Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Visiting Southeastern Guide Dogs, Part 1

All of us have seen a guide dog leading a blind person out in the world. But have you ever thought about what's involved in training these dogs or preparing their owners to give up their white canes? My visit to Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto was an eye-opening experience. 

An incredible amount of information was crammed into our 90 minute tour.  Here are some of the highlights:
--The school was founded in 1982 by a husband and wife team. It is one of ten guide dog training facilities in the country. The 35 acre campus in Palmetto includes kennels, training facilities, a veterinarian hospital and dorms for the students.
--Three breeds of dog are trained: Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and goldadors (a blend of Labrador and golden).  The dogs are bred at the school.  (When not "working," the breeder dogs live with a volunteer family.) The average litter size is seven puppies; the largest has been 14.  Approximately 250 puppies are born into the program annually.  Naming rights for a puppy can be yours for a $5,000 donation. 
--Each year the school graduates approximately 100 teams of dogs and students. The facility is in expansion mode and will soon up that number to 120 teams per year.  Over the life of the school, more than 2,800 dogs and students have been paired. 
--The cost of a guide dog is $60,000. This includes both training and lifetime medical care. The school's annual budget is approximately $25 million. 
--The Paws for Independence program is the traditional guide dog program. The school also has a Paws for Patriots program that matches dogs with veterans who have brain injuries or suffer from PTSD.  The school's Canine Connections program matches dogs with kids age 10-17 who are blind or are losing their sight. The primary purpose of this program is to teach the child how to care for a pet. 
--The school has seen an explosion of demand for dogs working with vets. Some dogs are matched with individual veterans; others work in a facility. Dogs have a finely tuned sense of smell due to the huge number of receptors in their noses and throats (300 million to a human's 5 million). This is why dogs can sniff out not only drugs or bombs but some cancers, anxiety and oncoming diabetic attacks. When at a veterans' facility, dogs often seek out individuals who are suffering from stress, thus alerting the staff that a patient might need some extra attention.
--The school likes to say that its dogs choose their own career paths. Approximately 40% of the dogs graduate and become guide dogs. Another 20% go into one of the school's other programs.  Some dogs undergo a "career change" and become police dogs. Others go into the breeding program or become ambassadors.  A small group of dogs decide to be regular pets.
--The career span of a guide dog is eight-nine years.  

While this information is interesting, it doesn't begin to capture the experience of being on campus and seeing the dogs themselves.  Stay tuned for a post about what's involved in the training program, including our own visit with the ridiculously cute 12-week old Talulah. 

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