The Making of a Superhero: Dogs Destined for Greatness

by Danielle Palli on June 6, 2017

in Animals, Charitable Causes

I am not blind … well, not normally, anyway. This wasn’t the case earlier this week, as I allowed Sprinter, a guide dog in training, to lead me around a winding path while I sported blackout glasses. Part of The Guide Dog Experience on campus at Southeastern Guide Dogs, I (along with several other guests) was given the unique experience of learning what it takes to create a superhero. And, make no mistake, these dogs are superheroes.

Superhero Training

From the time that these puppies can open their eyes, they are already beginning their training at the Puppy Academy – where they are socialized and taught multisensory play-with-a-purpose. Once they are 10 weeks old, puppies leave for “boarding school” where volunteer puppy raisers help teach them basic obedience and house manners in a home environment. While it’s hard to say goodbye, puppy raisers understand that once their young student reaches around 14-18 months, he or she must return to the Southeastern Guide Dog campus for advanced training.

Volunteer, Nancy Cottrell, introduced us to her ambassador dog, Gunner, and explained to our group that Southeastern Guide Dogs are trained for two primary purposes: to become a guide dog for those who are visually impaired or to become a service dog to support veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Guide dogs go through approximately six months of formal harness training followed by nearly a month of student-handler training. Service Dogs also receive about six months of training, followed by almost two weeks of student-handler training.

Developing Trust  

As I learned from my experience, trust isn’t an easy thing when you can’t see the path in front of you. But my fear was normal, and I discovered that it takes time for a guide dog and their handler to fully bond, work together and develop trust. “But what about a service dog,” I asked. “How do they support those with PTSD?”

Cottrell informed me that a service dog has the ability to respond to cues given off by someone who may be on the verge of an episode, using all of their senses – including smell (We do, in fact, give off a different scent when we are stressed). The service dog will then exhibit the necessary behavior based on those cues. One such response might be to guide the person having an anxiety attack to a chair, where the dog will then put their paws on the hander’s lap and look into their eyes as a way of interrupting a stress cycle. As one veteran living with PTSD told Cottrell, “It’s really hard to be stressed when there’s a 70-lb. dog in your lap licking your nose.”

Finding the Right Career Path

Now, truth be told, not all dogs bred for these two career paths are destined to be a service dog or guide dog. Trainers take care to respect the individuality of each dog. For example, an excessive “sniffer” dog may be better suited toward becoming a public service dog, aiding law enforcement in careers such as bomb, arson, firearms and drug detection, while others become companion dogs for children with visual impairments, therapy dogs for veterans and families being treated in military medical facilities, and ambassador dogs – like Gunner – who live with active volunteers for the purpose of outreach and education.

Special Breeding

After learning that Golden Retrievers, Yellow Labrador Retrievers, and Goldadors (a Golden Retriever and Yellow Lab mix) are specific breeds you’ll find on campus, I wondered why. Why train a Goldador versus – say – my own Border-Beagle mix, Simone? (This was somewhat of a rhetorical question as my dog isn’t nearly as well behaved as these dogs.)

“What we tend to notice with certain breeds, are that some are highly trainable and love being with humans,” Trainer Jennifer Johnson shared. “So, for example, while a Border Collie is a highly intelligent and trainable dog, you are more likely apt to send them out to do a task and come back, whereas a Lab – through generations of bonding with humans – is generally more inclined to want to stay beside you.”

When It’s Time to Retire

After many years of service (typically around seven to eight years and never more than nine), our superheroes retire. A handler has the opportunity to adopt their dog, or ask a family member or personal friend to do so. If the handler is unable to provide a comfortable and safe home for their dog, Southeastern Guide Dogs are often placed with their original puppy raiser or a pre-screened adoptive family. What an amazing experience for the puppy raiser who gets to come full circle with the dog they helped train for service, as well as for the dog who is loved and respected throughout their life.

Find Out More…

Southeastern Guide Dogs has a new 33-acre campus in Palmetto, FL that includes the Barpal-Hirst Student Center, the Margaret & Isaac Barpal Veterinary Center, and the Keith G. Hirst Assessment Center. Visitors are welcome to register for the Guide Dog Experience that I took, the Puppy Kindergarten Adventure (and really, who doesn’t want to play with a cute puppy for an hour?), and the Creation of a Superhero talks. The campus also provides training classes for pups like my Simone – who, admittedly – could benefit from a bit more training. To learn more about these activities, special events and volunteer opportunities, visit www.guidedogs.org.

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On a personal note: Special thanks to Nancy Cottrell, Jennifer Johnson, Sprinter, Gunner and the staff, volunteers and superheroes at Southeastern Guide Dogs for a remarkable learning opportunity. I also want to thank Dana and Rob Gourley of AquaNew for sending me on this assignment. Back in 2010, I wrote, “The Remarkable Lives of Service, Therapy and Companion Dogs” (pg. 32.) for Natural Awakenings Pet. Ironically, AquaNew had one of its first Watt-Ahh® advertisements placed in the same issue as my article – a year before I would begin to work with their company.

*Photos (top left and right) by Judy Williams 

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