By Caitlin Sinett
Above: Todd Bowen, 51, takes a walk with his Annie, his 7-year-old guide dog. Bowen has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that will eventually cause loss of vision. He has had Annie for more than five years. (Photo by Ashley Crane)
Southeastern Guide Dogs: Freedom and Companionship for the Blind
To Susan Wilburn, he’s a world of a difference. She and Carson, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, have been together for about six months, and she has discovered he brings her a whole new level of freedom.
Wilburn, 38, met her guide dog through Southeastern Guide Dogs, located in Palmetto, Fla. Southeastern Guide Dogs is a nonprofit organization that trains guide dogs for the visually impaired. It’s the only guide dog school in the southeastern United States and has trained and teamed up more than 2,600 guide dogs in its 30-year lifetime.
Dogs that do not meet the standards by the end of the program either get a career change or are put up for adoption. Some take up breeding. Others take up bomb and drug detection.
The selection process begins before the puppies are even born.
“We have our own breeding colony of dogs. We’re breeding for traits that would make the very best guide dog ever. Those are trainability, intelligence and health, ” said Jennifer Bement, a public relations specialist for Southeastern Guide Dogs.
The program mostly works with Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and goldadors (a mix between Labradors and golden retrievers).
After the puppies are born, they are immediately handled in early puppy socialization, Bement said.
Their feet and ears are played with, they’re turned on their backs and they get used to walking over different surfaces. They’re put into a cart and wheeled around so they understand the feeling of motion. Vacuum cleaners and hair dryers are placed near them so the puppies become well-acquainted with startling sounds.
Puppies move into puppy-hugging sessions when they’re six weeks old. Here, the general public is allowed to play with the puppies, and the puppies get used to different smells, sounds and motions.
When the puppies are about 9 weeks old, they’re given to puppy raisers.
Janet Daniels, a puppy raiser for Southeastern Guide Dogs, said the raisers keep the puppies until they are about 14 months old. Their primary goal is to socialize them by taking them everywhere to expose them to different controlled situations. They also teach the dogs commands.
Daniels has trained 14 dogs in the program. Her current dog, Rusty II, is a 6-month-old chocolate Lab.
“You do get attached to every single one of them,” she said. “The way I choose to look at it is that I’ve had 14 wonderful dogs in my life that I would not have had otherwise. Dogs don’t have a long life span so we have to give them up anyway, and I don’t have to give mine up to death or disease or anything like that. I give them up to a person who will depend on the dog to change their life.”
After their time with the raisers, the puppies go back to campus for formal harness training with certified trainers. There, the puppies practice the commands they learned with the puppy raisers. Each pup graduates well-trained in more than 40 commands.
Southeastern Guide Dogs then matches the graduates with their best fit companions, the visually impaired who have applied to the program.
Wilburn said that before she got Carson, she had orientation and mobility training for about four months where she learned traffic patterns, terminology and how to walk with a cane. Then she lived on the guide dog campus for 26 days of intensive harness training to learn how to walk with her dog.
“The dogs aren’t machines,” Bement said. “You can’t just say, ‘Okay, take me to Starbucks.’ You have to know where Starbucks is and how to get there and then the dog will get you there safely.”
Todd Bowen, 51, owns a 7-year-old yellow Labrador named Annie. Although Annie was trained at the Guide Dog Foundation in Long Island, he said he plans on getting his next guide dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Annie knows many commands such as “go forward,” “stop” and “find the way.” “Find the way” tells the dog to figure out the safest way around an obstacle.
But guide dogs are not always on the job. Bowen said Annie is good company and provides protection.
“In her leash that I have here, she’s just a regular dog,” he said. “She’s fun and loves to play.”
Bowen added that having Annie around helps him break the ice around people, too. He once went to the courthouse to vote, but he didn’t know where he was going. A woman came up to him and complimented Annie: “Oh, what a beautiful dog.” After a polite “thanks,” he asked her to direct him to the polls.
“She’s like, ‘Well I wouldn’t show you, but I’ll show your dog,’” he said. “She was kidding, but that’s how it goes.”