Dogs are loving and adorable creatures, but they are much more than that at Southeastern Guide Dogs. They are superheroes that change the lives of those who need them most. Meet Bristol, a yellow Lab destined to become one of those furry superheroes. So how does a dog like Bristol go from a cute, cuddly puppy to an elite working dog that transforms someone’s life?
The two-year process starts at the Puppy Academy on Southeastern Guide Dogs’ – a Florida nonprofit 501(c)(3) – Palmetto, Fla. campus. At just a few days old, puppies begin their education as they are stimulated and socialized. In these early weeks, the pups attend “puppy preschool” where they are introduced to a multisensory, environmental education through sights, sounds, scents, surfaces, and everyday objects. At six weeks old, the puppies graduate to “puppy kindergarten.” Here they build confidence through problem-solving exercises and multisensory play.
Around ten weeks old, puppies go home to live with their volunteer puppy raisers, who provide basic obedience training, lots of socialization, and various excursions around the community. This process continues their education and offers real-world experiences for young dogs. Puppies stay with their raisers for about a year before returning to campus to begin the formal training. During their formal training, puppies are matched with the most appropriate career path – a guide dog for the visually impaired, a service dog for a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a companion dog for a child with significant challenges, or a breeder to help create more superhero puppies.
Once a dog comes back to Southeastern Guide Dogs for “Freshman Orientation,” they are assessed for health, temperament, trainability, and sustainability for a working career. Following assessments, these furry students advance to “Canine University,” where professional, certified guide dog and service dog trainers spend about six months training each dog. The puppies learn various cues to help people with vision loss navigate confidently and help veterans reintegrate into society.
After the dogs are trained, it’s time to teach the people who handle them. Matching just the right dog with just the right person is both an art and a science. Trainers consider activity level, energy level, pace, pull, home environment, and personality to create a successful team. When the right dog is matched with the right student, the individual is invited to stay on the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus to learn how to handle their new dog. It was here that Bristol fulfilled her purpose and met Katie McCoy.
“Before I had Bristol, it was like I was living in a cave, and I couldn’t figure out how to get out of that cave,” Katie shared. “With Bristol, I was able to walk out of the cave and see the beauty of the world around me. She took the stress and anxiety I had away. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to grow and change. I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I will always be grateful to Southeastern Guide Dogs for giving me a life I never thought I could have.”
The organization hosts eight guide dog classes and four service dog classes each year. When class is in session, students spend a lot of time outdoors and out in the community working hands-on with their dogs learning to use the many cues the dog already knows. They also learn about grooming, veterinary care, dog CPR, dog massage, and more.
The story doesn’t end after graduation. Once students and dogs return home, the alumni support staff continues to follow up and make sure the team is successful. Southeastern Guide Dogs provides the most comprehensive Alumni Support Program of any service dog school in North America. This program ensures access to premium pet food, monthly preventatives, vaccinations, and yearly wellness visits free of charge for all graduates.
All services – selective breeding, puppy education, expert dog training, on-campus student instruction, and lifetime alumni follow-up – are provided at no cost to recipients. The nonprofit relies entirely on donations to achieve its mission as well as breed, raise and train these superhero dogs. To donate, volunteer, or learn more about Southeastern Guide Dogs, visit GuideDogs.org.