Michigan 4-H and Leader Dogs for the Blind celebrate the legacy of Nan Nellenbach with re-launch of 4-H Leader Dog Program

Michigan 4-H and Leader Dogs for the Blind reignited their partnership with a kick-off event on March 9. As part of the celebration, former Michigan 4-H volunteer Nan Nellenbach was posthumously honored for her 40 year commitment to the program.

Nan with a retriever puppy.

Michigan 4-H is once again partnering with Leader Dogs for the Blind, an organization that pairs blind and visually impaired individuals with a service dog for safe and independent daily travel. Through the Michigan 4-H dog project, 4-H families can temporarily home a puppy before returning them to the program at 13 months old.

A previously strong partnership, Michigan 4-H and Leader Dogs for the Blind reignited their successful collaboration with a kick-off event on March 9 at the Leader Dog for the Blind campus in Rochester Hills. The event was attended by more than 100 individuals both in person and online, where the event was live streamed. As part of the celebration, former Michigan 4-H volunteer Nan Nellenbach was posthumously honored for her 40-year commitment to the program. 

“We are so excited to rejuvenate the 4-H puppy program for Leader Dogs for the Blind,” said Melissa Doubek, Nellenbach’s daughter. “My mother’s passion was raising dogs for leader dogs and promoting the 4-H puppy program.”

Nan with dogs

Nellenbach’s interest in leader dogs stemmed from her father’s visual impairment, which resulted from a childhood accident. She grew up with a German shepard and was constantly reading about dogs. Ultimately, Nellenbach’s love of dogs and desire to help others led the North Branch native to apply to raise puppies for the Leader Dogs for the Blind program. Nellenbach was finally given the chance to do so in 1976 through a partnership with Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H, and she never looked back. Throughout her many years with the program, Nellenbach raised 50 puppies, a record number for Leader Dogs for the Blind and an achievement only reached by one other puppy raiser.

Growing up with puppies in the house, Nellenbach’s five children have fond memories of the program. Doubek could not recall a time in her childhood without puppies.

“They were just a part of our life and they were with us everywhere.”

People in their small town accepted the puppies as well, referring to Nellenbach lovingly as the "dog lady." The family even marched in parades to promote the program and expose the puppies to large crowds and noise.

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“Mom was an excellent seamstress, so she sewed several dog costumes for us to wear during the parades,” Doubek recalled. “My family vividly remembers wearing the hot, sweaty dog costumes.”

Nellenbach’s unwavering passion and commitment to raising future leader dogs taught her children many life lessons; they were ready to help in any way needed. Families who train puppies in the leader dog program raise a puppy from six weeks through 13 months old when the dogs are returned to Rochester Hills to complete guide dog training. Doubek noted the focus of purpose, meaning that you become attached to the dog, pour your heart and soul into the process, and in the end, you hope that those efforts lead to the dog’s success.

“You may never meet the beneficiary of your efforts,” Doubek said. “That noble effort is not for recognition, but rather the knowledge that your work is going to help someone in need.”

In addition to puppy raising, families can also host breeding dogs, which Nellenbach took on in 1990.

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“Mom definitely had a personal relationship with every dog that was born in our home,” Doubek said. “She would many times stay up all night to help birth the puppies and make sure that they were able to nurse. Every puppy would receive a special name and she would cut small pieces of fur, so she could keep track of the puppies by name.”

Though Nan Nellenbach passed away in 2017, her many contributions to Michigan 4-H and the Leader Dogs for the Blind Program have continued to impact others. Of the 50 puppies she raised, 49 became successful leader dogs, empowering people who are blind or visually impaired with independence.

“Mom’s unselfish example of helping those in need has left a legacy of kids and grandchildren that all give back in their own ways,” Doubek said. “She was a humble woman, who passionately followed her heart to contribute her talents to those in need through the Leader Dogs puppy program.”

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Following the program launch, six individuals affiliated with 4-H have already reached out to begin the process of fostering a leader dog puppy. Additional individuals who are interested in following Nellenbach’s example with Michigan 4-H can visit the Leader Dogs for the Blind website at www.leaderdog.org or contact Kristi Schreiber, Michigan 4-H companion animal contact, at schrei61@msu.edu.

To learn more about volunteering with Michigan 4-H, visit the Become a 4-H Volunteer website. To learn more about enrolling in 4-H, visit the Michigan 4-H website.

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