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Puppy raising: Changing lives one dog at a time

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image Learning proper doorway entrance and exist positioning is all part of the practice for a guide dog in the making. Here “Ruth”, a Goldador in early training as part of her puppy raising process, works with Sue Croley. Photo Melody Jameson

Its mission statement is unambiguous: “To create and nurture a partnership between a visually impaired individual and a guide dog, facilitating life’s journey with mobility, independence and dignity.”


SOUTH COUNTY — Dogs know.

They are not the only domesticated animals demonstrating heightened sensitivity to needs of the human animal, but they certainly rank high. Take, for example, the Labradors and Goldadors and Golden Retrievers, raised with the help of loving puppy foster homes, that Southeastern Guide Dogs match with the visually impaired, with traumatized veterans, with public service agencies.

Veteran puppy raisers Bob Minthorn and Sue Croley, a husband and wife team now training and acclimating their seventh pup in Sun City Center for the Palmetto based organization, cite a recent experience in support of canine sense.

They had been asked to return to Southeastern’s Palmetto campus with their sixth charge, “Avery.” It was thought the dog might help a U.S. Marine diagnosed with a post traumatic stress disorder after tours in the Middle East doing the kind of battlefield work no human being ever should have to perform.

Together, the three of them — he, his wife and “Avery” ­— met “Jim” in a counselor’s office. However, when “Avery,” was allowed off leash, he did not approach the soldier, Minthorn recalls. In fact, the dog ignored the Marine whose PTSD is manifested by such symptoms as severely shaking hands and difficulty in speaking, he notes.

Since “Avery’s” behavior did not signal a healthy, helpful match, another young dog was introduced. “Honey” entered the room, Minthorn relates, made a beeline for the soldier and placed her head on his knee. There she remained.

To get better acquainted, they all went out to lunch, the Marine seated with “Honey” at his side, his palsied left hand frequently dropping to touch her head. At this point in recounting the event, Minthorn’s voice catches. “It was just remarkable,” he says, “as we ate, Jim’s hands slowed, he began to speak clearly, the stress conditions brought on by the inhumanity of war he had witnessed were so obviously eased by the calm presence of 'Honey' at his side.” This, Minthorn indicates as he regains composure, is the power of dogs; they know who and how to help.

Equally suitably, “Avery,” equipped with an extraordinary sense of smell, now serves in search and rescue with a local law enforcement agency, he adds.

Southeastern has made several such successful matches with injured and impacted veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through its Paws for Patriots Program, pairing either a trained guide dog with a blinded vet or the special service dog with a serviceman afflicted by PTSD.

But the 30-year-old organization began — and continues — focused on training through multiple stages dogs of several breeds to take the sight impaired almost anywhere they might want to go. Its mission statement is unambiguous: “To create and nurture a partnership between a visually impaired individual and a guide dog, facilitating life’s journey with mobility, independence and dignity.”

That partnership is made possible by a network of “puppy raisers” who “adopt” for a year or so one of the young dogs born in the Southeastern kennels, emphasizes Croley, the organization’s SouthShore Area Coordinator. Puppy raisers frequently take a weaned, nine-week-old pup who may have just been introduced to housebreaking, she explains, and teach the youngster not only home manners but also public behaviors through a variety of exposures and the kind of training a guide dog requires to perform and protect competently at the side of a sight impaired human.

These fostering individuals and families take on responsibility for the young dog’s food, leash, collar, crate, toys, and flea/tick prevention while Southeastern provides veterinary care and monthly heartworm medications. Plus, Croley notes, under the contractual agreement with the organization, puppy raisers follow a training protocol that eventually equips the dog to function well in a variety of circumstances while also taking the animal into the situations humans encounter, from work environments to social settings to numerous errands and destinations.

In short, Croley points out, “they love the puppy and give him or her opportunity to become a well exposed, confident animal.”

Then, after making these investments, puppy raisers surrender their dogs that they’ve come to love to Southeastern for the final training stage and, ultimately, assignment to the role where they are most temperamentally suited, the local coordinator says.

 “People often ask me: ‘how do you handle it?’,” she adds. “It certainly is a commitment” Croley acknowledges, and it can be hard to part with a dog that has become a member of the family, but there also are rewards. Puppy raisers many times see their charges again, frequently make new friends among people with similar interests and, most importantly, know they are making contributions that will very meaningfully enhance if not alter the lives of others.

In addition to the dogs assisting veterans and guiding the sight impaired, Southeastern –trained animals have gone on to public service careers in law enforcement search and rescue as well as in bomb, arson and drug detection work. Other dogs have become therapy animals in nursing homes or hospices and taken on roles as ambassadors in schools.

Still others not destined to be canine guides sometimes become companions for youngsters under the age of 18 with vision problems, helping them learn the responsibilities involved in dog care.

What’s more, Croley says she’s currently overseeing high school students raising puppies as components of the teen-agers’ community service records that will be included with their college applications.

The total cost of producing a guide dog from birth to assignment is pegged at $60,000, Minthorn notes. Southeastern Guide Dogs is completely supported by private donations, receives no government funding and provides its guide trained animals at no charge to recipients. The organization currently supplies after-match support to more than 600 guide dog teams and, he adds, the number of those seeking a guide dog exceeds the number of available trained animals. “There’s a waiting list,” he asserts.

Additional information, including applications for prospective puppy raisers as well as opportunities to take part in puppy hugging or dog walking on Southeastern’s campus, can be found on the organization’s website: www.Guidedogs.org.
Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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