The same way you would feel about your kids going to college. You know you have to do it and it’s for the better, but I am happy to be here and happy to do this. Dagger is my second dog in training.”

A board member and past president of CCI’s Long Island chapter, Yvonne raised Dagger II from the age of six weeks. The puppies wear a yellow vest and the matriculating dogs wear a blue vest with tassels. Yvonne noticed that when Dagger donned the new vest, he seemed to be very proud to wear it.

“This is a bittersweet feeling, you know this is what you have been striving for and yet you are sad to see the day come when you have to say goodbye,” she said. “We are not allowed to see the dogs while they are in advanced training at all. It sets the dogs back a little bit. I think Dagger is going to do great in advanced training and I think the separation anxiety is going to be by me because I have really grown to love him. He will change someone’s life for the better, give them the independence, freedom and confidence that they need to go on in life.”

During the awards ceremony, Yvonne’s husband Dennis who is vice president and general manager of Toyota Smithtown along with president Steven Cannata were honored for all of their work for CCI. They worked tirelessly to bring funds and awareness to CCI by sponsoring events and recently secured a booth at the international auto show at the Jacob Javits Center in April where 10,000 people passed by on a daily basis.

Accompanying Dagger to the event was her daughter Andrea and good friend and fellow puppy raiser from Massapequa Diane Latini with her daughter Allison.

“I raised a puppy, Slick, and he is now a change of career dog. He went to training for two months and he had some issues so he is now our pet,” said Latini, who helped raise Dagger. “Once in a while we would take him to puppy class together, and if Yvonne was away we would take him. He had a lot of play dates with our dog Slick and our other dog Cricket. He has been such a joy and such a blessing.”