Written by Amie Chapman
It has been awhile since I have traveled solo, without a husband or without a dog. This past week I traveled to Florida to attend a veterinary conference, the same conference that I took Patrick to last year. This year was definitely a different experience.
One of the biggest differences was the amount of things that I needed to pack and the amount of room I had in my suitcase. Boy does eight days of food for a growing, high energy shepherd take up a lot of space. The other big difference is having more freedom. Traveling with a puppy is a lot like traveling with a young child, you have to put their needs first. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love traveling with the puppies I raise, but I do have to sacrifice things that I would like to do because of their ability to either handle certain things or needing time off from working. Service dog puppies in training are still puppies and you can’t push them too hard.
“Puppy raisers are always in demand for almost every service dog organization.”
So this year on my trip I did a few things just for me.
I got to spend two entire days at Universal Studios and Disney World before the conference began and after the conference ended I spent time at Big Cat Rescue and playing with puppies at Southeastern Guide Dogs. All things that I would have liked to do last year, but things that Patrick either wasn’t ready for or couldn’t attend for obvious reasons.
I would really like to learn more about and visit more service dog schools.
The Southeastern Guide Dogs campus just happen to be on the way as I traveled south from Orlando where the conference was to my visit with family and friends in the Fort Myers area. So this year I decided to make time and stop there.
The school has currently stopped tours while they are doing some major construction work (they are building a new puppy facility). But I did plan ahead, on their website they offered other activities for visitors. They offered a puppy kindergarten experience and a guide dog experience. I really wanted to do both, but the times these were offered overlapped and that wasn’t possible. So of course being the puppyaholic I am I chose the kindergarten experience.
I did drag my cousin Monica with me, and it was a great experience for her.
She got a chance to meet Patrick last year but has never been to a guide dog school. It really didn’t take much convincing…”Hey Monica, do you want to go with me to play with some puppies?” was all it took. It is always really fun for me to bring family and friends with me to things like this, sometimes seeing the campus of the school makes everything more real to them. It really helps them understand why I almost always have a puppy attached to me, what I do is really important.
“This school also depends on volunteers and donations to keep their program going, there is no government funding, and the recipients of their dogs do not pay to receive them.”
We arrived at the campus even though there was major construction going on, it was really nice and welcoming. We went to their current puppy building and joined about 6 other people and were given a talk about their program.
They use Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and a cross of the two.
They have their own breeding stock dogs and those dogs live with volunteer host families. Their puppies get lots of early socialization (what we got to help out with) before being given out to volunteer puppy raisers who belong to puppy groups in areas all around the southeastern US. Their Dogs return to formal training usually between 12-16 months of age when they get evaluated and placed into one of their training programs. Yes they train for guide work, but they also train dogs for veterans with PTSD. So when the dogs return they evaluate the dog’s temperament and decide what career it is most suitable for. They also have dogs that are placed in other careers if guide or PTSD work isn’t the right calling for them, such as bomb sniffing dogs, facility dogs (like nursing home, rehab programs, or other therapy work), or placed with visually impaired children so they are more comfortable being around and taking care of a dog before getting a guide of their own when they are old enough. This school also depends on volunteers and donations to keep their program going, there is no government funding, and the recipients of their dogs do not pay to receive them.
After we got the overview of the program we were given instructions of what we were going to work on with some of the puppies.
The task that day was to help get the puppies comfortable with different surfaces. They put on the floor a variety of surfaces like grated things, carpet, things that wobbled, raised platforms, etc. Our job was to encourage the puppies to step and walk on these surfaces and have a positive experience. We all got some toys as well to help encourage the pups and to give them something appropriate to chew on that wasn’t our fingers and shoelaces.
And then came out the puppies! We were introduced to four precious 7 week old yellow labrador retrievers, full of energy and silliness. We all got a chance to pet, cuddle, play, and smell that wonderful puppy breath with each puppy. And of course try to get photos of puppies, who are in a constant state of motion, so not exactly the easiest thing to do.
I am so glad that I took the time to visit, this school seems to have a wonderful program.
I believe that all guide dog schools have the same goal, to give visually impaired people greater independence. But each school I have visited (only 3 so far) is unique in its own way. There are so many people in need of guide dogs that there is no way only one school can fulfill that need. And just like colleges, not every school is going to be a perfect fit for every person.
Puppy raisers are always in demand for almost every service dog organization.
I encourage anyone who is interested in helping out to look into what schools are around you or have puppy raisers in your area, many school have raisers that aren’t necessarily close to their campuses. Puppy raising is a lot of work, but it will change your life more than you can imagine. After having a little puppy fix, I’m looking forward to my next puppy raising adventure…hopefully soon.