Training to serve: Fydenkevez family has been raising service dogs for years

  • Cash, a 12-week-old golden retriever service dog in training, at Greenfield Community College. ANDY CASTILLO

  • Mary Ellen Fydenkevez holds Cash at the Greenfield college, where she works. “Number one, we teach them to be good citizens,” she says of the service dogs she and her family have trained. ANDY CASTILLO

  • Cash, a 12-week-old golden retriever service dog in training, at Greenfield Community College. ANDY CASTILLO

  • Cash, a 12-week-old golden retriever service dog in training, at Greenfield Community College. ANDY CASTILLO

  • Cash, a 12-week-old golden retriever service dog in training, at Greenfield Community College. ANDY CASTILLO

  • Flute, Dasher, and Fenway, all service dogs raised by the Fydenkevez family. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Mary Ellen Fydenkevez with Flute on Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Tom Fydenkevez with Flute. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • From left, Mary Ellen, Tom, and Jess Fydenkevez with service dogs Fenway and Ocean. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Bulletin
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

SUNDERLAND — In an extra-small blue and yellow service dog vest, Cash met passers-by at Greenfield Community College with excited curiosity.

Cash, a 12-week-old golden retriever puppy, is rambunctious, playful, and very sweet, said Mary Ellen Fydenkevez, who, along with husband Tom and daughters Jessica and Jackie, has dedicated her life to raising young service animals. The family lives in Sunderland. Tom Fydenkevez is on the town’s Select Board.

“Number one, we teach them to be good citizens,” Mary Ellen Fydenkevez said, seated in an office at the Greenfield school. Fydenkevez is dean of GCC’s engineering, math, nursing and science departments.

In about a year, Cash will leave for professional service dog training through Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit agency that has training facilities in California, Ohio, New York, Florida and Texas.

Eventually, Cash will be matched for life with someone in need of furry assistance. Fydenkevez said he’ll make a great service animal.

Until then, Cash has a lot of growing up to do. His little paws are still oversized, and he needs to learn basic commands like “sit,” “lie down,” “heel,” and more complex actions like “roll over” and “visit.”

“Most importantly, we socialize the dogs a lot — we put them in situations where you never want them to be afraid,” Fydenkevez said. GCC has been supportive, she said, allowing her to bring Cash into work.

Selfless service

In the last dozen or so years, the Fydenkevez family has raised six dogs: Dmitri, Ocean, Fenway (a dog sponsored by the Boston Red Sox), Dasher, Flute, Rinngold, and now Cash, whom they picked up last month. They intend to raise more service animals in the future.

“Rinngold, the last dog we just had, she was a loving, cuddly type. She loved being with people, and kids. Very confident, but sensitive, and quiet. Other dogs we’ve had, like Flute, she was the kid who got herself in trouble, but turned out to be a great dog,” Fydenkevez said.

Currently, Flute is completing an intensive program in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, working with a veteran to study the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The two-year blind study will help the Veterans Administration determine whether veterans with PTSD as a primary diagnosis can be helped by a highly trained assistance dog like Flute,” a press release says about the study.

In that time, Fydenkevez said her family hasn’t seen or heard from Flute, which has been challenging. Their first contact will be in May. The other dogs they’ve raised live and work throughout the Northeast.

“We enjoy each individual dog, and they each teach us something different,” Fydenkevez said. “At some point in the life of a dog you have to say goodbye. We get to say goodbye in a really good way. And know they’re doing good things.”

Canine Companions

For free, Canine Companions for Independence, founded in 1975, pairs service animals with people in need, such as children with special needs, victims of trauma, or adults with physical disabilities. Some animals are trained to work in special education classrooms.

Dogs are assigned roles based on temperament, according Sarah Birman, national director of training and client services at Canine Companions. They’re raised from puppy to dog by volunteers throughout the country. Beginning when they’re about 18 months old, service dog training lasts between six and nine months.

Later, they learn customized commands in two-week “team training, a pairing class where they meet someone who’s on our wait list and learn how to work together,” Birman said. “All of our dogs are incredible in their own way. They each have unique characteristics.”

Even though it’s difficult sending away young dogs, who quickly become family, knowing they’re making the world a better place is rewarding, Fydenkevez said.

“The hardest thing about raising these dogs — it’s a great wonderful, fun adventure — but they are part of our family, and we have to give them away,” Fydenkevez said. “When you get to see the wonderful things they do. … Some of these individuals struggle so much with daily life. ... To be able to help someone through that is a pretty amazing experience. That’s why we do this.”

And occasionally, they get to see their puppies again at work. Once, while watching the Red Sox at Fenway Park, they ran into Ocean and her handler.

“(Ocean) literally jumped into my arms. Four legs up into my arms,” Fydenkevez said.

​​​​​​For more information on Canine Companions for Independence, visit www.cci.org.