Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Sight for Sore Eyes

Living in southwest Florida, in Sarasota and Bradenton, there are an amazing number of great places to visit and learn about. The tourists know about the major ones-- Ringling Museum, the circus museum, Mote Marine Laboratory, Siesta Key Beach, Benderson Park, (home of national and world rowing events), Anna Maria Island, the fishing, the boating, the kayaking and much more. Tourists soon find out about our wonderful cultural events, music events, and quirky events.  Anything and everything you could think of, it's probably here. No wonder we settled down here as permanent residents!

One of the coolest places Sparky has visited since she's been here is the Southeastern Guide Dog Institute, located in Palmetto, FL on a 33 acre campus. The institute is internationally accredited, and one of the most respected guide dog schools in the United States. The institute is totally self supported by donations and fund raising, and receives no government funding. Visually impaired students are paired with trained guide dogs at NO CHARGE to the students. The institute not only offered guide dogs for a variety of situations for the visually impaired, but they also have dog training classes both private and group.

Puppies are born and bred at the institute. At four weeks, they are sort of like in a preschool for puppies. They introduced to sights, sounds, and tactile experiences. They learn introductory commands. Then at 10 weeks, they leave for "boarding school", sent to homes of volunteer puppy raisers here in the nearby communities where they are taught socialization skills and obedience just as you would teach your own puppy. At 14-18 months, they come back to the institute and their personalities are assessed for what type of dog companion they will be best suited for. They have a "major", just like human students do, depending upon their temperament. The majors are: 1) guide dog, 2)  service dog, 3) facility therapy dog, 4) breeder dog and 5) "gifted and talented" with three subdivisions--a public service dog--bomb, arson, firearms and drug detection dog, a canine connection dog--companions for kids with visual impairments or an ambassador dog--going into the community to teach others about the Southeastern Guide Dog Institute. Each major has specific training levels and requirements.

Guide dog major: 6 months of formal harness training plus 26 days of student/handler training. This is where the student comes to campus to live and work with his assigned dog before returning home with the dog, at NO CHARGE to the student.

Service dog major: six months of formal training, 12 days of student handler vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Facility therapy: Dogs live with military staff members and provide therapy services to veterans and families in military facilities.

Genetics and reproduction: Dogs spend some time during their reproductive years with volunteer host families. The dogs belong to the institute until they retire as a breeder dog, then they can be adopted. Each host family has a breeder dog, loves and care for them, and watches for when the dogs go into heat. Then they are brought to the campus for breeding, to return back home with the family. Veterinary care is provided on campus at no charge for the host families during the dog's reproductive years. Wow!

Within the Guide Dog Institute are individual programs for specific types of visual impairment. There is Paws for Independence, where dogs have learned over 40 commands and the dogs and new visually impaired owners work and train together for 26 days on campus. By the time their training is complete, they will have walked around Tampa and Sarasota, navigated city streets, stairs, buses, malls, elevators, and lots more.

There is Paws for Patriots, with lots of support for post traumatic stress disorders, wounded soldiers or family members in veterans' medical facilities, and emotional support dogs are available for companionship and emotional support in the home.

The Gifted Canines are for visually impaired kids from 10-17 and for other community purposes. There are talented dogs for search and rescue in this group as well, and this is where you find the dogs used for bomb detection and arson and the dogs you see accompanying volunteers in hospitals and schools and other such places.

Right now, the campus is under major renovation and construction, so some tours and experiences are not available for the public. They are building a Puppy Academy and a Splash Park among other things. Normally, there are more experiences available such as puppy kindergarten adventure tours (25.00) and tours of the facilities. For right now, the only option was to take a guide dog experience tour, for ages 12 and up, which Sparky signed up for. You have to reserve in advance, no walk ins.  It was very cool! For a nominal charge of 15.00, (which helps them feed the puppies) you learn all about the guide dogs,  and get to walk a blindfold walk with a guide dog and volunteer.

It was really cool...You don't go very far with the dog, but immediately you get a sense of having to trust the dog. The "blindfold" glasses make it completely dark, completely black. It was a very unsettling experience for a few seconds. The dog stops when there's even a crack in the sidewalk. The dogs are of course, wonderful...sweet...and eager to please. Sparky truly enjoyed her guide dog experience today. It was about an hour, and she would have loved to have seen more. Going to have to come back another day and do the puppy kindergarten experience! These dogs are truly superheroes. And just to prove that, Sarasota has dogs displayed all over town to celebrate this terrific place and their wonderfully trained dogs.... Hope you enjoyed hearing about the dogs today...



  1. What an interesting place to visit ! Thanks for sharing.

  2. I really did enjoy hearing about the dogs. Thanks for all the details. Such a wonderful service. I can't even imagine being blind and not being able to ride a bike or see the birds. The experience you had looks well worth the money for a great cause!

  3. What an interesting and inspiring place to visit Thanks for sharing it with us.