BANGOR, Maine — The tight bond between 12-year-old Gabe Schmick and his dog is obvious.
As Gabe hung out in the living room with his family Sunday afternoon, a 2-year-old yellow Lab-golden retriever mix dozing at his feet occasionally gazed up at the boy.
“It is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Gabe said of Fenwick joining the family this past summer.
Fenwick came to Gabe through Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit organization that provides highly-trained assistance dogs for children, adults and veterans with disabilities. Gabe is physically disabled and uses a wheelchair to get around.
“He’s brought so much joy,” Jean Schmick-Hopkins, Gabe’s mom and a teacher at Fairmount School in Bangor, said of the dog Sunday afternoon at the family’s home on Kenduskeag Avenue. “He’s definitely improved [Gabe’s] quality of life, his outlook.”
Schmick-Hopkins learned about Canine Companions in February 2015 through an internet search.
“I was just looking for a way to improve Gabe’s life,” she said.
After navigating their way through the application process, Schmick-Hopkins and Gabe made it to the final step, an onsite interview in July 2015. They then were put on a waiting list.
But it was not until the start of summer vacation in June 2016 that a spot opened up. So in July, Gabe and his mother traveled to Medford, New York, for an intensive two-week training program held at the organization’s Northeast Regional Center, one of six such centers nationwide.
Each student who attends team training is paired with a fully trained, working assistance dog such as Fenwick and is taught to work with his or her canine companion. The training consists of daily lectures, exams, practice and public outings to places including shopping malls, a grocery store and a big box store.
After graduating from the program, recipients of assistance dogs are required to take part in periodic refresher training to maintain their certification.
Families that benefit from companion dogs do not have to pay for the dogs or the training. Breeding, raising and training of dogs is paid for by the organization, which is funded through grants and contributions from private individuals, businesses and civic organizations.
More than 5,000 dogs have been placed by Canine Companions since the organization was founded in 1975 in Santa Rosa, California, to assist people with physical, cognitive or developmental disabilities, according to the group’s website.
Gabe preferred not to name or offer specifics about the disease that he was diagnosed with when he was 7, but his mom said the condition is progressive. He has been using a wheelchair full time since he was 10.
Canine Companions trains four types of assistance dogs — service dogs for adults with physical disabilities who need help with daily tasks; hearing dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing; facility dogs who work with professionals in visitation, education and health care settings; and skilled companions such as Fenwick, who enhance independence for children and adults with physical, cognitive or developmental disabilities.
Fenwick has been trained to respond to more than 40 advanced commands, according to John Bentzinger, spokesman for the organization’s Northeast region.
Fenwick helps Gabe with such tasks as turning light switches on and off; opening and closing doors, cabinets and drawers; and retrieving dropped objects and everyday items, such as socks and shoes.
Though he’s been trained not to bark, Fenwick “speaks” on command, which comes in handy when Gabe needs to get the attention of his mom, dad, Robert Schmick, or younger sister, Genevieve.
But perhaps his most important job is to provide constant companionship for Gabe — with the exception of the time Gabe spends at William S. Cohen School, where he is a seventh-grader.
“He brings a lot of joy [to Gabe],” Schmick-Hopkins said of Fenwick.
The two spend a lot of their time hanging out, playing fetch and snuggling. Fenwick even sleeps on Gabe’s bed.
“He’s a bed hog,” Gabe said with a laugh.
Since he’s come to live with Gabe and his family, Fenwick has been on outings to local restaurants, including Verve, as well as to Penobscot Theater, where he got to take in a performance of “Oliver!,” Gabe said.
Gabe said there were some funny moments during the show, which included a dog actor that spotted Fenwick from the stage and kept looking at Fenwick throughout the show.
When Fenwick is working, his attention is focused on Gabe and his mom, whose role is to be the disciplinarian when needed, making sure Fenwick responds the first time he is given a command. It is better for her to discipline the dog than Gabe so that the interactions between the companion and Gabe remain positive and their bond can continue to strengthen.
Gabe said he is looking forward to lots of good times with Fenwick.
“I’ll take him with me to Ivy,” he said, referring to the eight Ivy League colleges that are considered among the most prestigious in the nation.
Gabe said he is eying Columbia University but noted he is still young and is continually changing his mind about what he wants to do in the future.
For more information about Canine Companions, visit cci.org or call 800-572-BARK.