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Canine helps disabled Bayside man find greater independence

Jeff Brosi’s dog, Jasper III, is a loyal friend to his Bayside master, sleeping in a cot next to his bed and responding when his name is called.

But the 2-year-old golden retriever-yellow Labrador mix does a lot more than play fetch — he helps Brosi, who is paralyzed, live his life without heavy dependence on others.

Jasper responds to more than 40 commands, including picking up objects Brosi drops on the floor, turning light switches on and off, opening and closing doors and paying store cashiers.

“He’s a good friend. He’s a big help,” said Brosi, who called his dog “better (trained) than most people.”

Brosi received Jasper Nov. 8 from Canine Companions for Independence, a California-based national non-profit organization that provides helper dogs free of charge for the disabled.

“The time and effort they put in to help others is amazing,” said Brosi, a graduate student at St. John’s University studying to be a school guidance counselor.

The 24-year-old, who lives with his parents, has been paralyzed from mid-chest down ever since a hit-and-run driver struck his car on the Henry Hudson Parkway in January 2000.

He has limited hand function, weak triceps and cannot walk but he still plays softball and enjoys water and snow skiing. He recently completed a yearlong internship counseling students at his alma mater, Holy Cross High School.

“He’s very active and I like to be active,” Brosi said of Jasper, whom he met for the first time in November during an intensive two-week training course for dogs and owners at Canine Companions’ regional center at SUNY Farmingdale.

Julie Diamond, a spokeswoman for the organization, said the group breeds the dogs in California and places them in the home of a trainer at the age of eight weeks. Trainers teach the puppies basic obedience skills and socialization until the age of 16 months, when the young dogs begin several more months of advanced training at SUNY Farmingdale.

The dogs are taught simple commands at first, such as raising one paw, then are trained to apply those skills to practical tasks like pushing elevator buttons.

Brosi gets the dog’s attention by making a clicking sound with his tongue and softly calling his name. The word “side” brings Jasper to his master’s right side and word “heel” brings him to the left.

Simple commands such as “push” and “get it” prompt the dog to open and close doors and retrieve objects off the floor.

Brosi is also training the dog to pull him up to a sitting position in bed in the morning using a soft woven rope around his wrist. Jasper uses similar ropes to open the refrigerator and pull Brosi in his chair when his master is too tired to wheel himself.

“If I drop the toothpaste, he’s right there to pick it up,” said Brosi, who also can point to clothes in his closet and have Jasper take them out when he needs them. “He just makes life a lot easier.”

Like many children, Brosi grew up with a golden retriever who died of old age.

“She was well-trained, but this is above and beyond the training of a regular dog,” he said.

Jasper and Brosi have only known each other for two months, but already a photo of the dog serves as the young man’s screen saver on his computer — even though the pooch sleeps on a cot only a few feet from the desk.

Brosi’s mother, Pat, said the dog had allowed her son to become more independent.

“He’d drop his pen and I’d have to worry about him being bent over in a chair” and unable to right himself, said Pat Brosi.

With Jasper at his side, “I know he’s not alone.”

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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