Many adults fondly recall the day that they received their first driver’s license, which afforded them the independence to get behind the wheel of a car and go … well, anywhere! Suzy Wilburn, Director of Admissions and Student Services at Southeastern Guide Dogs, remembers that rush of exhilaration well. In an interview with This Week in Sarasota, she recounted “that feeling you get of giddiness, where you think, ‘I’m in control and I can do what I want, and I have this unfound freedom that I had no idea was out there!’”
Wilburn was talking about driving when she said this, but that’s not all she was referring to. The emotional experience of getting behind the wheel for the first time is a metaphor that she uses often to explain to people the feeling of empowerment and liberation that a visually-impaired person is likely to feel when he or she is matched up with a guide dog for the first time.
Wilburn is able to make this comparison because she knows both experiences first-hand. At age 27, she was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, an affliction that results in progressive vision loss that often surpasses the threshold of legal blindness. Although Wilburn’s eyesight is usable in daylight, she is unable to see at all in the dark.
“I didn’t go outside at night for about eight years, because I wouldn’t do it alone,” she said. “I couldn’t see what was coming.” Since Wilburn was matched with her faithful guide dog Carson at the Southeastern campus in Palmetto about eight months ago, much has changed for her. “We go on a quarter-mile walk every night, alone,” she said. “It’s really changed my life and I wouldn’t trade him for the world.”
It’s stories like these — of an individual’s perseverance and courage through physically and emotionally trying times — that inspire Southeastern’s staff, volunteers and donors to push forward in their mission to raise and train guide dogs and provide them to those in need at no charge. The organization exists and operates solely on donations from individuals and groups and has no financial support from the government. That is a miraculous feat, considering that it costs approximately $60,000 to put together one team of a guide dog and its owner. Public Relations Specialist Jennifer Bement explained that this process includes “breeding, whelping, raising, training and then matching and providing follow-up care” that lasts for the rest of dog’s service career, which is a span of eight years on average.
In spite of all that goes into preparing a guide dog team, Southeastern Guide Dogs is able to boast that it has put together over 2600 of these teams, with more than 600 of them currently active. The organization also offers three different programs, which it describes on its website. Paws for Independence is Southeastern’s main program, which matches guide dogs with the visually-impaired. Paws for Patriots provides guide dogs to veterans with visual impairments, Veterans Assistance Dogs to veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and facility therapy dogs to military hospitals. The Gifted Canines program gives dogs that are exceptionally intelligent but not chosen for the other two programs an opportunity to serve in other career programs. Gifted Canines includes three alternative career programs: Canine Connections pairs dogs with children between the ages of 10 and 17 years old who have visual impairments or conditions that will lead to visual impairments to get them accustomed to having a canine companion; Public Service Dogs work as bomb detectors, arson detectors, drug detectors or search and rescue dogs; and Ambassador Dogs represent Southeastern Guide Dogs under the care of their trainers, and may do therapy work at hospitals, hospice houses and rehabilitation centers, visit schools or make other public appearances.
Southeastern operates primarily out of its 23-acre Palmetto location, where the puppies are born and trained, and where people who are accepted into the program go to complete a comprehensive, 26-day training course that teaches them how to trust, care for and work with the dogs that they are paired with. These students matriculate in classes of nine and often form very tight bonds and lasting friendships with their classmates and trainers. They live, for the duration of the program, in furnished dormitories on a campus specially designed for those with visual impairments and eat meals prepared by the organization’s two private chefs.
At the beginning of the program, the students are paired with dogs based on physical preferences, such as how quickly the students normally walk and how hard they like the dogs to pull on their harnesses while they are being led, as well as character traits. “We try to match up personalities,” Bement said. “There are people who are really outgoing and are okay with a dog that’s going to be a little bit more exuberant, and then there are people who are more reserved,” she continued. “We wouldn’t want to put an overly effusive dog with someone who is not that type of personality, so that is one thing that we look for.”
After the matching process, which Wilburn described as “an art and a science” because of its subtleties, students begin to train with their new dogs around the campus, preparing to navigate rural environments that include parks, sidewalks and curbs on low-traffic streets, as well as simulations of common surroundings such as bus stops and mailboxes. Once this phase is completed, the teams go off-campus, starting with downtown Bradenton, where they navigate a more urban environment, and then to downtown Sarasota, where there are even more opportunities to get them accustomed to working together in a metropolitan setting. The greatest challenge of the training takes place in Tampa, where teams are exposed to heavy automobile and foot traffic — which Wilburn describes as “the highest stressor you can put yourself and the dog under” — in order to prepare them for the greatest array of possible scenarios. “You get tested with the dog in every exposure,” Wilburn said. “They really teach you to function on a day-to-day basis in a whole different way.”
Out of all of the off-campus locations that the teams visit, one is particularly unique. Sarasota has Southeastern’s first and currently only community outreach center, located near the corner of Main Street and Orange Avenue. It’s an important place for the organization to raise money and increase local awareness of its mission and volunteer opportunities by allowing local residents and visitors to interact with the dogs in a number of different ways. Anyone is welcome to come in during business hours, browse the gift shop, meet and pet the Ambassador Dogs and speak with volunteer and staff members about the organization. Those who come in on any Saturday between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. can take part in one of the organization’s planned projects that always includes a visiting group of Ambassador Dogs or guide dogs in training. People who really want to play with puppies should make sure to come in during these hours on the third Saturday of the month, when groups of six to eight week old puppies are brought in from Palmetto for “puppy hugging.”
In addition to letting members of the public come in to meet and walk the dogs, Southeastern’s Sarasota center puts in an active effort to involve the community. In an interview with TWIS, Donor Relations Manager Marjorie Singer described a number of programs that the organization has put together to reach out to the community. “We have lots of classes here for kids in the summer,” she explained. One of the programs she highlighted, which will be starting soon, is called Be a Reader to Canines, or BARC. “Children who want to practice their reading can come in, curl up next to one of our big fluffy Ambassador Dogs … and read to them,” Singer explained. “Dogs are not judgmental and it’s very good for the kids.” Another educational program the center offers called Mommy and Me lets children between the ages of two and five come in with a caregiver and learn about the dogs, how puppies become guide dogs and how to properly interact with a guide dog team in outside environments.
The center offers public guided tours that take anyone who wishes to learn more about Southeastern to the Palmetto campus between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. every Wednesday. For visitors who already have pets, the Sarasota center offers increasingly popular obedience classes to community members who want to bring in their own pets to be trained by members of Southeastern’s professional staff.
These programs do a lot to engage community members with Southeastern Guide Dogs, but they are not the only kind of outreach that the organization does. People with visual impairments who are considering getting guide dogs are not always sure if they qualify and often have a lot of questions and concerns to resolve before they apply. Wilburn spends a great deal of time conversing with those who are contemplating this tremendous decision, and many of them are nervous about the idea or are unsure if the step is right for them. She admits that, despite how happy she is with Carson now, she once harbored the same doubts herself. “I wasn’t sure that a guide dog was going to be right for me and I always thought somebody could use a dog more than me,” she explained.
It’s true that guide dogs are not for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that someone considering a guide dog should be reluctant to ask about it. In fact, it’s encouraged! Anyone who is at least 18 years of age and has been deemed legally blind is eligible to apply for a guide dog. The Admissions staff at Southeastern is more than happy to speak with potential applicants, and anyone who is curious can either call or stop in at the Palmetto or Sarasota locations and speak with staff there. “I’m happy to talk to any applicant that wants to come by,” said Wilburn. “Some of my phone calls last for hours,” she continued. “I want to make sure that the person has all of the tools that they need to make the decision.”
Of course, volunteers are always welcome as well, and they can do a number of tasks to help out, such as walking dogs, hugging puppies, interacting with the public, helping out at events, fundraising and more. Walking the dogs is particularly easy and requires no commitment, since visitors can just drop in to the Palmetto campus between the hours of 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, sign in at the front desk, get a dog and walk it around the campus. Pat Kaplan, who has volunteered for Southeastern for more than two years, explained what inspires her to work with the organization. “It’s one of the most truly rewarding experiences I’ve had in my lifetime,” she said. “You think that you’re doing something for someone else, but you get so much back in return,” she continued. “It’s a win-win.”
Some volunteers, called “puppy raisers,” perform the noble task of taking a puppy home when it is about 10 weeks old and raising it for the next year to year and a half of its life while teaching it basic obedience. “They’ll take it with them everywhere, they’ll socialize it to every aspect of life, because we want our puppies to go wherever a visually impaired person might have to take that dog and not worry,” Bement explained.
Although puppy raisers do have to return the dogs for training, which can be a difficult experience, they have the consolation of coming back for “puppy raiser day,” which is an event toward the end of the team’s training program where the puppy raiser not only gets reunited with the dog he or she helped to raise, but also gets to meet the dog’s trainer and the person that they are helping. It’s an emotional day for everyone — including the dog, who gets to see all of the most significant people of its life in the same room at the same time — but it’s also a very powerful and joyful experience for all involved and sometimes the start of lasting relationships.
Once all of that is over, and the student becomes a graduate and goes home with his or her dog, something really changes. That person’s life has been impacted in a monumental way, because they now have more autonomy, more independence and more confidence to go out into the world and accomplish what it is they want to accomplish. Not only that, but he or she will be part of a team relationship that is mutually beneficial in many powerful ways. As Wilburn described her bond with Carson: “He’s like having a son, but he’s also like having an extra parent. He’s in charge of me and I’m in charge of him. It’s really a 50-50 deal.” And it’s important to remember that pairings like these have been made possible by the kindness of others.