Things to do in Palmetto: See Where Four-Legged Heroes Train at Southeastern Guide Dogs

One of the pieces in the Superheroes on Parade Public Art Display at Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Fla. This one pays homage to Star Trek's Dr. Spok.

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Note: The coronavirus pandemic may pause this program. Check with the Southeastern Guide Dogs for the current status.

Four-legged heroes train at Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Fla. You can take a look at how they transition from cuddly puppies to disciplined dogs by visiting the Beyond the Dark experience. The facility trains and provides guide dogs for those with vision loss, service dogs to veterans, and companion dogs for qualifying youth at no cost.

In December, I visited the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus in Palmetto and attended opens in a new windowBeyond the Dark. It’s an hour-long multisensory, and a bit emotional, experience. It was an effective look at how cute canines are transforming human lives.

Wagging tails and wet noses greeted me soon after entering the lobby. Volunteers explained how the dogs are ambassadors for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Romeo is a handsome male black Labrador Retriever with silver highlights. He served as a guide dog and in retirement, he’s spending his golden years as an ambassador by sparking conversation between the volunteer and people like me.

The Beyond the Dark Experience

The program takes place in a large ballroom and seating is at tables. Each setting had a foam-backed, plastic eye mask; bottle of water; hand sanitizer; and literature about the program and Southeastern Guide Dogs. The table also had a couple of tissue packets. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, masks were required.

A representative from Southeastern Guide Dogs led the program and, without revealing too many details on what to expect, participants will encounter scenarios replicating what visually impaired people or veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder have experienced. Then, it explains some of the ways dogs empower and build confidence in their humans. The program also includes an overview of skills the dogs learn, like how to avoid obstacles or provide comfort.

It’s amazing how dogs can transform into superheroes with a bit of training. They become eyes and guardians for the visually impaired and veterans with PTSD. There is a lot of information to take in during that hour and I understand why tissues are on the tables, I used one during the program.

11 Things I Learned During My Visit to Southeastern Guide Dogs

  1. Southeastern Guide Dogs began in 1982 and originally trained dogs for those who lost the ability to see. Several years ago, they started training service dogs for military veterans who had seen too much. The organization saw a need for veterans returning home from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars with PTSD. Southeastern Guide Dogs also train companion dogs for qualifying children. They also train facility therapy dogs, emotional support dogs for veterans, and Gold Star Family dogs.

2. These dogs learn several commands and give their humans a new, better life by providing companionship and building confidence and independence.

3. Training, services, and the dogs are provided free to the recipient. Yes. NO COST! Southeastern Guide Dogs relies on opens in a new windowprivate donations and fundraising efforts to offer these amazing gifts.

4. Ambassador dogs wear blue vests and can interact with people. Do not pet or interact with a dog wearing a harness, it’s in work mode. Same goes to service dogs wearing vests. If in doubt, ask.

5. The Southeastern Guide Dogs campus is a working campus for the dogs and their forever humans. If you look closely, you’ll see different curbs such as some with gentle slopes connecting the road to the sidewalk or some with high edges. I noticed a knob/button on a street sign pole which is a marker for a dog to touch with its nose. It lets their human know to stop.

Goldador: There’s a Dog Breed Called What?

6. Although German Shepards and Golden Retrievers have been trained as guide dogs in the past, Labrador Retrievers and goldadors (Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever) are raised and trained here.

7. Dogs are bred for skill and not beauty. A puppy in training attended the event and a volunteer pointed out how the chocolate-colored puppy had golden accents on one of its legs.

8. Puppies are given names that don’t sound like commands, so you won’t meet a service dog named Ray because that rhymes with “stay.”

9. The front-drive is named Freedom Way after the first Southeastern Guide Dog, a black Labrador Retriever named Freedom.

10. opens in a new windowFromm Family Foods provides FREE food to about 600 working guide dogs and service dogs across the country through Southeastern Guide Dogs. After reading their history, I understand their generosity.

11. opens in a new windowPuppy raisers are needed to teach them how to be dogs, train basic commands, and introduce them to the world. From personal experience, I know it’s hard giving away a puppy you’ve lived and trained with for a year, but when that dog graduates, you know you had a hand in making someone’s life better.

Look for Superheroes on Parade

A few years ago, Southeastern Guide Dogs launched a fundraising public art campaign called “Superheroes on Parade.” It featured over 100 sculptures of dogs wearing capes and painted by various artists. From what I can opens in a new windowfind online, this was a multi-year program which raised funds and awareness about Southeastern Guide Dogs. Sculptures are sprinkled throughout the Tampa Bay area and beyond but there are several on this campus. Each one is whimsically unique.

Contact Info

Southeastern Guide Dogs
4210 77th St E.
Palmetto, Fla. 34221
Tel: (941) 729-5665
opens in a new windowwww.guidedogs.org

Guide Dog Puppy Raising Was My 4-H Project

Growing up, my family raised guide dog puppies as our 4-H project. A couple of dogs graduated and entered the workforce to help other people live better lives. It was a rewarding and emotional experience. It’s heartwarming knowing your efforts during the puppy’s formative years led to him becoming a hero. It’s an emotional experience because within the year or so of raising a puppy, he becomes part of your family. Even though it was decades ago, I still remember saying tearful goodbyes to those puppies.

We attended our first puppy’s graduation from opens in a new windowGuiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Although we had not seen him in over a year, I swear that handsome Black Lab named Cody recognized me. When I met his person, Cody perked up and licked the tops of my feet. When Cody retired, my parents had the honor of welcoming him back into their home where he lived out his golden years being a dog.

Again, it’s a rewarding experience and I encourage you to look into it with Southeastern Guide Dogs.

Radcliff Drinking Out of the Highwave AutoDogMug Portable Water Bottle & Bowl. Note: I added the strap so I can carry it during our walks.

Radcliff’s Recommendations

If you are welcoming a puppy into your home, whether training a superhero or a four-legged fur-kid, opens in a new windowmy dog Radcliff recommends these five products available on Chewy. These items make our lives a bit better.

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Solo Travel Girl

Jennifer A. Huber is the voice behind Solo Travel Girl. She's an award-winning travel and outdoor blogger and writer in Southwest Florida. Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., a hiking trail led her to a career path in the tourism industry for more than 30 years. She spent a decade with a park management company in Yellowstone, Death Valley, and Everglades National Parks. She founded the travel blog, SoloTravelGirl.com with the goal of inspiring others to travel alone, not lonely. Jennifer holds a Travel Marketing Professional certification from the Southeast Tourism Society, is a certified food judge, member of the NASA Social community, and alum of the FBI Citizens Academy. When not traveling, she is either in the kitchen, practicing her photography skills, or road tripping with her dog, Radcliff.

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