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Eyes Ears Nose and Paws program trains dogs to assist handicapped

Program trains dogs to sniff out problems

Carla Shuford of Chapel Hill plays with Mac, an 11-month-old Golden Retriever assistance dog. Shuford came to the Eyes Ears Nose and Paws open house to check out the program and see if she could qualify for an assistance dog. Mac was her overwhelming favorite.

Carla Shuford of Chapel Hill watched as a 7-month-old Golden Retriever used her sense of smell to detect a high blood sugar saliva sample, signal a handler, fetch an aid kit and dial a single-button phone.

The retriever — named Stella — is a service and diabetic assistance dog in training as a part of the Carrboro-based organization Eyes Ears Nose and Paws.

Shuford, who is without one of her legs, said she was fascinated by the dogs’ abilities and hoped she could qualify for the program.

“I’m more compatible with a dog than with a man,” she said.

As program director of the group, Deb Cunningham trains the service dogs and is now working to become the first East-Coast trainer to teach dogs to detect high levels of blood sugar.

Seeking more volunteers to accomplish this goal, the organization held an open house and live demonstration Saturday afternoon.

The groups’s Chief Executive Officer Maria Ikenberry said finding “puppy parents” for service dogs is an important step in their training process, and the open house served as an opportunity to connect potential foster parents, owners and dogs.

While the group could use kenneling, Cunningham and Ikenberry are looking for more foster parents because living with people helps the dogs socialize.

“We want them to be in real homes to have real love,” said Ikenberry, who founded the group in 2008 after realizing no similar organizations existed in the area.

Chapel Hill residents and proud puppy parents Leigh and Charlene Hayes currently foster a dog and said raising service dogs is a wonderful experience.

Leigh Hayes said the group’s latest dog came from the pound before it was recruited for the program.

“Now he’ll be in training to help someone with disabilities, and volunteers will be able to love him,” he said.

The service dogs cost $20,000 each, which Ikenberry says covers the price of the dog and its training as well as several other costs.

She said the group works with candidates who need financial assistance through planning initiatives like fundraisers.

Chapel Hill resident Nancy Kiplinger attended the open house in hopes of someday being able to render her services as a foster parent.

“I love the fact that the dog is here to help, but it’s also an incomparable companion,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine a better way to help the handicapped.”

Becoming a foster parent requires an 18-month commitment where volunteers help the dogs become acclimated to public locations like schools, offices and restaurants.

Ikenberry said she would be interested in recruiting UNC graduate students to become foster parents because they can provide the dogs with a variety of experiences outside the home.

“We would love to have more graduate students and to encourage the opportunity to have a dog,” she said.

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