, filled with lots of challenges for the teams in Sarasota and Tampa. We have reached the final week of training, so let’s see what the students, dogs and trainers have been up to.
After obedience, class headed down to Westfield Sarasota Square Mall to continue work on escalators and distractions. As was , the business of riding an escalator with a guide dog is tricky, so the more practice the teams get with their trainer in tow, the easier it will be for them on their own.
Tuesday saw the teams headed to the Discovery Center in downtown Sarasota again. This time, they worked on off-curb travel in a more residential part of downtown so they would be comfortable traveling where there was not a sidewalk.
But the big task of the day was to work on distractions, and oh, were there distractions. Teams worked routes during lunch, which means not only was there additional foot traffic, but tables and chairs blocking the path and discarded food on the ground. Most of the dogs in this class are labradors, who are known for their eating acumen, so discarded food is a tough challenge for them, but they made it through with flying colors.
In recent weeks we have all been dealing with the “joy” of lovebug season. You might not think that would play into guide dog training — ah, but you would be wrong. For some reason the dogs feel it is their mission to rid the area of the dreaded bugs, so it is up to their handlers to be diligent to keep them from lunging at the pesky creatures.
What were you doing at 5 a.m. Wednesday? Most people would still be in bed, but not the students! Since this class seems to be filled with early risers, 5 a.m. was the time selected for their next “night” walk. Each student took his or her turn to do a route on campus, in the dark, before most of us were even out of bed.
Early morning walks were followed my one of the most fun, albeit very important, lessons — long recalls. Here, the dogs are left in a “sit, stay” at one end of the hall, and their handler goes all the way to the other end. Once the dog has shown that they will stay, the handler calls the dog to them. To say the dogs are enthusiastic about getting to their handler would be a dramatic understatement. Aside from being great fun to watch, this exercise is extremely important in case the dogs are ever separated from their handler, because they need to be counted upon to come when called.
The rest of the day was spent going over returning home information and signing contracts and completing paperwork ... not the most exciting parts of class, but important nonetheless.
Graduation Day! The day the students have been working so hard toward has finally arrived. The campus becomes abuzz with activity as friends, family members and special guests gather for this momentous day. The graduation ceremony takes place in the dining room, and graduates are lined up in the front with their guides at their sides. Titus Herman, CEO of Southeastern, introduces special guests, volunteers, sponsors and the like before addressing the class. The trainers share a poem they wrote about the class and get a rousing chuckle or two. Each student is introduced, and a short biography is read before they are handed their diploma. All of the students take a moment to thank everyone who had a hand in creating the teams with heartfelt comments and a few tears.
If you have had even the smallest impact on one of these teams, you can’t imagine the amount of pride you feel when they graduate; knowing you have helped someone regain their independence is truly an amazing feeling.
After a spectacular lunch from Chef Rob, most of the graduates head home, and it becomes rather quiet in the halls.
Friday after graduation is really quiet on campus. Most of the trainers get some well-deserved time off. But for those who are on campus, it is another exciting day — they sometimes get acquainted with the group of dogs that will become their next string of trainees. These are dogs who have been with their Puppy Raiser families for the past year or so and have now been called back to campus for formal harness training. The trainers will spend the next six months working with these youngsters to make them into the calm, cool, collected, polished, confident guides they are meant to be.
Now that you have gotten a bit of insight into what the students go through while learning to work with a guide dog, you might be interested in a couple of facts and figures about the process:
- Number of people involved in raising & training a guide dog: 368
- Cost to breed, whelp, raise, train, match and provide follow-up care to a single guide dog team: $60,000
- Cost to the recipient: $0
- Amount of government funding Southeastern receives: $0
- Number of teams created at Southeastern Guide Dogs since inception: 2,500-plus