After weeks of training, graduation day was finally here. With a pep in his step, Valor padded across the stage to receive his diploma and then posed for photos.
But Valor is no ordinary graduate. The 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix is an assistance dog specially trained by the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), and over the past two weeks, he’s been getting to know his new handler, Paul Monfre, as they both learn the skills they need to work together.
“It's life-changing for me because he's just amazing,” the 52-year-old of Long Island, New York, said of Valor. “He's the best thing that ever happened.”
It’s been a long road for Valor leading up to graduation. He received his initial training from puppy raisers Jennifer and Tom Newton of Richmond, Virginia, on behalf of CCI, which provides people in need with assistance dogs free of charge.
Then, on May 1,or Match Day as it’s called by CCI, Valor met Monfre to begin their training together at the organization’s facility on Long Island.
Monfre needs Valor to help him with everyday chores around the house like picking up things that fall or grabbing items too low to reach. Right now, Monfre doesn’t leave home much because he’s in too much pain.
Part of his pain stems from an injury sustained after he joined the military right out of high school. “I acquired a good back injury at that time, but I was young.” Monfre said. “I was 19 [or] 20, so I recovered from that.”
After three years in the military, he went to college before going on to become a New York City firefighter.
Then, 9/11 happened.
“I was off that day. After seeing it on the news, [I] called the firehouse and we ended up all going in. ... We took buses into Ground Zero,” Monfre recalled. “By the time I got there, the second building had already collapsed.
“We were there from 9:30 a.m. until the following morning. [It was] constant search and rescue. We did that every other day for about two weeks [or] three weeks.”
The constant work took its toll. That’s where Valor comes in.
“Working on 9/11, he has medical issues related to that: some fatigue, difficulty breathing,” CCI program coordinator Jessica Riess told InsideEdition.com. “And I think that Valor's really going to help him regain some of that stamina. I feel like this dog is really going to motivate him to get back to where he was before those things.”
After Monfre met Valor on Match Day, they immediately began training that included classroom work and lectures, as well as field trips. It’s during those two weeks that Monfre learned 40 commands as well as how to care for Valor as they become partners.
“Being able to give a command to get whatever fell is going to be extremely beneficial,” he said.
Training passed quickly. Two weeks after their introduction, Valor laid on the floor next to Monfre at his graduation breakfast. That’s where Monfre met the Newtons for the first time as they bid farewell to the dog they had raised from puppyhood.
“We're a little bit sad,” Jennifer admitted, though she knows it’s important for Valor to move on.
The graduation was held at the Genesis Center in Medford on Long Island. Friends and family members filled the auditorium as each four-legged graduate was honored on stage one at a time.
While Valor will now live with Monfre, CCI retains ownership of the canine and the other dogs in the program throughout their working lives. There are annual recertifications that allow the staff to check in with Valor and make sure there are no problems.
“I'm glad that the two weeks is up,” Monfre said of his experience. “I learned a lot, but now I get to spend good quality time with Valor.”
Post-graduation will be “different,” he noted. “We've been going to school here, but now, it could be going to the beach, running with him and long walks.”
While it will be challenging to be on their own at first, Monfre said he can’t wait to venture out into the world with his new best friend.
“I'm looking forward to months, years to come.”