HARRIS, NY — The Center for Discovery®, designated as a Center of Excellence by the New York State Department of Health, is a major research and specialty center that offers residential, medical, clinical and special education programs, as well as world-class music and creative arts therapy, a dapted physical education and a biodynamic agricultural program, among other unique services.
Each year, the center serves 1,200 children and adults from across New York State and beyond. Growing from 25 employees in 1980 to more than 1,700 employees in 2019, The Center for Discovery is the largest private sector employer in Sullivan County, New York.
One of those employees is occupational therapist Sarah Merrick who works at the center with her partner Leland, a five year-old lab/golden retriever. Leland was specially bred and trained by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), whose northeast regional headquarters are based in Medford, NY. I had an opportunity to meet with Sarah and Leland and learn about how he came to be an integral and valuable member of the team at the center.
TRR: I have a medical-alert dog. How is that different from what Leland does, and how long does it take for a dog like him to be trained?
Merrick: CCI provides highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities. All of the dogs start with volunteer puppy raisers, and are usually with them for the first 18 months. During that time, they work with the dogs on basic obedience commands. After that, the dog is returned to CCI for advanced training. There, Leland was specifically trained as a facility dog by CCI’s nationally-renowned instructors and knows [more than] 40 commands that are useful to a person with disabilities. That took place at the CCI campus in Long Island, where Leland spent about six months with professional trainers. There are additional regional training centers, but Leland came to us from there.
TRR: I see, so Leland has been trained to assist people with a wide range of disabilities, rather than with a hyper-focus on a single person’s issue. And so, what does Leland do? How does he help out on a daily basis?
Merrick: I’m an occupational therapist (OT) and Leland is a highly trained assistance dog. He and I were paired up in November 2016. When I started working with him, he would join me in OT sessions where he would help to motivate and engage the students. It [soon] became clear that Leland could help even more, and we were able to reach more of the population at the center, so my position was modified to allow additional flexibility. Now we are able to work with other occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, pathologists and the center’s students and adults across all of those disciplines.
TRR: I’m unsure what that means. How does Leland “motivate” the students?
Merrick: For instance, we have some students who are working towards vocational goals; they have an opportunity to learn how to groom a dog, which is a skill that that can later translate into possible employment opportunities further down the road. He also engages in games with the students, including different versions of board games. They also get to interact with him on a social basis. We really try to meet the individual’s needs here at the center and Leland is able to work with them in a number of different ways.
TRR: Does he get any time off? Does he get to play with other dogs?
Merrick: Leland goes home with me at night. He lives with me and two young boys, so yes, he has a very normal dog life at home. Since he so highly trained at CCI, he’s very, very good at following commands, and all of his training routines are followed at home as well. He also knows that when his vest comes off at the end of the day, that he’s free to “be a dog” and play.
TRR: Don’t the puppy-raisers miss them? Do they ever get to see the dogs again?
Merrick: It’s up to the graduating team, in this case, that would be myself and Leland, and we definitely stay in touch with the couple who puppy-trained him,: Tom and Jennifer Newton who live in Crozier, Virginia. We stopped in to see them last summer while on vacation and Leland got to spend a few days with them. Tom is an equine veterinarian and they live on a farm, so Leland got a mini-vacation himself! Leland was the first puppy that they raised for Canine Companions. Now they’re on their fifth or sixth. Tom and Jennifer are absolutely awesome at what they do for CCI, [and it’s] all on a volunteer basis.
TRR: Who pays for all of the training at Canine Companions?
Merrick: CCI is a non-profit that provides highly trained assistance dogs to facilities and individuals at no expense. Training like Leland’s costs more than $50,000, all of which is totally supported by generous donations to Canine Companions, who then make it possible for individuals and organizations like The Center for Discovery to participate.
TRR: CCI, you and Leland are all amazing, and the center is lucky to have you both.
Merrick: The one thing that I would like to emphasize is the profound effect that Leland has had on some of the individuals at The Center for Discovery and the joy that they find in working with him, benefitting from the motivation that he provides. We’ve seen both children and adults make profound progress with their goals and treatment overall by having Leland in their presence.