Raising puppies to serve others is labor of love

Laurel Kimbrough (left) and her daughter Margaret play with their puppy Chip who they are raising to be a service dog in their Atlanta home. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Caption
Laurel Kimbrough (left) and her daughter Margaret play with their puppy Chip who they are raising to be a service dog in their Atlanta home. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Navigating high school during a pandemic is difficult enough, but some metro area teens have taken on the added responsibility of training puppies for those in need.

Southeastern Guide Dogs provides guide dogs to visually impaired people and service dogs to veterans at no cost. Many of these work in the Atlanta area, said Teri Smith, Atlanta area coordinator and 10-year-volunteer for the group.

These dogs get their initial obedience training from volunteer puppy raisers. Of the nine puppy raisers in the metro area, three are high school students, and one is a third-year student at Georgia Tech who will be moving onto campus in the fall with her puppy, Indy.

These students “want to make the world a better place for other people, and raising a puppy is how they choose to do it,” Smith said.

Margaret Kimbrough, 15, of Atlanta, encouraged her family to become puppy raisers in 2019 after learning about it in Girl Scouts. They will soon get their third pup.

First, they raised Banks, Atlanta Braves sponsored yellow Labrador named in honor of legendary Braves usher Walter Banks. Margaret did most of the work, preparing ahead for the puppy, then 18 months of training, said her mom, Laurel Kimbrough.

“It was our first time doing anything like this and was definitely a learning process, but it was really fun and rewarding,” said Margaret, a sophomore at Grady High School.

Raisers put in the work by attending Saturday trainings with their pups twice a month, and taking them out among crowds to get used to various environments.

Margaret said her current pup, Chip, 14 months old, is determined and does well when he’s in his work vest.

“When we’re at home, he’s really playful. He loves to cuddle, and he loves attention. He’s a silly dog,” she said, laughing.

Margaret Kimbrough trains their puppy Chip who they are raising to be a service dog near her Atlanta home. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Caption
Margaret Kimbrough trains their puppy Chip who they are raising to be a service dog near her Atlanta home. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Chip is nearing the end of his time with the Kimbroughs and will go back to Southeastern’s Florida facility for advanced training this summer. That training will determine where the dog goes next.

Banks completed his advanced work last fall, and is now a guide dog for Steven Burns of Hilton Head Island. Burns has impaired vision and says Banks is already helping him to navigate during their daily walks. He said the Lab is affectionate and smart, and quickly figured out how to lead him safely across streets.

“I absolutely adore Banks,” Burns said, “I live alone, so it’s also nice he’s a companion for me. I feel very blessed.”

Steven Banks of Hilton Head Island with his yellow Lab guide dog, Banks, named after Atlanta Braves legendary usher Walter Banks. Banks was sponsored by the Atlanta Braves and raised as a puppy by an Atlanta family for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Photo contributed by Southeastern Guide Dogs
Caption
Steven Banks of Hilton Head Island with his yellow Lab guide dog, Banks, named after Atlanta Braves legendary usher Walter Banks. Banks was sponsored by the Atlanta Braves and raised as a puppy by an Atlanta family for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Photo contributed by Southeastern Guide Dogs

Due to COVID-19, the Kimbrough’s could only meet Burns via Zoom, but were glad to hear how he was getting along with his companion.

The Lab left the Kimbrough home when he was 18 months old, and saying goodbye was “the hardest part of the whole thing,” Margaret said.

“It was heartbreaking,” agreed her mom. “We love Banks so much but realizing how much he’s changed Steve’s life – that made it all so rewarding.”

One of Banks’ bothers, a yellow Lab named Hank – after Hank Aaron – was also sponsored by the Atlanta Braves. The Cerbone family of DeKalb County raised Hank as a puppy, and now he is the family’s pet. Hank went through advanced training but there was no match, and he was placed for adoption.

“We fell in love with Hank,” said Ed Cerbone. “He walked back into the house like he had never left.”

Cerbone’s 15-year-old daughter Maria is training the family’s second puppy, a black Lab named Charlie, as her Girl Scout Gold Award project.

The Ferentinos family in Sandy Springs is raising their third puppy, Greg, named for Atlanta resident Greg Seigel, a supporter of Southeastern Guide Dogs.

Raising puppies is a family project. Greg, a 5-month-old black Lab, just graduated from the initial level of training, said Sofia Ferentinos, a 16-year-old junior at Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs.

“He’s a very relaxed and cuddly puppy. He’s very driven, and he loves to learn new commands,” Sofia said.

Sofia Ferentinos takes her pup Greg out for a training session in Sandy Springs. This is the third puppy the Ferentinos family has raised for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Courtesy of Nina Ferentinos
Caption
Sofia Ferentinos takes her pup Greg out for a training session in Sandy Springs. This is the third puppy the Ferentinos family has raised for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Courtesy of Nina Ferentinos

Credit: NiNa Ferentinos

Credit: NiNa Ferentinos

The family also raised two yellow Labs, Ollie and Joey. A medical condition that affected Ollie’s eyesight kept him from becoming a guide dog. Joey is in training on the service dog team to support veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s inspiring to see the influence you can have on others’ lives by raising these puppies and how much good they can do in the world,” Sofia said. “It’s a lot of hard work and determination, but it’s also very fun to work with the dogs and see their personalities come through.”

MORE DETAILS ABOUT SOUTHEASTERN GUIDE DOGS

Breed, raise and train elite working dogs – including guide dogs, service dogs and skilled companion dogs.

● Guide and service dogs receive two years of training and 150 dogs are placed in careers each year.

● More puppy raisers are needed in metro Atlanta. For more information contact Atlanta Area Coordinator Teri Smith at acatlantapuppyraisers@gmail.com or visit www.guidedogs.org/volunteer/raise-a-puppy/

Margaret Kimbrough trains their puppy Chip who they are raising to be a service dog near her Atlanta home. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Caption
Margaret Kimbrough trains their puppy Chip who they are raising to be a service dog near her Atlanta home. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Joey, a yellow Lab, graduated from his puppy training in November 2020. Joey was raised as a puppy by the Ferentinos family of Sandy Springs. He is now in advanced training to serve veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Courtesy of Nina Ferentinos
Caption
Joey, a yellow Lab, graduated from his puppy training in November 2020. Joey was raised as a puppy by the Ferentinos family of Sandy Springs. He is now in advanced training to serve veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Courtesy of Nina Ferentinos

Credit: NiNa Ferentinos

Credit: NiNa Ferentinos