By Tanya Silverman
All photos courtesy of Southeastern Guide Dogs.
You’ve probably recognized guide dogs at work in public at some point or another and admired both their enhancement of and commitment to human lives. But I would guess you aren’t as familiar with the amount of time and training that must be invested in these creatures before they can perform such duties.
“We begin all of our training right from birth,” says Jennifer Bement of Southeastern Guide Dogs. “All of the dogs are born here on campus and we start handling them immediately so that they get used to human touch.”
Active since 1982, Southeastern Guide Dogs of Palmetto, Florida, is set up on a 35-acre campus, and is the only accredited guide dog school in the Southeastern region of the United States. Breeding their very own Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and goldadors (a hybrid between the two respective retrievers), this organization implements an intensive, extensive, and regimented course to successfully transform these newborn puppies into highly trained guide dogs.
Bement explains that the “puppy education” starts when the dogs reach about two weeks of age: trainers begin to expose them to different sights, sounds, and surfaces. These young dogs are taken to interact with new textures like gravel, as well as figure out how to navigate through challenging settings, such as by walking over a teeter-totter.
Because it is a guide dog’s responsibility to monitor foreign objects that could potentially knock into their respective humans’ heads, the trainers make sure to train the puppies to be aware of obstacles from above, ensuring that they become completely cognizant of all their surroundings.
When the canine trainees are around six weeks old, they go through the process of “puppy hugging.” Those interested in animal affection can register to visit Southeastern’s campus and help socialize the puppies, which acclimates them to being around various types of people, and their unique personal scents, sounds, and motions.
At approximately 9-10 weeks of age, the time comes for the dogs to leave campus and move into their raisers’ homes. Volunteers from all over the southeastern US welcome the training puppies into their domestic spheres, and also take them out for exposure to many types of territories and situations.
“They take these dogs on planes, trains, automobiles, to work, to school, to the movies, to church – anywhere where they can get exposure to something they might encounter later on in life,” says Bement.
The raisers house the dogs for about a year to a year and a half, until they are ready to bring them back to campus. Giving up a dog can be difficult, but it is a reality that volunteers know about from the beginning.
Back at Southeastern, the dogs are transferred to the “assessment kennel” for the following three to four weeks, to get readjusted to the campus and be evaluated by trainers. Once they are used to their surroundings, the dogs are separated into groups of two to five and certified guide dog trainers begin to work with them for the next six months. During this process, the dogs must master skills like walking with a harness or alerting of elevation changes that could pose a tripping hazard for the visually impaired.
Finally, the dogs are “class ready” and are set to be matched up with the incoming group of visually impaired students. Hailing from all over the United States, by the time these students enter the Florida campus, Southeastern has already reviewed and selected them out of a number of applications, interviews, and home visits to be adequately assessed by trainers to ensure a proper canine pairing.
Each group of students lives on campus for 26 days and learns how to work and bond with the designated dog. During this period, Southeastern arranges trips for the humans and dogs to different regional cities so that they can interact in public.
“It will culminate when they go up to Tampa and cross eight lanes of traffic,” says Bement of this daunting, but necessary step.
By the time the dogs leave with their new visually impaired humans, they will have been trained in “intelligent disobedience.” Meaning, if the dog is given a command that may put itself or others into danger, it will know to disobey the order. For instance, if the dogs are told to cross the street when a quiet vehicle is approaching, they must know how to stay put.
“It costs about $60,000 to put together a guide dog team and provide follow-up care throughout their lives,” says Bement. “But the people that receive dogs from us pay nothing for the dog or the training during the 26 days they live here.”
For the canine candidates that do not make it through the complex, involved steps of guide dog training, Southeastern Guide Dogs is responsible for determining a job in which the these animals can excel — whether it is being a facility therapy dog that raises spirits in physical therapy rooms, a canine connection dog that bonds with visually-impaired children and teenagers, or an ambassador dog that represents the organization at different schools and clubs.
One option for brave, empathetic dogs is to become a veteran service dog: these help mitigate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such service dogs are trained to step between the veteran and other people at times when personal space must be enforced. They also monitor whether someone is approaching the veteran from behind.
Veteran service dogs are taught to execute a “hug command” if the person is experiencing a flashback or any other trouble with their environment by placing their paws on the veteran’s shoulders to ensure stability until he or she has calmed down.
From guiding the visually impaired to educating the public to encouraging veterans, many avenues exist for these selectively bred and highly trained canines to help and enrich human lives.
“There are a lot of people out there that wish we could take rescue dogs and train them, but the process starts right at birth,” says Jennifer Bement. “Plus we know the background of every dog that we breed.”
She acknowledges that caring members of the public make Southeastern Guide Dogs all possible.
“The only way we can do the things that we do is through the generosity of the community, it’s all based on donations.”