|Talulah taking a break from her training|
Because the facility breeds its own dogs, the puppies start their training early. At two days old--well before they can see or hear--the tiny pups are already being socialized. They begin their formal education when they are four weeks old, learning different textures and being exposed to sounds like thunder and vacuum cleaners and blow dryers.
At six weeks, puppies become part of the "Hug a Puppy" program. Visitors get the chance to play with the dogs in a supervised setting. What seems like fun is really an opportunity for the dogs to be exposed to new people who smell and sound and feel different from their trainers. I would love to go back and "help out" by participating in this program!
|Talulah figuring out a skateboard|
Despite what's bound to be a high level of attachment, the puppies are brought back to Palmetto at 16 months and "graduate" into the next level of the program. (They analogize the emotions a raiser feels to when you drop off your child at college.) The dogs go through extensive medical testing and behavioral assessments. Daily report cards are completed with notations about activity levels and obedience. It's all part of the process of making sure that the dogs are ready to be matched with a student and that the partnership will be a good one. Home visits are conducted with students as well to look at factors like walking pace and strength. Again, the goal is to gather as much information as possible to put together a compatible match between dog and owner.
|Champy is ready to partner with a student|
Week two of the training finds the teams in Bradenton for an urban walk. In week three, each student and dog cross a street in Tampa with eight lanes of traffic without any assistance from the handler. Accomplishing this daunting task is a prerequisite to going home.
Lifetime follow-up is provided for every student (including replacement dogs, as necessary). I neglected to mention that all of these services are provided to the students at no charge. Southeastern Guide Dogs operates exclusively through private donations.
Needless to say, I was highly impressed with Southeastern Guide Dogs' facility and programs. Information about tours, puppy hugging visits and speakers is available on their website. (Fees go towards buying the 44,000 pounds of dog food consumed each year.) A big thanks to Mary Frances Adair for organizing our eye-opening visit to this incredible facility.