MEDFORD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — It was a graduation day on Long Island Friday, as some very special students set out to begin a life of service.
As CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported, the graduates in question were assistance dogs, trained with love to make life better for people with disabilities.
The ceremony was especially moving for one young woman – Shea Megale, 19, who has a rare disorder called spinal muscular atrophy.
Megale is getting to know her new service dog, Pierre. Already, the 2-year-old Labrador and golden retriever mix retrieves dropped items and opens doors – in both the literal and metaphorical sense.
“I take on the world with him,” Megale said.
Megale became a media sensation at the age of 12, when she authored a children’s book about Marvelous Mercer, her first assistance dog.
“I thought he was the star of my life. So I thought why not the book? He’s really amazing and he can, he’s my best buddy and he deserved it I thought,” Megale told CBS News’ Richard Schlesinger in 2008.
Mercer died in 2010, and Megale went it alone.
“It was shattering. It took me a good five years to grieve him,” Megale said. “I used to say that he was like a husband to me.”
On Friday, Megale officially partnered with Pierre. It was graduation day for Pierre and 10 other faithful friends, as tails wagged and tears fell.
The puppies are bred at Canine Companions for Independence. At eight weeks old, they are turned over to puppy raisers for a year and half of basic training and love.
Puppy raisers then turn over their prodigies.
“It’s difficult,” said puppy raiser Joan Marano-Goyco. “But we know we are doing it for a higher purpose.”
The dogs undergo six months of intensive training to master 50 commands.
“I tell people they’re smarter than me,” said assistance dog recipient Nancy Lagasse. “They sense everything emotionally and they do a ton for us physically.”
Megale, now a teen author, said she is ready to love again.
“That’s what the whole mission is about is to make sure people like me take on the world; be a part of the world,” she said.
The 11 graduates are among 60 to become assistance dogs all over the country Friday. Canine Companions for Independence has graduated nearly 5,000 dogs in the last four decades.