Sunday, November 1, 2015

Visiting Southeastern Guide Dogs, Part 2

Talulah taking a break from her training
Southeastern Guide Dogs "employs the latest in canine development and behavior research to create and nurture partnerships between visually impaired individuals and extraordinary guide dogs." During our visit, we had the chance to meet two dogs -- Talulah, a 12-week old puppy in training, and Champy, a graduate ready to team up with a visually impaired student. 

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
Around the ten week mark, the dogs are sent home with a puppy trainer. In order to partner with a visually impaired person, the dogs have to know what's out there in the world. Being a puppy trainer sounds like fun, but it's also a big responsibility. There's a 200 page manual to help trainers work with their dogs on the skills they need to develop. Trainers and their dogs meet twice a month with other teams and folks from Southeastern Guide Dogs to give progress reports and get support. (There are 29 different puppy training areas across the Southeastern United States, so it's not necessary to live in Southwestern Florida to participate.)  At 16 weeks, the puppies are given a blue guide dog vest, and trainers start taking their dogs with them to the grocery store and doctor and football games. The idea is to expose the puppy to any experience it might have with its owner. 

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
Students arrive at the campus more or less monthly for their own training. They settle into the dorms for 26 days during which they live and work with their guide dogs. After a couple of days of getting to know their new best friends, the students head out to Freedom Walk with their dogs (and, of course, handlers to help every step of the way). Trust is established as the students work up from a straight path to a curving path to obstacles like bridges and hoses snaked across the road. They walk in areas with 17 different textures, from gravel to sand to concrete to grass. 

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.


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