Keeping up with Benni Our plucky service-dog-in-training closes in on graduation
A meet-and-greet with Benni at Country Ark Farm (Photo by Frances Ruth Harris)
By Frances Ruth Harris MILFORD — Hard to believe that when Benni arrived in Milford only nine months ago, he was just another ungainly, untutored — though quite adorable — puppy. The Courier has followed his progress from his arrival in February, through his training to be a service dog who one day will be a boon companion to a child with autism. At the recent Lady Liberty Game at Madison Square Garden, he radiated service dog perfection under the glow of the Garden's lights and cameras. Benni is now a member of the TriState Dog Obedience Club. He is a star. His trainer, Chrisanne Cubby, a volunteer with the nonprofit BluePath Service Dogs organization, has since February been familiarizing Benni with a range of experiences so that he's not thrown off course come the day a child depends on his good judgment, quick responses, and calm demeanor. He's already mingled with the energetic preschoolers at Kids Play Today. He's negotiated the aisles and shoppers at Key Foods during a trip for groceries. He's made friends with children on the autism spectrum when visiting GAIT Therapeutic Riding Center. The nose knowsOver the summer, Benni continued his education by adjusting to the new and stimulating aromas at Country Ark Farm in Milford. Cubby used distance training techniques to settle Benni's highly stimulated senses. She moved him at least five feet from an animal enclosure, where he calmly assessed the situation. "When we first visited two days ago, he was overwhelmed with all the smells," Cubby said during his August visit. "As always, he was fine with the kids." He was on point, able to manage distractions while listening to Cubby. When Cubby said, "Back," Benni retreated instantly. He knows all of his commands to perfection. The nonprofit Country Ark Farm brings together animals and people in happy encounters. It summer camp is designed for mentally, emotionally and physically challenged children and adults, who enjoy recreational, pet, and art therapy at the camp. Captain BenniThen in September, Benni got a chance to canoe the Delaware River with Cubby and Zack Walck of Kittatinny Canoes. Of course, Benni was wearing a Coast Guard-certified life vest. It has handles so that he can easily be retrieved from the water, even though he now knows how to swim. (Even the best swimmers, two-legged and four-legged, must wear a life vest to stay safe on the always unpredictable river.) Benni, then tipping the scales at 61.6 pounds, loved his river trip. Caroline Sandler, BluePath's vice-president of training, was delighted. She told Benni how very handsome he is. But his good looks will only get him so far. "No, that's my bed," Cubby told Benni when he jumped on a cot under a display tent at Kittatinny's camping store. "You sleep here." She pointed to a spot on the floor. He immediately found it. He responds instantly to all commands now. Good boy!