It was quite by accident that I came to know about Troy, a guide dog, and his handler, Helen. Troy was recognized for his service in the workplace via a Twitter contest; I thought the least I could do for such a great dog is create a custom keychain for him, so I reached out to the Media Relations Director, Jennifer Bement, at Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto (near Tampa), Florida.
But I was the one who really made out!
I had scant knowledge about the incredible work that guide dogs are trained to perform, and certainly no sense of the dedication, purpose and experience of the organizations that train them.
Most importantly, I had no idea about the special bond that certainly must develop between a guide dog and handler.
Here are just a couple of the interesting facts I learned about the dogs and programs at Southeastern Guide Dogs:
1. Southeastern is the only dog school in the south.
It came about because it was critical that the dogs be acclimated to the extreme heat and humidity of the region. Dogs transplanted from the north were not well suited for the transition.
The most common names are Maggie, Buddy and Liberty – and Puppy Naming Sponsorships are available for $3,500.
3. Volunteers are involved right from the beginning.
The first are the 50 breeder host families, who care for the mom-dogs until they are called into service or its time to deliver puppies.
4. Puppy Raisers step in at 9 weeks and start basic obedience and socialization.
Puppies go to work, school, restaurants, shopping, etc. with the Puppy Raiser to become familiar with and confident in the outside world. There are 250 puppies in Puppy Raiser homes, and one puppy to a household. Puppies stay until they are 14 – 18 months old.
Do you think you’d be interested in becoming a Puppy Raiser? Take the self-assessment quiz and apply!
Adults and children can come in and just play with the pups to expose them to new sights and smells.
And if you can’t be there to enjoy the puppies, you can watch from the “Puppy Cam”,
6. Formal harness training starts when the pups leave Puppy Raiser homes.
The pups learn more than 40 commands during an intensive 6 months of training. Over 80 dogs can be in training at one time.
7. When is it ok to pet a guide dog?
Well, that depends. Jennifer Bement has a fabulous article about that, “Mind Your Manners: Guide Dog Etiquette” in the Bradenton Patch.
8. Dogs who meet the rigorous standards are placed in one of two programs:
Paws for Independence places dogs with visually impaired handlers – the people who will rely on them going forward – for a 26 day training course and a near lifetime partnership.
Paws for Patriots teams up dogs with veterans who are visually impaired, or have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Therapy dogs are provided to several military hospitals.
9. No dog is left behind!
The Gifted Canines program places dogs who have completed training but might not be best suited as a guide dog with visually impaired children as companions to help the children learn about working with a guide dog. Some dogs become public service dogs, working in search and rescue or detection. And some become ambassador dogs, working in therapy or public relations.
Southeastern Guide Dogs are supported entirely by donors and volunteers! A critical fundraiser, the Walkathon, is held in different locations in Florida. Helen and Troy will be walking on March 9 – check out their page.
And what about that connection between handler and guide dog – “a partnership that facilitates life’s journey with mobility, independence and dignity”?
Helen calls Troy “my Beautiful Troy”. “He is the sweetest dog I have ever known and I have had eight guide dogs over the course of 40+ years.”
Love, devotion, responsibility – all on 4 legs!