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Happiest with a leash in her hand: Longtime volunteer shares special bond with future service dogs

People by: Joanne Kountourakis, September 12, 2022

Brooke Stern and Nutmeg VI, the Labrador retriever she’s raising to be a service dog through Canine Companions.

Brooke Stern has been raising puppies for more than 15 years.

In August, she and her Labrador retriever puppy, Nutmeg VI, were spotted by social media phenomenon The Dogist on the Cross Sound Ferry; a picture of the duo was posted to Instagram and garnered over 37,000 likes. But Brooke doesn’t raise dogs for clicks, or likes.

“I’ve been involved in the world of dogs for as long as I can remember,” Brooke told the Journal in a conversation last week. She grew up watching her mom, who currently works in an animal hospital, raise puppies and is used to being surrounded by dogs.

“Looking back, the happiest times in my life, I’ve had a leash in my hand, and four paws at my feet,” Brooke said. Spending just a short time with Brooke and Nutmeg in Northport Village Park exemplified Brooke’s bond with the dogs she raises. She loves to talk about her work, and her passion and commitment are evident not only in her words, but how Nutmeg looks up at Brooke, awaiting her next command, never leaving her side. The focused attention Brooke and Nutmeg give to one another – and receive from one another – is remarkable.

An East Northport resident, Brooke recently moved back to Long Island from North Carolina and is currently working with Canine Companions, the nation’s first and largest service dog organization; the group has been providing service dogs to people with disabilities since 1975. At any one time, the organization has over 150 volunteers raising future service dogs throughout the northeast region (Maine to Virginia), according to Canine Companions staff member John Bentzinger.

Nutmeg is Brooke’s first pup through Canine Companions, but the tenth Brooke has raised to be a service dog. She brought Nutmeg home at eight weeks (and one day) old and will have her until she’s about 16 months old. The two go everywhere together – Northport Village, the beach, the city – all in preparation for when Nutmeg is paired with her forever person.

Thanks to Brooke’s love and guidance, Nutmeg is on her way to becoming a highly trained Canine Companions service dog, and will someday be matched with an adult, child or veteran with a disability, free of charge.

Brooke said she’s grateful to have found Canine Companions, especially since moving back to her hometown, where she was a little apprehensive about having to meet people all over again. “They just make it so easy,” she said. “[Canine Companions] is not a community that you’re ever going to want to leave. Raising Nutmeg has given not only her, but me, a cohort of people to rely on. You make friends that quickly turn into family.”

“Like many of our volunteers, Brooke began raising dogs for service work when she was a young girl,” said the region’s Puppy Program Manager, Debbie Knatz. “And it is through the support and commitment of our volunteers that our organization is able to excel.”

Right now, Nutmeg is being taught basic commands and socialization skills. After her time with Brooke (she’s due to “matriculate” in May of 2023), Nutmeg will go back for advanced training at Canine Companions, which includes six months of puppy college. While there, she’ll work with professional instructors to learn over 40 advanced commands that are useful to a person with disabilities, commands such as opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off and picking up dropped items. She’ll be a little over two years old before she is matched with her forever person.

Brooke said she’s often asked how she does it, how she raises a pup only to let that pup go. But part of the process, said Brooke – and she knows this well – is saying goodbye. And while there’s heartache in it, there is also great reward. “When you finally see the dogs graduate and find their perfect match, everything clicks,” she said. “It’s magical. They are exactly where they are meant to be.”

Did you know? September is National Service Dog Month. To learn more about Canine Companions, donate or explore volunteering opportunities, and to get information on raising a puppy, click here.

Brooke has created a special bond with Nutmeg VI, who recently turned nine months old. In May 2023, Nutmeg will move on to advanced training to learn commands that are useful to a person with disabilities.