Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto boasts that it has the most advanced service dog training facility in the world.
The organization matches qualified applicants with an elite group of purebred highly trained guide dogs, service dogs, and skilled companion dogs, taking into account applicants’ needs, lifestyle, personality and activity levels. Applicants include people with vision loss, veterans with disabilities, and children with physical, mental or emotional challenges.
James Umbel, Dottie Langham, and Arsenio Cordero are three legally blind Highlands County residents who are the proud owners of guide dogs that were bred, raised and trained by Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Each of the dogs is a goldador, a cross between a labrador and a golden retriever. The breed is known for its intelligence, patience, loyalty and willingness to please.
Umbel’s dog, Obi, is a 2-year-old male; Cordero’s dog, G, is a 7-year-old male, and Langham’s dog, Jasper, is a 3-year-old female. Langham acquired Jasper in October 2021, after her guide dog Sara, a 10-year-old black labrador, was diagnosed with canine lupus and had to retire.
All guide dogs complete an elaborate two-year training program. Training begins early. For the first 10 weeks, the puppies are exposed to various sounds, surfaces, objects and distractions to see how they will react. The puppies also get lots of hugs from the caregivers who feed and handle them.
At 10 weeks, the puppies are sent to the homes of volunteer puppy raisers to learn basic obedience, house manners, and socialization, and to be introduced to as many new experiences as possible.
Christine Raszeja was a volunteer puppy raiser for Cordero’s dog, G. Describing her relationship with the dog, she said, “G was not the excitable puppy you usually see. I took him on a road trip to New York. I took him kayaking. He went swimming with my son. He visited my elderly father-in-law. No matter what the situation, he was always pretty calm.”
“He also seemed to have an intuitive sense of people who needed help and comfort. After I had major surgery, he stayed by my side throughout the recovery process.”
At about 16 months, the puppies are returned to Southeastern Guide Dogs where they are evaluated by veterinarians and animal behavior experts.
Those who are chosen to be guide dogs go on to learn advanced skills and approximately 40 commands.
A guide dog’s job is to look out for hazards and obstacles that a blind person cannot see. If a route is new, the handler/owner must give the dog explicit commands at each turn as they head to their destination. If the handler repeats that route, the dog will likely learn it, and the handler won’t need to tell the dog where to turn.
A guide dog cannot distinguish traffic lights and cannot read walk signs. The handler must listen to the sounds of the traffic and decide when it is safe to cross. If the handler misjudges the traffic, the dog will exercise “intelligent disobedience” and refuse the command to move forward.
While the dogs are undergoing training, admissions personnel are reviewing potential guide dog owners’ applications.
Umbel, the newest of the three guide dog owners, applied for a guide dog last April. Besides filling out an application and submitting other paperwork, he received an in-home visit from an admissions officer who interviewed him and assessed his ability to walk while holding a guide dog’s harness.
“Two weeks later, I received a call telling me that I had been approved. Six months later, I was notified that the organization had found a match, and I was to be paired with Obi,” Umbel said.
The next step is for qualified applicants to meet their new dogs and to participate in a 21-day intensive training program on Southeastern Guide Dogs 33-acre campus, while being housed in well-furnished private rooms with all the comforts of home.
Training consists of hands-on learning, class lectures, and lots of practice walking with their dogs on and off campus. Training ends with a graduation ceremony. But Southeastern Guide Dogs follows up with its alumni annually until the dog is retired, and the support is transferred to the successor dog.
Thanks to the generosity of its donors, Southeastern Guide Dogs is able to provide the dogs as gifts to their graduates. The graduates also receive dog food, preventatives, and veterinary care free-of-charge for the rest of the dogs’ lives. Since Cordero is a veteran, his dog’s veterinary care is paid for by the Veterans Administration.
When guide dogs are wearing their harnesses, they are working dogs and should not be petted. When their harnesses are removed, they are pets like any other dogs and can be showered with affection.
Freedom and independence come with owning a guide dog. “I can walk faster and more naturally with G than I can with a cane. But G is more than my navigator. If I’m depressed, he’ll give me a nudge as though to say, everything will be all right,” Cordero said.
A dog may be a human’s best friend, but the relationship takes on greater significance when the human also relies on the dog for mobility and independence.