In you got to follow along as students struck out into the real world for training at Southeastern Guide Dogs' Downtown Training Center in Bradenton and at the . Now we’ll see what they have been up to this week.
After obedience, it’s time for the students’ first trip to Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Discovery Center in downtown Sarasota. Opened last September, the Discovery Center is a place where visitors and residents alike can come learn all about guide dogs and the amazing service they provide.
There are weekly seminars on a variety of dog-related topics and Puppy Love sessions on Saturdays.
The Discovery Center is also a home base for the dogs in training as they learn to negotiate the unique obstacles Sarasota presents. For the students, it serves as a home base while working routes on the Sarasota sidewalks. Sarasota has a bit more foot traffic than Bradenton, and the cafes with their bistro tables lining the sidewalks mean a plethora of chances for the teams to perfect moving around obstacles.
Sarasota also has a roundabout intersection that is especially tricky (and not just for the drivers). Southeastern’s guide dogs are taught to work in a straight line method, meaning when they set off, they will continue on that trajectory until they are given another directional command or reach the end of the sidewalk on which they are walking. At a roundabout, the teams will actually end up a couple yards from the area designated for crossing, so the handler must give the dog a direction to move and the command “find the curb.” After the proper crossing spot has been determined, the teams can continue on their way.
The big day has arrived — Tampa! As usual, the students start their day with a short obedience class and then load onto the class bus for the ride north. Upon arrival, the teams disembark, relieve their dogs and head over to a gathering area. The students are typically paired with a trainer on a 3-to-1 ratio, but on the Tampa trip, reinforcements of trainers are brought in to provide additional personalized attention. The students are matched up with their trainers and scatter about the city.
Aside from the typical obstacles of pedestrian traffic and myriad distractions, the students face some daunting challenges in Tampa. They are given the opportunity to cross six lanes of traffic, travel over a bridge, enter and exit a building through a revolving door, use an elevator and travel up and down some very challenging staircases.
After the typical morning routine, it’s time for the class to get all dolled up for their graduation pictures. Graduation is such an important day for so many people, so Southeastern is sure to capture the moment for the student, puppy sponsor, puppy raiser and more. Then it’s time for a visit to the Veterinary Clinic.
Recently opened on campus, Southeastern has a fully functioning, state-of-the-art clinic and staff veterinarian, so the dogs definitely get the finest care. Once everyone was done with Dr. Eddington, this class got a very special treat. A generous donor invited the class to go to for lunch, where they experienced the white glove treatment.
This was a special day on the Southeastern Guide Dogs’ campus because a memorial was held for a beloved team member and dear friend — Rita Princivalli. Rita was the graduate services manager and typically the first person the students had interaction with upon contacting the school. The class took time out of its training schedule to attend the memorial.
The break in the day didn’t last long, and the teams were back out training, where they worked on their off-road skills. No, they didn’t hop on ATVs and head out into the wilderness. There will inevitably come a time when the area they are in does not have a viable sidewalk, so they must learn to travel safely off-road.
It’s Friday, so that must mean another trip to the mall for the class! This time, though, they are upping the ante and working on escalators. If you have ever missed the step getting on or off an escalator, you know how scary they can be. And it certainly increases the degree of difficulty by adding visual impairment and a dog to the mix.
The students use the railing of the escalator to determine when it is time to get on the escalator, and they have the dog in a heel position (they do not use the harness handle during this process). When they feel the railing start to even out, they know it is time to exit the escalator; they heel their dog while both briskly disembark. If heading down an escalator, the student uses the same process for getting on, and they keep their right foot on the front edge of the step. When they feel the step start to become flat, they and their dog begin to walk off.
After the mall, class comes back to campus for lecture and a very special information session. They are read biographies written about their dogs from the Puppy Raisers in advance of Puppy Raiser Day. Rarely is there a dry eye in the Day Room as they hear about antics of their pups and the Raisers’ reasons for giving so much of themselves in raising their dog.
This column has typically ended on Friday, but Saturday of this week is extra special as it is Puppy Raiser Day! Puppy Raisers are volunteers from all over the southeastern United States who receive one of Southeastern’s puppies when they are just 9 weeks old, and they spend the next year to year-and-a-half socializing that puppy so that when it is paired with a visually impaired person, it is completely unflappable.
They give so much of themselves for such a noble cause, so Southeastern makes sure they get to see exactly why. Puppy Raisers are invited on campus in the morning and wait in the parking lot for the class to go out on a route. There, they get to watch the energetic puppy they so lovingly taught and cared for as it safely guides their new handler. It is an amazing thing to behold.
The Puppy Raisers are then invited in, and the student and his or her guide come over to greet them. It usually only takes a few seconds for the noble guide dog to revert back to puppyhood when greeted by their raiser. They leap and bound around and give tail wags and liberal kisses. After a couple minutes, though, a remarkable thing happens, the dogs settle back down and take their place right next to their handler.
For the dogs this has to be the most amazing day because everyone they loved is in that room together; their Puppy Raiser, their trainer, the kennel assistants who cared for them on campus and their handler; a happy day indeed.
The training period is starting to wind down now with next Thursday being Graduation, but there are still things for the students to learn, so stay tuned.