Durbin Lions Club members Charles and Carolyn Sheets, of Green Bank, applied to be puppy raisers for Leader Dog for the Blind after they retired. Here, they are shown with the first pup they raised for the program. He was aptly named Durbin. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Sheets

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

The dog has long been called, “man’s best friend.”

As we learn more about how they help those with disabilities and serious ailments, that saying is proving to be truer than we ever imagined.

Service dogs can be trained to assist people with physical issues such as blindness, mobility impairments of the upper or lower limbs, Cerebral Palsy and spinal cord injuries.

They are partnered with people suffering with cardiac and respiratory issues, diabetes and muscular dystrophy.

Dogs are trained to be alert to seizures and cardiac episodes.

They assist their human partners who have Parkinson’s Disease, loss of limbs, arthritis, vertigo, ALS, multiple sclerosis, spinal bifida and those who have neurological challenges such as dementia, Alzheimers, brain damage, brain tumor, stroke and Down Syndrome.

There are programs which train dogs to specifically serve veterans.

The partnership with a trained service dog can make all the difference in a person’s life, and it takes a team of dedicated people to get that service dog ready to be a partner.

Service dogs are professionally trained to do their tasks repeatedly and dependably. Pocahontas County field trainer, Jeanne Bell works with 16 month old Ada. L.D. Bennett photo

Pocahontas County resident Jeanne Bell has been a field trainer for Saint Francis Service Dogs since 2012.

Saint Francis is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to assist children and adults with disabilities through partnership with a professionally trained service dog. And these dogs are provided free of charge.

The organization accepts service dog applications from communities within a three-hour driving radius of their campus in the outskirts of Roanoke, Virginia.

Saint Francis primarily uses Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, Goldendoodles and Labradoodles, and has placed dogs with partners as young as three years old. In a case like that, the parent, rather than the child, is the handler.

Jeanne and George Bell have a French Brittany and, for the last seven years, they’ve also shared their home with a Saint Francis service dog.

Jeanne has trained four dogs in the Saint Francis advanced training program.

Her first service dog success story was Jip, a black lab who graduated with flying colors and was matched with an adult partner who had multiple sclerosis.

“Jip’s sweet companionship and extensive skill set help her partner all day, every day,” Jeanne said.

Her next two trainees were “career-changed.”

If a dog is “career changed,” the puppy raisers get the first chance to adopt them.

If not, they go on a list of dogs available for adoption.

“Our service dogs are free, but there is a charge for our career-change dogs,” she adds.

The adoption fee is $1,000, which goes toward the expenses of the program,” Jeanne said.

“Just as there’s a list of people waiting to be partnered with a service dog, there’s a long list of people who want our career-changed dogs.”

Jeanne is currently training Ada, a beautiful, 16 month old yellow lab.

As she steps into a local restaurant, Ada is walking confidently at her side and, as Jeanne takes a seat, Ada slips quietly under the table to lie at her feet.

Ada may only be about halfway through her advanced training period, but she is already a well-behaved dog.

“Ada’s job is to be invisible – not to draw attention to herself,” Jeanne said.

“She’ll be going everywhere with her partner, and she has to be inconspicuous and completely focused on her partner’s needs, no matter what the circumstances.

“After all, our dogs go everywhere with their partners – to school, work, church, grocery shopping, a play or the movies.
“We need her to always be focused on her partner.”

And Ada is focused. Unless she’s told to lie down and rest, her eyes rarely stray from Jeanne’s face.

Saint Francis is not a part of a large, national organization but they are the largest service dog organization in Virginia, and the first in Virginia to be accredited by Assistance Dogs International. 

It takes two years and $25,000 to obtain, raise, train, and place a single Saint Francis Service Dog.

The organization operates without government funds or insurance reimbursements.

They depend on private donations, grants and fundraisers. 

Saint Francis service dogs are taught a wide range of commands in order to assist in the activities of daily living.

A 1993 study showed that 90 percent of mobility impaired service dog owners reported being more independent and less lonely after receiving a service dog.

The study also found that 75 percent of all service dog owners said that relationships with friends, community and family improved after receiving a service dog. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 protects the rights of people using service dogs and allows them to bring their dogs into all public and private places which are open to the general public.

“These days we hear a lot about emotional support animals,” Jeanne said. “And you may see a lot of dogs out there wearing vests.

“If the vest says “Please ask to pet,” it is not a service dog trained by an accredited program.

If it’s a service dog from an accredited program, the vest will always read “Please do not pet.”

The drive to Roanoke is a challenging part of the program. Jeanne has to travel there once a week for training meetings.
But, she obviously finds the job rewarding.

“I want to do this forever,” she said.

One of the other service dog organizations that has ties to our county is Leader Dogs for the Blind of Rochester Hills, Michigan.

After raising Durbin who didn’t become a leader dog, but has become a very nice pet, Carolyn and Charles Sheets became puppy raisers again and brought home Reo. Above, the couple and Reo attend a Lions Club conference and discuss the Leader Dog for the Blind program. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Sheets

Anyone in the Durbin Lions Club or the Marlinton Lions Club is more than happy to explain the close relationship between Lions Club International and Leader Dogs for the Blind.

The Lions also support the Pilot Dog program in Ohio – an organization which trains service dogs for people with all kinds of disabilities, not just blindness.

Lions Clubs International is a global leader in serving the blind or visually impaired. Lions have long been known as the Knights of the Blind.

Lions Clubs have supported Leader Dogs for the Blind since it was founded in 1939.

The organization trains dogs for clients who are legally blind, at least 16 years old, have good orientation and mobility skills and are able to care for a dog.

Training is personalized for each client, and the right dog is selected to suit the clients’ lifestyle, travel pace, physical size and stamina.

There is no charge to the client to receive a Leader Dog for the Blind, and they use breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German shepherds and Labrador/Golden Retriever crosses.

When the dog is six or seven years old, the client can decide to keep the dog, and they are given another dog – free of charge.

Green Bank residents and members of the Durbin Lions Club, Charlie and Carolyn Sheets have trained two service dogs for Leader Dogs for the Blind.

Lions like Charlie and Carolyn step forward to act as Leader Dog Chairs in their districts, or as puppy raisers and hosts for the program’s breeding stock dogs.

“When we retired from Sheets GMC, we decided to get involved,” Carolyn explained.

“We had to have something to get us up in the morning,” Charlie added.

“We decided to apply to be puppy raisers. And we really enjoyed doing it.

“Of course, it’s not easy.

“You’re never off duty. You keep them for a year and teach them thirteen or fourteen commands.”

Not every training is successful.

“It’s a strenuous program,” Carolyn said. “Less than half of the pups raised for the program actually make it into the program.”

Neither of the puppies Charlie and Carolyn raised made it into the program.

Their first dog, named Durbin, was a Black Labrador.

He failed to make it into the advanced training program, and the couple decided to keep him, so Durbin is still a member of the Sheets family.

The second puppy they raised was named Reo, a Golden Retriever and Yellow Lab cross.

Reo didn’t make it into the program either, so he’s now living in Rochester Hills as someone’s pet.

Charlie and Carolyn made countless trips back and forth to Rochester Hills to learn how to be puppy raisers and trainers.

It was not an easy proposition.

And the distance between Pocahontas County and Rochester Hills was a issue.

When training problems had to be dealt with, the professional trainers were far away.

Charlie and Carolyn had to deal with common behavioral problems that all dog “parents” face. They needed a puppy counselor with the program to help them train one of the pups not to chase squirrels and birds.

“The disadvantage was that we had to drive to Michigan once a week for training sessions,” Carolyn explained. “I think if we’d have lived closer, both our dogs might have made it into the program.”

Puppy raising required taking each dog with them everywhere.

They exposed the dogs to as many different situations as possible.

“We took them everywhere with us,” Charlie said. “They had to experience city traffic and stores with lots of hustle and bustle.

“Here in Pocahontas County, we took our pups to the library and the Observatory.

“We often went to Cass to get them used to lots of people and the noise of the train,” Carolyn added.

“When we started, I thought, ‘how can you give up a puppy after raising it?’

“But when you see a client working with the dog, you know right away why you’re doing it. It’s very rewarding,” Carolyn insisted.

The couple always enjoys talking to people about Leader Dogs for the Blind.

They both agree – “it’s a wonderful program.”

Anyone interested in Saint Francis Service Dogs may contact them at saintfrancisdogs.org 

For Leader Dogs for the Blind, contact https://www.leaderdog.org

Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at ldb@pocahontastimes.com

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