Courtesy photo: Emilee Raynor

Yucca, fresh out of a rigorous training program provided by Canine Companions for Independence, is the newest member of the Phillips Avenue Elementary School family. The 3-year-old dog loves children, is eager help and has already begun to positively affect the students.

CCI, founded in 1975, is the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs in the U.S. The dogs are meant to enhance the lives of a wide range people such as those with multiple sclerosis, stroke, developmental delay, or cerebral palsy.

Yucca’s owner is Emilee Raynor — the elementary school’s ELL teacher. She learned about the group through a Riverhead High School science teacher, Sonja Haasper, who has volunteered for CCI since 2011. This year she has two dogs accompany her to the high school everyday as part of their training.

“When I heard that they have a dog in the classroom, I thought, that’s wonderful,” said Raynor. “I started to do some research about just the benefits of having a dog in the room, socially, emotionally, cognitively. Then from there I asked permission to go forward with the application from Principal Rogers and was super excited about it.”

Courtesy photo: Emilee Raynor

Raynor was accepted into the training program, and after working with four dogs, Yucca was picked as her match. She believes Yucca was placed with her because of the dog’s fondness for children. Each CCI dog undergoes the same training process — 18 months with a volunteer family and nine months in a professional training program — but the dogs are matched with their recipients based on the dog’s personality and abilities.

“Even if I’m just waiting in the doorway, if a students walks by, her whole hind end wags back and forth and wiggles around,” said Raynor.

Some students are familiar with dogs in training. Nurse Barbara Salmiery trained two dogs for the Guide Dog Foundation. But Yucca is the building’s dog, so the school held a special segment during the January Citizen of the Month assembly. Students learned about CCI dogs, how they help people and how the students should greet Yucca.

“We were explaining how people have different needs, but how Yucca was trained for our building, so she is our facility dog to help us,” said principal Deborah Rodgers. “We had all of the new kids raise their hand and explained when you’re new it can be a little scary and we called Yucca on stage. We talked to the kids about how we don’t want to scare her and how we get excited sometimes when we see a dog, but we can practice what to do.”

The students learned to say quiet “awws,” wave to say hello, or to give a gentle pet while walking. After the assembly, Yucca went back to the Medford-based training facility for her last month of classes. She graduated on Feb. 14 with 10 of the school’s fourth grade students in the audience to watch.

“The actual graduation ceremony was really powerful,” said Rodgers. “They actually hand the leash from the person that trained the dog to the person that is receiving the dog. All different kinds of people with needs were there — limited sight, physical handicaps such as wheelchair, cane or walker, it was really powerful.”

After the ceremony, Yucca was officially the facility dog for their school. Raynor brings Yucca to school every day and makes sure to incorporate her in lessons such as “Read to Yucca” and even math.

“I did a lesson on shapes and I had the kids organize shapes into piles but using Yucca, so they would tell her to pick up a shape, put it with the rest of the triangle so she would pick it up and drop it,” Raynor said.

Courtesy photo: Emilee Raynor

Students have already become very fond of the new dog and there is a noticeable change. Students are finishing their schoolwork early to brush Yucca and attendance seems to be up, Raynor said. They are also talking, reading, and writing fan mail to her — something that they might be afraid to do if Yucca was a person.

“I have a student who is very shy and he doesn’t speak often,” said Raynor. “The other day when he left my classroom to go back to his classroom, he opened the door and from across the room he said, ‘When Yucca wakes up, can you please tell her I said goodbye’ and for a student who doesn’t often speak, he was so excited to come back and say that to me.”

And Yucca is helpful to kids with more than just their schooling. Yucca helps students that have issues at home or at school such as past traumas, or emotional or social issues. Having a dog there to just talk to or pet can really help the children, Raynor said.

After her day at school, Yucca goes home with her owner to be a relax and play with Raynor’s cats and 5-year-old French bulldog, Kirby Pickles.

“When she has her vest and her collar on she knows she’s working,” said Raynor.

Yucca is another Riverhead success story from the CCI training program. Twenty-three-year-old Jamesport resident Johanna Benthal has a had two dogs from CCI’s program. The first dog, Taffy died after many years of service, but the noticeable impact the dog had on Benthal’s life prompted the family to apply for another canine companion, Rae.

As of 2019, nearly 450 people are on the waiting list to receive an assistance dog. The organization has had more than 2,500 dogs graduate from their program since 1975, but most dogs that enter the training program do not finish.

The program has very strict requirements of health, personality and training. If a dog is unable to finish the program, they are considered released. The released dogs often find employment in police departments, hospitals, courtrooms and therapy offices. One of the six dogs Haasper raised was returned back to the high school. The dog, Robert IV, was unable to complete the program, but was deemed suitable as a therapy dog.

Other dogs are returned to their volunteer family, such as the case of Councilwoman Catherine Kent’s dog, Gipper. After the Kent family raised the dog for 18 months, paying for his medical care, training classes, socialization programs and dietary needs. They returned him to the training facility for the final stage of training but a health exam revealed that Gipper had a progressive disease that meant he was unsuitable for the program. He was returned to the Kent family, much to their delight.

The Kents are one of more than 3,000 volunteer families that help the CCI program. Haasper was asked how she is able to give up a dog she raised, let alone six. Haasper said it doesn’t get easier but the benefits of raising the dogs help.

“I thought it would get easier, but it doesn’t,” said Haasper. “I just remind myself that they are going on to help someone who will truly benefit from them. Seeing the face of the person that receives the dog makes it ok. Also, I have stayed in contact with the families of two of my dogs that have graduated and that helps as well.”

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Julia-Anna Searson
Julia-Anna is a Riverhead native and a recent graduate of Stony Brook University, with a degree in Biology and minor in Anthropology. She currently lives in Cutchogue.