With a teddy bear strapped to the back of her wheelchair, Shea Meagle, a 20 year-old Hampton Bays resident, trains with her new assistance dog, Pierre. The two are bonding at the North East Regional Center of Canine Companions for Independence, located in Medford. It’s the place where Shea first met Mercer, her original assistance dog whom she wrote a children’s novel about at the age of 12, in the early years of living with Muscular Atrophy.
It’s the final days of a two week-long intensive training program, but Pierre is not the one who’s getting trained – it’s Shea. Pierre has already completed six months of advanced training, during which he learned 50 essential and complicated commands, including going to the bathroom on command.
Now Shea must learn how to use these commands and how to care for her new companion before she can take him home – notably, free of charge. The training program includes indoor and outdoor exercises, quizzes, lectures, homework assignments, and field trips. The goal is to be able to manage her dog safely and appropriately in real-life situations.
During her stay at CCI, Shea lives with her mom in one of the free, fully handicap-accessible dorm rooms available at the center. She dines for free at Bogie’s Bistro, the center’s café. But most of the time, Shea is spending time with her new friend as they practice commands.
Pierre and the other assistance dogs who are training outside are not muzzled and robotic – they’re happy-go lucky dogs whose tails are wagging as they faithfully lay by the side of their partners’ wheelchairs. But while they’re cute and friendly, these dogs also highly alert and capable. A cross between Labrador and Golden Retrievers, they are the perfect hybrid of intelligence and faithfulness.
When it’s time to go inside, Pierre walks along Shea’s side, allowing her to move through doorways first, promptly following behind. During a field trip to a local pet store, Pierre makes purchases for Shea by presenting a credit card to a cashier and carrying the shopping bags.
The only part of the team training program at CCI that is more breathtaking than the beautiful and impressive assistance dogs is Shea herself, a truly remarkable woman who is full of life.
“I came into this closed and cautious because of my deep connection with Mercer,” she admits.
When she first met Pierre, Shea said the two gave each other a look that expressed something along the lines of “who the hell are you?” But in just a little over a week, the two are now closer than ever, and she affectionately refers to Pierre as her “French lover.”
When Shea completes CCI’s team training program, she will return home to her college classes, but her ambitions extend far beyond the classroom.
“I do take college classes on the side,” she confirms, “but what I really want to do is write young adult novels.”
This task could be easy for Shea, considering she’s already a published writer. But Shea doesn’t want to use her connections, who include best-selling authors like Suzanne Collins; she wants to be published traditionally – a major goal, but one she is sure to achieve.
“I write every day, whether it be a sentence or a chapter,” Shea says. “It depends on how much caffeine I’ve had.”
The only thing bigger than Shea’s dreams is her heart, which is largely due to the connections she has shared with her service dogs from CCI. Her mom comments, “[CCI] is one of the gems of Long Island. You can’t help but feel the immensity that these dogs do for emotion.”
Shea added, “Mercer taught me to love. Pierre taught me to love again.”
Shea’s story is only one of many. CCI operates through the generosity of its donors. If you or someone you know would like to help CCI through a donation, volunteering, or puppy raising, visit cci.org. A community dog walk and fundraiser will be held on October 3 at Marjorie Post Park in Massapequa to benefit CCI.