Future service dogs visit Shepherd Center patients, facility dogs

Inside the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, it is puppy day.

Wearing yellow vests, Canine Companions for Independence puppies-in-training work the room, gently interacting with patients recovering from spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.

Julie Shepherd, the director of founding family relations and canine therapy lead for Shepherd Center, says the staff and patients have been looking forward to this visit.

"Today is a feel good day, but also gives the puppies and training socialization," Shepherd explains. "They get to see what it's like, eventually, when they'll be working dogs, either as a skilled companion, a service dog, or a facility dog."

It is also a chance for the little guys, raised by CCI Atlanta Chapter volunteers, to meet some of Shepherd Center's big dogs on campus.

"So, we have six facility dogs here at Shepherd, and they're all quite popular," Shepherd says. "They have their own baseball trading cards. The patients collect them."

The facility dogs have spent years in training, first with volunteers and then at Canine Companions Southeast Training Facility in Orlando, Florida.

"They have to know 35 to 40 commands," Shepherd says. "So, they come to work Monday through Friday. They have to see patients for at least 20 hours a week."

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Puppy day at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta thanks to Canine Companions for Independence. (FOX 5)

Shepherd is 3-year-old facility dog Lanza's handler.

"Lanza is a cuddle bug," she says. "His favorite thing is to get in bed with patients. So, we started out in the ICU. He loves to spend time with patients when they first get here and are critically ill, and then also goes to the floors and does rehab and walking and fetch and everything else."

Lanza is also exceptionally good at just hanging out with patients like Barry Liff, who is 700 miles from his home in Cleveland, Ohio, recovering from a spinal cord injury from a car accident.

As he speaks to us, he is petting Lanza.

"Yesterday, he actually was helping with therapy and licking my wounded hand," Liff says. "And, today, he's just being a comfort dog. It's just it makes you less anxious. It makes you it makes you get a good, good feeling."

Pamela Dunston is 13-month-old puppy-in-training North's puppy raiser.

He is her eleventh CCI puppy.

"He's got to be gentle," Dunston says. "He's got to do the commands that the individual asks of him, so that he can meet their needs. So, what we're doing today is polishing all of the commands that he has learned thus far."

For 23-year-old Tristen Prange, recovering from a traumatic brain injury suffered in a motorcycle accident September 8, 2022, the visit was a reminder of home, and his own dog Molly.

"It was good," Prange says. "I loved it."

Prange says the puppies make him Miss Molly.

"I love them, though," he smiles.

For North and some of the other puppies-in-training, this visit to Shepherd Center is one of their final stops before they head to Orlando in early February to begin their formal training.

"I think he is an amazing dog, and I am very excited to see what he can do in his future," Pamela Dunston says.

Barry Liff says there is no better medicine for his heart right now.

"Nothing better," Liff says. "You know, you have a hard day and all of a sudden the dog's lying next to you, and you just feel better. It's a good feeling."

Canine Companions volunteers say it takes about $50,000 to $60,000 to breed and train one CCI service dog.

The dogs are provided at no cost to the recipient.

You can read about Shepherd Center's six facility dogs by clicking here.

To learn more about Canine Companions for Independence, visit canine.org.