At a Florida charity centre, puppy love breeds dedicated service animals

|      Diane Daniel      |

PUPPIES! Well, hello there, little fellas! You’re so cute!

“I just want to get everyone’s attention for a minute,” said Alex Young, who might as well have been tossing out USD100 bills while trying to rein in our group of nine visitors.

I felt bad for ignoring Young, our tour guide at Southeastern Guide Dogs, a nonprofit breeding, raising and training facility in Palmetto, Florida, but not enough to listen to what she was saying. Because, puppies!

We’d spotted the five seven-week-old yellow Labrador retrievers behind a window, two snoozing in a spoon position and the rest competing for space on a ledge to greet us, their tiny tails moving like mini-wipers on high speed.

In return, we oohed and cooed, speaking in baby talk.

Young finally tore us away, and started the tour with an introductory video narrated by Southeastern CEO Titus Herman.

“I know you’re not here to see me,” he began. “You’re here to see puppies.”

Indeed, the folks here know what they’re up against.

A new puppy in the Southeastern Guide Dogs preschool is exposed to a variety of sights, sounds and textures
Southeastern Guide Dogs staffer Bryan Greenbaum helps a yellow Labrador retriever puppy get accustomed to new surfaces and strange objects before he goes off to live with his volunteer puppy raiser for a year
Young black Lab puppies in the Southeastern Guide Dogs Puppy Kindergarten learn to interact with diverse stimuli so they can build a reference library of experiences for the future

They hope visitors will learn a few things about this training ground for service dogs while intermittently taking us to work areas that might contain puppies!

Since Southeastern started business in 1982, it has bred, raised and trained thousands of dogs – Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and a mix of the two called goldadors, all working toward the mission of transforming the lives of people in need. Its programmes take dogs from birth to puppy preschool and kindergarten to volunteer “puppy-raiser” homes off campus, then back for advanced training and ultimately placement with the two main categories of people they serve.

Guide dogs go to visually impaired people and service dogs are for veterans with disabilities and Gold Star families.

The organisation, housed on a 33-acre campus between St Petersburg and Sarasota, employs some of the most innovative scientists and trainers in the working-dog industry and says it operates the most advanced training facilities of any service dog organisation in the world.

Southeastern matches about 100 guide and service dog teams yearly and estimates a price tag of USD50,000 per dog to breed, raise, train and match the canines.

All services, including training and lifetime follow-up, are free to recipients, and the organisation is fully funded through donations.

The public tours, held several times a week, take visitors through six buildings to view whatever happens to be going on at the time. There’s also an indoor multimedia show available for those who prefer to skip the walking tour.

Our first stop after the introductory video was to peer through windows at an eight-week-old yellow lab being assessed to deduce its natural strengths and weaknesses.

A sign on the door – ‘Quiet please: puppy testing in progress’ – compelled us to keep our squeals to a minimum as we watched the adorable fluff ball confront various obstacles, including a fake owl, a set of plastic stairs and a woman coming at the dog with a broom.

Instead of running from it, the dog playfully went after it. Confident ones make the best guide and service dogs, Young said, and this one seemed on its way.

Next up was puppy preschool, where we watched a volunteer playing with a four-week-old black lab with the goal of exposing the dog to both people and a host of “distractions”.

She tossed it toys, had it walk on mats of various surfaces, opened an umbrella nearby and held different scents under its nose.

Young explained that the bib the pup wore was to start getting it used to the feel of a guide harness or service vest.

Before we left, the volunteer held the little one up to the window so we could feverishly wave like five-year-olds at a parade and exclaim, “Hello, puppy!”

The whelping, or delivery, area is off-limits, but we could watch the mothers and their litters on a wall of video feeds.

Some 275 puppies are born at the facility each year, which has a six-person genetics and reproduction staff.

About 40 to 50 females are mated with 15 males – breeders live at homes of volunteer breeder hosts, which must be no more than 75 minutes from campus “for reproductive urgency”, Young said.

Young said the dogs born here usually grow to 45 or 50 pounds, which is relatively small for the breed. The focus, she said, is on health and temperament.

At about 12 weeks, the dogs go to trained volunteer puppy raisers – there are about 300 spread across seven southeastern states.

Their job is to socialise the dog and give it many opportunities to be out in public. The dogs are returned to the centre for “university” at about 15 months.

“The most-asked question on the tours is how the puppy raisers are able to give the dogs back,” Young said.

“What they tell us is, ‘I love this puppy, but someone else needs it.’ ” As for the puppy’s reaction, “They’re really great at bonding to the next person,” she said.

As we walked across campus to the veterinary centre, we saw a couple of people walking adult dogs, but most canines in training were out and about on different tasks, including walking city streets and going to shopping areas all over the greater Tampa Bay area, Young said.

At the veterinary centre, where some 700 puppies and dogs are cared for each year, we watched another short video that explained the centre’s use of advanced medicine as well as holistic approaches. The centre will soon add a conditioning aquatic centre and hydrotherapy tanks.

“I have something exciting for you,” Young told us as an attendant trotted up with the energetic Papa Bear, a nearly two-year-old yellow lab who had nearly completed university. We all but lunged at him, taking turns giving and receiving hugs and kisses.

As I brushed his hair off my clothes, I asked Young if the stellar scientists here have done anything to eliminate shedding. Sadly, the answer was no.

Next on the stop was the new indoor training centre, where we learnt that before the guide dogs graduate, they’ll learn more than 40 commands, while service dogs will learn up to 20.

The guide dogs also learn “intelligent disobedience” in case they’ve outsmarted their humans.

Throughout the training programme, only positive reinforcement is used, initially with the aid of treats but later solely through verbal praise and petting.

Young said the matching of dogs to humans, done when the dogs are around two-years-old, is an art and a science, with trainers considering personalities, and an individual’s lifestyle, pace, and activity level.

The dogs typically work until they’re 11 years old, the mandated retirement age. (Dogs that appear not suited for guide or service work go into different “careers”, including public service, such as drug detection, and private adoption.)

Each year, several classes are held to teach the “handlers”, people receiving the dogs, how to work with them.

They stay for two to three weeks and are housed in private rooms with en suite bathrooms – indoors for the human and out back for the canine.

A highlight during the course is ‘Puppy Raiser Day’, when the puppy raisers come to see their grown pup and the person matched to the dog.

“The dog is surrounded by the three people it loves the most and the people who love the dog the most: the handler, the raiser and the trainer,” Young said. “There are a lot of tears.”

At the tail end of our tour, we happened upon a trio of cavorting labs in an outdoors fenced-in area.

They’d just finished lunch and their trainers were giving them a break before their next lesson. For our group, it was the final treat: Puppies! – Text & Photos by The Washington Post