Jared Behr, curled into a ball on a bean-bag chair, rarely unclenches his hands on his own. The 12-year-old boy’s cerebral palsy makes him tense up, his grandmother June Behr, explained.
But now Jared — the son of Heidi Behr, a Riverhead EMT who was killed in an ambulance crash 11 years ago — has a friend to help. When Jared pets his assistance dog Zuko, Ms. Behr said, he can finally feel at peace.
“He just relaxes like, ‘Oh, my friend is here,’ ” Ms. Behr said as Zuko laid on his side at her feet. “It just makes him happy, and that’s all we wanted.”
Jared and the Behr family got Zuko from the nonprofit group Canine Companions for Independence three months ago. It’s been a perfect fit, the Behrs said.
Jared has lived with his grandparents, June and John Behr, since he was a baby in 2005 and his mother died in a crash while helping on an emergency call. Paramedic Bill Stone was also killed in the crash. In addition to cerebral palsy, Jared has suffered from brain damage and seizures since birth and is legally blind.
Years after their daughter’s passing, the Behrs moved back to Ms. Behr’s childhood home in Cutchogue, where a team of local architects, friends and family helped make the house more handicapped accessible. But it wasn’t until recently that the Behrs decided to look into getting a service animal to help Jared.
On a friend’s suggestion, the Behrs went through Canine Companions for Independence, a Medford-based national nonprofit group that places assistance dogs with those in need. CCI has worked with families across the North Fork, and recently, one of its puppies was helping special education students at Aquebogue Elementary School.
After filling out the paperwork, the Behrs were shown a photo of the dogs they might be paired with. Immediately, the couple took a liking to a kind-looking black Labrador.
“I hope we get him,” Mr. Behr recalls thinking. For two weeks this spring, the Behrs went to Medford to train with the service dogs and help the organization find a good fit.
Ellen Torop, Program Manager for CCI’s Northeast region, said the organization focuses on many variables when making a match, from the needs of the client to the energy level, temperament and style of interaction of each dog.
“We need to know that dog inside and out,” she said. “We always ask the question, ‘How can this dog best serve?’”
In the end, organizers paired the Behrs up with that 2-year-old black Labrador the family was drawn to from the start: Zuko.
Zuko is a calm, low-maintenance dog who can help Jared not only socialize, but with therapy as well.
“We don’t want to give the family a high-management dog,” Ms. Behr said. “They already have a high-management situation. The dog is there to help.”
Ms. Behr described Zuko as being like Winnie the Pooh’s pal Eeyore: very mellow and very calm.
“Zuko is a great match for Jared,” said Mr. Behr.
“I just really needed a dog that’s going to be by him,” Ms. Behr added. “That’s going to sleep with him.”
Ms. Behr trained with Zuko and the other families there who were getting service dogs. The dog knows 40 different commands, including heeling by her side, giving a handshake and jumping into the car for a trip.
Among the families at CCI was a young parapelegic man and a military veteran with post traumatic stress disorder. Ms. Behr said each day a different family would bring in meals to share with the class.
By the end of the training, the families of people with “all different levels of abilities” were a close-knit family themselves, she said. They keep in touch to this day.
“We were all there for the same reason,” she said. Each family received an assistance dog free of charge, Ms. Torop said, a cost of $50,000 that the nonprofit group absorbs for each placement.
Ms. Behr said in the three months since they’ve had Zuko, they’ve seen it improve Jared’s life. Sometimes Jared will lay on the bean-bag chair and Zuko will curl up next to him. When Jared begins to have a seizure, Zuko will stay nearby to comfort the child and watch over him.
“It seems like we’ve had him forever,” Ms. Behr said.
The Behrs said Zuko also acts as a kind of icebreaker for other children. During prior trips to the supermarket, kids would stare at Jared in his wheelchair. “They’re kids,” Ms. Behr said with a shrug. “They don’t know.”
But with Zuko around, the kids will look at the dog first. Jared is transformed from the “boy in the wheelchair” to the “boy with a dog.” That can be a key social hurdle to clear, said Ms. Torop.
“The public sometimes doesn’t know how to approach them,” she said. “When you put a well-trained and friendly dog it goes from ‘What’s different about this person’ to ‘What’s special about this person?’ ”
Ms. Torop, who’s worked with the nonprofit for 27 years, said she was happy to hear Zuko was a positive match for the family.
“That’s why I’m here,” she said. “We live for those stories.” The group will continue to follow up with the Behrs and help them for as long as Zuko serves at Jared’s side.
The Behrs said they will try to do whatever they can to help CCI. Ms. Behr thinks few Long Islanders realize how close the nonprofit — which serves families across the Northeast — is to their homes.
In the fall, the Behr family plans to return to Medford as a new batch of families are placed with service animals and bake lunch. CCI is constantly on the lookout for new puppy raisers, and will be holding a fundraiser and service dog meet-and-greet at Castello di Borghese Vineyards in Cutchogue Aug. 6.
The Behrs hope to return the group’s kindness in the future by donating to the cause.
“We can’t say enough good things about them,” Mr. Behr said.
Photo caption: Jared Behr (center) pets Zuko’s head as the dog licks his face. His grandparents, June and John Behr, have cared for Jared since their daughter was killed in 2005 and say the new service dog has made Jared happy. (Credit: Paul Squire)