Shepherd Facility Dog Helps Brain Injury Survivors

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His name is Barboza. Trained by Canine Companions for Independence, the largest and oldest service dog provider in the U.S., the 3-year old golden/lab mix knows over 40 commands. But Barboza's real gift is that he accepts you, no matter where you are in life. And, for Shepherd Center patients trying to come back from a brain injury, that acceptance is huge.

Danny Wilburn, 60, approaches Barboza, his physical therapy partner, gently, clearly happy to see him. The Knoxville engineer remembers the first time he saw the Shepherd Center facility dogs.

Wilburn says, "I thought it was beautiful. I just want to be around them."

The feeling seems to be mutual.  Shepherd Center exercise specialist Mary Ashlyn Theide, Barboza's working partner says, "He's really friendly. He loves everybody he comes in contact with."

But Barboza, is here to work, so they head out to the hallway, to play fetch. Theide says, "He can probably play fetch for about 3 to 4 hours without stopping."

Danny's situation is more delicate. He was riding his motorcycle this spring, when he suffered a stroke and crashed, leaving him with a brain injury so severe, he was in a coma for six weeks.

When he got to Shepherd Center, Danny couldn't speak, or stand, or walk. Now, he's balancing, reaching, throwing the tennis ball, telling Barboza, "Go, get it, go get it!" Wilburn says, "He's smart. And he does what you tell him to. He fetched the ball.  And he sits."

This is Barboza's job. He works and lives with Mary Ashlyn Thiede. She says, "When I get into the parking lot at work, he definitely calms down and then when we leave, and I take his vest off, he's just a totally different dog. He's pretty wild actually."

But here at Shepherd Center, Barboza is able to make the journey back from a brain injury - a little bit easier. Thiede says, "I think a lot of people, when they come to Shepherd, they don't have a lot to look forward to. A lot of times they're really sad, or depressed, or have anxiety."

Danny says the dogs sense that.  He says, "They know, they know."

Thiede says, "He knows when people are extra delicate and he needs to be gentle with them, and he knows when he can be rough."

Barboza went through 9 months of intense formal training with Canine Companions for Independence, learning over 40 commands, getting comfortable with strangers. Thiede says, "In their training they get tons of hands on, and they get really used to people touching them."

So Barboza has no problem letting Chris Kelly, a Snellville software engineer and father of two, take off his vest and comb his coat, working on his fine motor skills. Kelly says, "I'm coming back from a stroke, about a little over a year ago."

Kelly was just 33 when he came to Shepherd Center, he says, "I was barely walking, walking with assistance."

He had no movement in his right hand, the one he's now using to brush Barboza. He says, "Over the course of a year, it's night and day, where it's gotten to.  Day by day, minute by minute, but I've just got to keep pushing."

Barboza, on the other hand, is barely awake. Kelly says, "It's a little bit better than playing with my kids, because he, at least, listens."

He even lets Chris brush his teeth - with peanut butter toothpaste.  And then, just like that, Barboza's workday is over. He and Mary Ashlyn head home. Tomorrow, they'll be back to do it all over again.

Barboza is one of four Shepherd Center facility dogs trained by CCI. He and Galion work with brain injury patients. The other two dogs, Bentley and Frosty, work with spinal cord injury survivors.

Canine Companions DogFest Walk 'n Roll Atlanta will be held October, 3, 2015 at Woodward Academy in College Park or more information on the fundraiser, visit

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