Mission statement: To create and nurture a partnership between a visually impaired individual and a guide dog, facilitating life’s journey with mobility, independence and dignity.
Just to our north in Palmetto lies a bucolic campus where Southeastern Guide Dogs breeds, raises, trains and matches guide dogs with the visually impaired. Through its programs Paws for Independence, Paws for Patriots and Gifted Canines, the nonprofit serves more than 700 active guide dog teams across the nation. Every year, more than 70 teams are added. All of Southeastern’s services are provided at no charge to the recipient, thanks to the generous support of donors and volunteers.
How it all started
The idea for starting a guide dog school in the South came about because there was a need for working guide dogs that were already conditioned to the sometimes brutal heat and humidity we endure. Therefore, if they were bred, raised and trained here, they would be more comfortable with the weather than would a transplant from the North. Southeastern began with humble roots, taking advantage of loaned land and donated golden retrievers to start the program. As the program grew, so did the push to provide the highest quality guide dog, leading to cultivating its own breeding colony of dogs that contained all the qualities needed to be successful guides.
Throughout the years, land was purchased and the facilities have grown. Kennels were built to house 100 dogs-in-training, plus the approximate 200 puppies that are born on campus each year (the puppies are sent to live with volunteer Puppy Raiser families at 9 weeks of age until they come back for harness training at about 1 ½ years). Dormitories were built on campus for the students to stay for a 26-day training period, during which time they learn to function as a team with their new guide.
Southeastern has created more than 2,500 guide dog teams since inception, providing mobility and independence to people in need. It is one of only 12 guide dog schools in the United States, and the only one to focus primarily on the southeast.
In 1987 the organization held its first major fundraiser — Walkathon, a tradition that continues today. March 5 marked the 25th annual Walkathon. and featured a record number of people (2,200) and dogs (more than 500), and it is projected to have raised $375,000 by the time all funds are tallied.
In 199, Southeastern created the Graduate Panel, a group of past graduates who provide input on their experience and aid in improving the program for incoming students.
In 2002, the Gifted Canines program was started as an outlet for dogs who did not meet the stringent guidelines for guide dog work. Dogs from this program have gone on to work for law enforcement and as therapy dogs.
The brand new Canine Connections program pairs gentle companion dogs with visually impaired children to introduce them to the joys and responsibility of dog ownership in preparation for a future guide dog.
Paws for Patriots was started in 2006 and pairs visually impaired veterans with professionally trained guide dogs. In addition to providing guide dogs to blinded soldiers, the organization also provides Veteran Assistance Dogs to veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, Southeastern has placed therapy dogs at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to spread encouragement to soldiers during their grueling physical therapy as they learn to recover from their injuries.
Location, Location, Location
Southeastern Guide Dogs’ campus is a 23-acre site in Palmetto that includes the administration building/student dormitory, receiving kennel, training kennel, puppy & breeding kennel, and the “Freedom Walk” – a place where the students first learn to work with their new guides.
Southeastern Guide Dogs' Downtown Training Center is located in downtown Bradenton and is a base camp for students and trainers during the initial phases of their training. Visitors and those who work downtown have become accustomed to seeing the trainers in their blue shirts putting their charges through their paces throughout the downtown area.
The Discovery Center, located in downtown Sarasota, opened to the public last September. It is a place where visitors can learn all about guide dogs and the amazing service they provide. The Discovery Center also hosts weekly educational seminars on a variety of dog-related topics and puppy hugging sessions. It also includes a unique pet boutique where shoppers can find unusual items for their four-legged friends. Trainers with guide dogs-in-training use the facility as a home base while working the dogs in the hustle and bustle of downtown. Students also utilize the Discovery Center during the second phase of their training while learning to negotiate Main Street and all its hazards.
A Caring & Nurturing Culture
Southeastern Guide Dogs’ 75 employees and 350-plus volunteers are guided by a board of directors comprised of a wide range of influential businesspeople, along with CEO Titus Herman. The nonprofit is run as a well-functioning business that is committed to making fiscally sound decisions.
The atmosphere at Southeastern is one of camaraderie and teamwork where everyone is working for the greater good. They understand the impact a guide dog can have on a visually impaired person’s life and are mindful of that in all interactions. Approximately 368 people have a hand in breeding, whelping, raising and training each successful guide dog team.
You, too, could have a hand in the activities at Southeastern. They are the only guide dog school to invite the general public in to help socialize their 6- to 9-week-old puppies during Puppy Hugging Sessions. Every day except Thursday and Sunday, residents and visitors alike are invited on campus from 9-11 a.m. to interact with the puppies in the puppy kennel and walk the guide dogs-in-training. There are also volunteer opportunities at many different levels of commitment. For more information, visit www.guidedogs.org or call 941-729-5665 ,and be sure to check back with Bradenton Patch for the next installment of Weekly Tails from Southeastern Guide Dogs.