Service dog hopeful to march at inauguration

Recorder/Paul Franz
Mary Ellen Fydenkevez of sunderland with her service dog Fenway.

Recorder/Paul Franz Mary Ellen Fydenkevez of sunderland with her service dog Fenway.

When President Barack Obama travels from the U.S. Capitol Building to the White House during Monday’s Inaugural Parade, he will be joined by a service dog-in-training and the Sunderland family that has raised him for the past 17 months.

Fenway, a black Labrador retriever training to become a service dog with national nonprofit organization Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), will march the two-mile route with his handler Mary Ellen Fydenkevez and her family. Fenway was one of about 40 dogs selected by CCI to march, said Fydenkevez.

“We’re really thrilled to be picked to go in this exciting event,” said Fydenkevez, 55, who has no party affiliation but said she supports the Obama administration.

“Our hope is that President Obama or (his wife) Michelle will come over and pet the dog and we’ll get a picture of them,” she said.

The journey to the nation’s capital and the march immediately following Obama’s acceptance speech will be one of the final adventures Fydenkevez and Fenway will have together.

Their 17-month job as Fenway’s “volunteer puppy-raising family” is almost over. In a couple of weeks, the family — Mary Ellen, her husband Thomas, who serves on the Board of Selectmen, and 27-year-old twin daughters Jess and Jackie — will return the dog to CCI’s Northeast headquarters in Long Island, N.Y.

Before CCI gives free service dogs to disabled children and adults, the dogs must first undergo extensive training.

From the time they are 8 weeks old until they turn about 18 months old, the puppies are raised by a family whose job is to socialize the dogs and expose them to a variety of people and surroundings.

At 18 months of age, they leave the training family and return to Long Island or, as Fydenkevez likes to call it, “going off to college.”

There, the dogs undergo six months of advanced training where they learn how to do tasks like open handicapped-accessible doors, carry bags and turn light switches on and off.

Only about 40 percent of the dogs that go through advanced training will become service dogs. But the Fydenkevezes have a track record: both of the dogs they’ve raised have passed the advanced training and gone on to serve disabled adults.

Under the watch of Fydenkevez, who had dog-training experience before working with CCI, Fenway has learned to become comfortable and mild-mannered around others, she said.

Fydenkevez attributes some of the success to Greenfield Community College, where she works full-time, teaching microbiology and serving as science department co-chair.

On most days, Fenway goes into work with her. He sits in her office during classes, walks with her around campus and even provides some much-needed comfort during long meetings, she said.

“(It’s) an environment ... with different people, different voices. There are people with crutches, people with canes,” she said.

The parade is by no means the first adventure that Fenway has led the Fydenkevez family on.

The Boston Red Sox, and the team’s CEO Larry Lucchino, sponsored Fenway when he was born. CCI almost sent him to be trained by a New York family, leading Fydenkevez to joke that the family “saved him” from almost living with Yankees fans.

Throughout the past year-and-a-half, the dog has been a regular guest at Fenway Park events — often with the Fydenkevez family, who are lifelong Red Sox fans, in tow.

They’ve participated in public relations events, been inside the owner’s box and met some of the players. The grounds keeper knows the family by name, said Fydenkevez.

“It’s an adventure for us,” she said. “And Fenway’s been a good ambassador, we feel, for learning about service dogs (and) learning about people with disabilities.”

When the Washington, D.C., adventure is over and it’s time for the family to part with Fenway, it will be very difficult, said Fydenkevez.

But she said the family continues to take part in the experience because of the service it provides for those in need.

Their last dog, Ocean, ultimately was sent by CCI to N.H. to help a veteran in a wheelchair.

“He wouldn’t go places but as soon as he got Ocean, his whole life changed in front of him,” said Fydenkevez.

CCI was one of about 40 groups selected to participate in Monday’s parade from nearly 3,000 that applied, she said. The Fydenkevez family will drive down Saturday and return to Sunderland on Wednesday.

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