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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 Beyond 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
- 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 private 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. Fromm 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. Puppy 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 find 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.
Southeastern Guide Dogs
4210 77th St E.
Palmetto, Fla. 34221
Tel: (941) 729-5665
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 Guiding 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.
If you are welcoming a puppy into your home, whether training a superhero or a four-legged fur-kid, my dog Radcliff recommends these five products available on Chewy. These items make our lives a bit better.
- Puppy pee pads! Even though Radcliff isn’t a puppy, I use Glad For Pets Activated Carbon Dog Training Pads to place under the cat litter boxes. I also leave one out for Rad in case I can’t home in time to take him out.
- Pick up after your puppy! I use the Frisco Refill Dog Poop Bags (900 count!) to pick up after Radcliff. They come in scented and unscented and I opt for the unscented.
- Ride safely. When Radcliff rides shotgun, which is often, I secure him in with the Kurgo Direct to Seat-Belt Tether. This allows me to clip a belt to his harness and secure him in the seatbelt.
- Protect the backseat with this hammock. In the rare events Radcliff needs to ride in the backseat, I have the Frisco Water Resistant Hammock Car Seat Cover. This protects my seats from Rad’s fur-glitter and keeps him safe by preventing him from fall between the seats.
- Stay hydrated! The 20oz, blue Highwave AutoDogMug Portable Water Bottle & Bowl (see photo above) is one of my favorite items because it’s so cool. It’s an easy way to keep Radcliff hydrated by squeezing water up into the bowl. I take mine on road trips, hikes, and walks around the neighborhood. People have stopped and asked me about it when I’m giving Rad a drink.