By Amy Sacks / DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Saturday, December 18, 2010, 4:00 AM
Legendary child starlet Margaret O’Brien was just a normal 3-year-old when she landed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post with her cocker Spaniel-mix, Maggie.
“He said, ‘That’s just the face we’re looking for,’ but he was talking about my dog,” the actress said recently, recalling the fateful day in 1944 when she and her pup were discovered at a Los Angeles theater where her mother was dancing flamenco.
The photo spread caught the attention of MGM Studios, which cast her in a one-minute role in “Babes on Broadway” and then a starring role in “Journey for Margaret.” Judy Garland sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” to O’Brien in her role as Tootie in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Unlike many child stars, O’Brien, who was born Angela Maxine O’Brien, was never in trouble in her teens or later, for which she credits her single mother – and the companionship of her dogs.
“I was never alone. I never got lost,” said O’Brien, who recently lost her elderly German shepherd.
Today, the Hollywood icon is helping make sure that dozens of kids with special needs can also benefit from a canine companion.
“All children deserve the opportunity to grow toward an independent life,” O’Brien said, at a recent benefit at the Forbes Galleries in Manhattan to benefit Canine Companions for Independence.
A fund-raising initiative helps raise sorely needed money for the national nonprofit organization, which breeds, trains and places assistance dogs with children and adults with disabilities other than blindness.
The money would help provide service dogs to the 39 children currently on the waiting list in the Northeast. There are currently 116 kids across the country waiting for dogs.
Each assistance dog costs $50,000 from training to placement. CCI never charges for a dog, and relies strictly on donations to financially support its efforts.
Debra Dougherty, executive director of the group’s northeast regional office, based in Medford, L.I., said raising the millions needed is a daunting task, but one well worth the effort.
The dogs help kids with disabilities lead more independent lives by performing tasks such as retrieving fallen objects, turning light switches on/off, and are social icebreakers and help eliminate isolation. “They become the kids with the cool dog,” Dougherty said.
For the last six years, Joanna Benthal, from Jamesport, L.I., has relied on her golden retriever mix Taffy to help her with daily tasks. The 14-year-old, who has undergone 76 surgeries for a congenital brain condition, also relies on Taffy to relieve her social anxiety, said her mom Eileen.
The dogs are bred near Santa Rosa, Calif., home of the organization’s national headquarters. At eight weeks, they are taken to one of five regional centers and eventually placed with volunteer puppy raisers.
All of the dogs are golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers or a mix of the two breeds.
Puppy raisers keep their charges for about 18 months and are responsible for teaching basic commands and socializing the dogs with the public.
The dogs then begin six to nine months of intensive training at the regional sites, learning about 50 oral commands.
O’Brien became involved with the organization after spotting a dog helping a man in a wheelchair to board a bus in Los Angeles.
“It makes such a difference in someone’s life,” she said.
To make a donation to Canine Companions for Independence or get information, visit www.cci.org.
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