“We really try to focus on obedience during our training. We’re trying to set the foundation for other groups,” Shepard said. Sarah is the fifth dog that Shepard has co-raised. She keeps the puppy for one week, then it stays with another worker for a week to get more exposure to different people and a different atmosphere. The puppy raisers teach basic commands, house manners and reinforce good behavior with treats and toys. “We always say they live a year in our homes, but forever in our hearts,” Shepard said, and mentioned that about 70 percent of puppy raisers will repeat the experience and agree to take a second one. Suzy Wilburn is the director of admissions at Southeastern Guide Dogs, and is also a graduate of the facility. She was diagnosed in 2000 with a genetic disorder called Stargardt’s disease, a form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration that causes vision loss to the point of legal blindness. “I was playing in a national soccer league when I was diagnosed, and I went through some very depressed times. I didn’t want to leave my house,” Wilburn said. Her therapist suggested she contact Southeastern Guide Dogs, but she didn’t feel she was impaired enough. She thought other people with more severe needs deserved the guide dogs more. Then she learned about a position opening up at the organization and decided to apply. She started working as an intern in the kennels and eventually worked her way up to admissions director. Then she was matched up with Carson, her Labrador guide dog. “He literally changed my life. I am so much happier. I’m a completely different person now. He turned me into a whole new individual,” she said. Wilburn said she tremendously enjoys her job since she has personally been through the experience. “I know what it’s like to make that call and ask for help. I’ve been there. I’m just so glad to help to give this gift to others, and then to see the joy they experience when they’re matched with a dog. By the time they leave the facility with their new companion, they are so much more confident,” she said. Puppy raiser Steve Herda said the experience is like nothing else he’s ever done. He retired eight years ago and found it left him with too much time on his hands. A few years ago he read an article in a newspaper about Southeastern Guide Dogs and decided that he wanted to get involved. After visiting the campus and learning more, he committed to working with one of the trainable puppies. “They give you a directional book and a DVD that shows you how to teach basic commands, then the dog goes back to the campus for what I call ‘college,’ where they receive heavy-duty training, and prove they can handle high-traffic and metropolitan 33 Above, the baby puppies stay with their mother until they are four weeks old. More than 250 are bred each year. At right, on the grounds are various walking paths made of different materials to familiarize the puppies to the different types of terrain they may encounter in the real world.
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