Published On: Wed, Mar 26th, 2014

The Lions and the Lab

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Green Bank residents raising pup for Leader Dog program

After retiring from their business, Sheets GMC, in 2012, Charles and Carolyn Sheets decided they needed to find something that would keep them busy.

As active members of the Durbin Lions Club, the couple was familiar with the Leader Dog program which trains puppies to be service dogs. They did some research and decided to apply to be “puppy parents.”

“I think the turning point for Carolyn and I both was the leadership school because that’s when we met [Elkins Lion] Bill Collins,” Charles said. “Bill was there with his dog, and we talked to him for a good while. He just kind of started telling us about his experience of being up there [to Rochester Hills, Michigan].”

Collins is legally blind and received a service dog through the Leader Dog program.

After the rigorous application process, the Sheets brought home a black labrador retriever puppy on June 3.

Along with raising the pup, the Sheets are tasked with acclimating him to being around people and other animals, as well as teaching him the 13 commands he will use as a leader dog.
“They do not want us to punish him,” Carolyn said. “No collars that pinch or those shocking collars. They have found out that it might correct them at the time but once you stop using those, after awhile, they go back to their old ways. If you can do it without hurting them, then they won’t pull [on the leash].”

While he had a lot on his little puppy plate, the first thing the black lab needed was a name. The Sheets took him to a Lions Club meeting and asked the members to help choose the name since he was the first four-legged member of the club. Of course, they named him Durbin.

“Leader Dog prefers a two syllable name and something that doesn’t sound like one of his commands,” Carolyn said. “So they came up with Durbin.”

Now 11 months old, Durbin is a rambunctious pup, but he knows when to get into “work mode.”

“When we get to a left hinged door, he’s supposed to go around us go through the door from the right side,” Carolyn said. “He does that really well. He needs to know to go up and down stairs slowly. He has a tendency on coming down steps too fast, but he’s doing really well with that.”

Durbin has become a very social dog and goes with the Sheets almost everywhere, including church and hardware stores.

The training prepares Durbin to be a seeing eye dog, but if he doesn’t pass the rigorous test, it isn’t the end of the line for him.

“They have so many career changes for them,” Carolyn said. “If they don’t pass as a leader dog for the blind, which they have to be perfect, they can’t be a barking dog or do one thing wrong. So, they career change them and they’ve taken the dogs to court. If children have to testify in court and they won’t talk, they’ll talk to a dog.”

Leader Dog also has placement for drug dogs, bomb sniffing dogs and companion dogs.

Durbin began his life at the Leader Dog facility in Rochester Hills, Michigan. The facility places nearly 400 dogs a year with families who will raise them to be service dogs.

“Their mission is for blind people or visually impaired,” Carolyn said. “They’ve started a new program now in the last couple years for a person who is both deaf and blind. They have dogs that they train for that.”

The facility also utilizes prisoners to help raise dogs, which in turn rehabilitates the prisoners.

“They started ten years ago letting the prisoners raise dogs,” Carolyn said. “Less than fifty percent of the dogs raised by individuals make it as a leader dog. Sixty-five percent of dogs raised by prisoners make leader dogs. One of them said his saddest day was when they took his dog back.”

In a couple months, Durbin will return to Rochester Mills to complete his training.

“We take him back May 18,” Carolyn said. “The trainers keep him for four or five months and then they know whether he’s going to be a leader dog.”

If Durbin does not pass the leader dog test and does not have a career change, the Sheets have first option to adopt him. Carolyn said she wants to adopt him back if he doesn’t pass, but she thinks he will make it.

“He’ll be almost a year and a half when he finishes all the training,” she said. “Once they get them there, they really work those dogs. They have an outside area where they train them. They take them in heavy traffic and just do everything with them.”

Once Durbin passes the test, he and his new owner will attend a camp at Rochester Mills to get used to each other. He will then begin his career that will last between six and seven years.

“They’re only with the blind person six or seven years,” Carolyn said. “Because the dog is getting older, they want them in tiptop shape. Even then, if I want him, then I have a chance to adopt him then. They won’t use him for anything else.”

Although the task of raising a rambunctious pup has been a challenge, both Charlie and Carolyn say they want to do it again.

“I’d like to do it again,” Carolyn said. “If I get another one, I would hope he wouldn’t be this big and strong. If he decides to go – if he smells another dog – he gets away. He’s strong. It takes an awful lot of time and patience.”

For more information on the Leader Dog program, visit www.leaderdog.org

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com

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