Can-Do Canines

By , Staff Writer
March 2013

You see them in the grocery store and on the street, wearing their jackets or harnesses. Guide dogs lead the blind and visually impaired. Hearing dogs alert their owners to sounds. Some service dogs assist the physically impaired. Mobility dogs provide stability for people who are unsteady on their feet. Medical-alert dogs can sense when their owners are about to have a seizure or experience a diabetic drop in their blood-sugar levels. Others check their owner’s foods for life-threatening allergens. Some assist owners who have autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kevin, on left with his puppy-raisers Dan and Barbara Shellist, and Jib, with his raiser Susan Peak, will return to Southeastern Guide Dogs in March.

Kevin, on left with his puppy-raisers Dan and Barbara Shellist, and Jib, with his raiser Susan Peak, will return to Southeastern Guide Dogs in March. (Photo:

A surprising number of service dogs get their start in Houston. Several Houston families volunteer to raise puppies for Southeastern Guide Dogs, a non-profit organization based in Palmetto, Florida.

Being a “puppy-raiser” is not for the faint of heart. “It’s like having a child,” says Buzz-neighborhood resident Barbara Shellist, who, with her husband Dan, is raising Kevin, a black and tan Labrador retriever. The application process alone can take six months. Once they have their puppy, puppy-raisers are required to be with the puppy, and bring the puppy everywhere, 24/7.

Puppy-raisers must constantly teach their puppies during the year they have them. “They need to stop in front of every door that you come to, every stair, every elevator,” says Wendy Polisini, who, with her son Sam, a junior at Bellaire High School, is currently raising Onyx, their third puppy for Southeastern. Puppy-raisers even teach their charges to relieve themselves on command.

Once the puppies are 14 months old, the families take them back to Southeastern in Florida – to leave them. Susan Peak will be taking her puppy, Jib, back in early March. “I’ll be bawling my eyes out,” she says. “But I always knew, from the first time they handed me this beautiful puppy, I’d have to give him back.”

Once back at Southeastern Guide Dogs, the puppies begin their serious training. By the end, they will even know how to be “intelligently disobedient,” disobeying commands that place their handler in danger.

Only about half of all Southeastern Guide Dogs become guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired, the most difficult kind of service work a dog can do. The rest become other kinds of service or therapy dogs or, failing that, are adopted, sometimes by their puppy-raisers.

Farley alerts owner Chris Patton Jr. when foods contain even a trace amount of peanuts. (Photo:

Farley alerts owner Chris Patton Jr. when foods contain even a trace amount of peanuts. (Photo:

As Chris Patton Jr., now 17, grew older, his mother, Debbie Patton, became increasingly concerned about his peanut allergy. “The time in their lives when people are most likely to die from their severe food allergies is between the ages of 14 and 25,” says Debbie.

Enter Farley, a “peanut dog” trained at Southern Star Ranch in Florence, Tx.

Chris and his parents have Farley smell any food they are unsure of. In addition to protecting Chris’s life, the family has found that Farley can detect minute amounts of peanut in foods they had previously thought safe. By avoiding these, Chris has found that other symptoms he hadn’t known were connected to his allergy, such as a skin condition, have disappeared.

“Having Farley has been incredibly reassuring,” says Chris, a senior at St. Thomas High School. Farley will be accompanying Chris to college.

Al Schwarz suffers from hearing loss. His dog Sam, a standard poodle trained by My Service Dog, alerts him to sounds such as the doorbell, the phone and sirens. Over the four years Schwarz, who is 70, has had Sam, he has also begun walking with a cane. He and Allie Keaton, Sam’s trainer, have taught Sam other skills, such as how to retrieve items and open doors.

“Sam is also my companion,” says Schwarz, who lives in Goldberg B’nai B’rith Towers, a residential community for senior citizens and mobility-impaired adults. “Before I had Sam, I knew maybe eight or ten people here. Now, people may not know my name, but everyone knows Sam’s.”

Buzz-neighborhood residents Gary and Linda Neubauer puppy-raised Feathers, a black Lab, for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Feathers went on to become a guide dog and was paired with a man who lived in Memphis. Sadly, the man died a little less than two years later. And his family gave Feathers back to the Neubauers.

These days, Feathers visits nursing homes and autistic children as a therapy dog. She has also taught the Neubauers’ other two dogs a few moves. “Now they all know how to let themselves back into the house,” says Gary.

For more information on service dogs

Southeastern Guide Dogs
This nonprofit organization specializes in training guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired and has an active group of puppy-raising volunteers in Houston.

My Service Dog
This small nonprofit organization, based in Texas, trains poodles and labradoodles to be service and hearing dogs.

Texas Hearing & Service Dogs
This nonprofit organization, located outside of Austin, trains dogs rescued from animal shelters to be service dogs for people with hearing and physical disabilities.
A division of South Star Ranch Boarding Kennel in Florence, Tx., trains dogs, rescued from shelters, to detect even trace amounts of peanuts and other allergens, such as eggs, in foods for people with severe food allergies.

Vets Helping Heroes
This Florida-based non-profit organization, founded by a 90-year-old World War II veteran, raises money to provide disabled veterans with service and therapy dogs.

  • Sue DeGraw Floyd

    My sister, Jan DeGraw-Higgins, Seminole, Florida has a guide dog from Southeastern Guide dogs. Pioneer was puppy raised by Sharon Vollers of Dickinson.   Pioneer is an amazing dog.  Pioneer works hard with the harness on and plays just as hard with the harness off!   Ms. Vollers is visiting Pioneer and my sister this weekend.  Jan is so excited and looking forward to the visit.Thanks to all of the puppy raisers.  Sue DeGraw Floyd

  • Danielle Stephens

    What a great story! I am looking into getting a Diabetes Alert Dog for myself!