SMITHFIELD, R.I. (WPRI) — For nearly 13 years, Larry and Colleen Whelpley have made a difference in the lives of many by raising and training service dogs for the NEADS program.
NEADS World Class Service Dogs is a nonprofit organization that trains and matches dogs with people who need them, including those with hearing loss, children with autism and veterans that suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
“It does so much for people that end up being matched with the dog,” Larry Whelpley said. “It just changes their lives.”
The husband and wife are volunteer weekend puppy raisers that train each dog by bringing them to a variety of social settings.
“Each month we are exposing the dog to different environments, starting with just standing outside of a door all the way to taking to dog to grocery shopping,” Larry explained.
Throughout the week, the dog lives with an inmate at a local correction facility as part of the nonprofit’s Prison PUP Program.
Weekend puppy raisers will travel to the correction facility weekly to pick up the dog and are also required to attend training sessions at least once a month. They’re also responsible for filling out weekly and monthly progress reports on how the puppy is responding to the training.
“We realize we are part of that larger environment that helps these dogs go on to do a job that they are trained to do and they seem to really like to do their job,” Colleen Whelpley said.
Colleen and Larry both work on different training skills with their current puppy Amber. All of the dogs in the program will eventually learn about 50 commands in total.
The Whelpleys know firsthand the impact a service dog can have, especially after meeting someone who was matched with a dog through the NEADS program.
“He uses a wheelchair and he said, ‘Larry, before I got this dog I was just the invisible guy in the wheelchair out in public, people didn’t talk to me,'” Larry said. “‘Once I got this service dog out and about, people came up to me and they ask about the dog, they engage with me and it’s completely changed my life.'”
And for Larry, the NEADS program isn’t just about giving back. It also helps him stay active within the community.
“It’s really pushed me out into the world a little bit more instead of falling into a routine,” Larry said.
The NEADS program currently has 16 puppies that are ready to begin training. The nonprofit is actively looking not only for weekend puppy raisers, but also full-time puppy raisers, who are tasked with training the dog daily for up to 16 months.
Anyone who wants to volunteer to raise a puppy through the NEADS program can learn more about the commitment and apply online.