By Samantha R. Evensen
Southeastern Guide Dogs, located at 4210 77th St E. in Palmetto, has been creating and nurturing partnerships between visually impaired individuals and guide dogs since 1982.
The guide dogs are transforming lives, providing mobility and the opportunity to regain independence and dignity. The services provided are free of charge and receives no government funding. Everything is entirely donation based through private funding and the generosity of the community.
Today the facility is going through some transformations of its own in order to fulfill its vision of being the best service dog school in the world.
Jacqui Garvey has been with the facility for several years, helping whelp or birth the pups. She said, “The old facility has been well loved and scrubbed many times, but I’m excited about what’s to come. As it is now, we have to make do with a lot of things, but the new building is geared toward what we’re trying to accomplish.”
With the new Student Center and Puppy Academy, Southeastern Guide Dogs will be able to expand its outreach and increase the quality of their current services.
Southeastern Guide Dogs breeds include Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and a mix of the two called a “goldador.” Each dog is bred, raised and trained on campus.
Puppy hugging is open to the public, twice a day, every day with the exceptions of Thursdays and Sundays. For just $10 dollars (which helps buy puppy food), you can spend some quality time with the pups. This helps socialize and educate them, exposing them to different smells, sights, ages and tones.
At 10 weeks, the puppies go home with a volunteer puppy raiser, where they learn basic commands and further their socialization skills.
About 15 months later they return to the assessment center. They receive formal harness training and learn over 40 commands, including when to disobey a command for the handler’s safety.
Roughly four out of 10 puppies make it to be guide dogs. As for the rest, they have a career change.
Those who become guide dogs are carefully matched based on pace, pull, height, temperament and home environment. The visually impaired students live on campus for a period of 26 days where they train and spend quality time with their guide dog to ensure that they’re the right fit and can get around independently and safely.
Suzy Wilburn and her dog Carson can testify to the extraordinary efforts and the transformation that comes with receiving a guide dog.
“It was a life adjustment that I had to take on. It took me three tries to get a dog that was right for me, but Carson has been my life saver more than anyone will ever know,” said Wilburn.
Wilburn was a former athlete growing up, who was diagnosed with Stargardts disease, a form of macular degeneration that causes progressive vision loss. Wliburn lost her independence, but Carson gave her back her life.
“If you walked up to me today and offered me back my vision in exchange for Carson, I would send you away. I would never trade my eyesight for my dog,” she said.
Now she is director of admissions, a graduate of Southeastern Guide Dogs and is happy to continue sharing her story and inspiring others.
For more information on how to donate to the facility, hug a pup or volunteer your time, visit guidedogs.org or call 941-729-5665.