Dogs Guide Way to Independence
Guide dogs emerge from a Florida school as leaders to new hope and independence. (Pet Pulse Photo by John McQuiston, Design by Tim Mattson)
PALMETTO, Fla. -- Patty Spellman's first walk with Ace was more than a training exercise for a visually impaired woman and her guide dog.
"It was freedom," she said.
Since Spellman lost most of her sight two years ago, the Smith Station, Ala., resident had never gone anywhere without someone there to lead the way.
Spellman's guilt became as much a handicap as her blindness.
"You feel that for the other people so a lot of times I'll just say 'no' even though I want to (do something) because I don't want to put anyone out," she said.
Thanks to Ace, a smooth-haired collie Spellman met at Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc., she now doesn't have to worry about inconveniencing anyone again.
Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc., based in Palmetto, Fla., is one of the 10 certified guide dog schools in the country.
Southeastern trains dogs, matches them with visually impaired people, then teaches the canine-human "teams" how to navigate certain everyday obstacles.
The school trains 75-80 teams a year, costing around $60,000 per team. All of the money comes from donations and clients are exempt from charges.
The school breeds its own dogs and training begins just weeks after they're born. Volunteers called "Puppy Huggers" come four mornings a week to accustom the newly weaned puppies to human contact.
"A Puppy Hugger is anybody who comes in from anywhere and says, 'I'd really like to hug a puppy,' " Patsy French, Southeastern's communications director, said.
At eight or nine-weeks-old, the puppies go to foster homes, where they remain for the next 14 to 18 months.
Volunteer "Puppy Raisers" teach them social skills and expose them to situations they'll face as guide dogs.
"They take them to the bank," French said. "They take them to the movies, they take them on planes."
Collies, Labradors and and Golden Retrievers are among the seven different breeds the school uses. Good guide dog candidates must be intelligent, attentive and have "a joyful spirit," French says.
"We want dogs that are happy doing what they do."
When the dogs return from their Puppy Raiser homes, they spend six to eight months learning how to guide a blind companion.
Most training happens on the curving sidewalks, curbs and other obstacles on Southeastern's 23-acre campus. When the teams have mastered those, they take field trips to places like downtown Tampa, where they learn to negotiate city street crossings, sidewalks, elevators and revolving doors.
One client, Charles Royal, had never before encountered a revolving door. Trainer Kate Flamm led him through once, then Royal and Chief, a black Lab, took their turn.
"I was afraid I was going to mess up," Royal said. "Maybe end up cutting his tail off in the door.
"You've got to be paying attention to what you're doing, and what the dog's doing, because the dog's going to be trying to tell you things that you need to know."
Learning to trust a guide dog in unfamiliar situations takes courage.
"It is a huge leap of faith," Flamm said.
But when the connection occurs, the sparks fly and then stick.
Spellman remembers hearing the theme song from "Rocky" in her head as she and Ace completed their first walk together.
"That was really putting all of me in his hands," Spellman said. "It was his eyes and we did it -- we did it -- and that felt good."
She gets emotional as she talks about how man's best friend has become so much more.
"You take care of your pets," she said. "This is equal. We have to take care of each other."
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