Billy helps Gloria Orodzielowicz live her life everyday, one step at a time. He is her eyes, guiding her where she needs to go, whether it is across the street, through the mall, or taking her down the bread aisle at the local supermarket. Orodzielowicz was born legally blind. Billy was bred and raised to be of assistance to those who are vision impaired.
By personality, lifestyle and purpose, Orodzielowicz was matched to Billy at the Southeastern Guide Dog School in Palmetto, one of 10 guide-dog schools in the country. She went to school with others in her same situation, needing help. For 26 days and 26 nights, she lived at the school to bond with the dog she would take into her home, her life.
“They brought us in to bond with the dogs,” Orodzielowicz told a group who had gathered at SunTowers Retirement Village, to hear speakers talk about the program at Southeastern Guide Dogs. “They teamed Billy and I by personality, walking pace, lifestyle and transportation needs. Do I like to travel? Do I like to stay at home? Billy knew more than I did when we started. The volunteers build our confidence with ‘baby steps.’”
Among the group at SunTowers was Shirley Tracy, who is on the waiting list for a guide dog. Sight-impaired from birth, she has had a guide dog in the past and would like help again. Tracy lives at SunTowers, as do Jim and Genevieve Forciea. Genevieve Forciea thought the speakers were very personable and is happy to know what resources she can turn to if the need ever arises.
Ginny Hauch and Shirley Korn came over to SunTowers from Aston Gardens at The Courtyards to hear the program.
“It was very interesting,” Korn said. “I learned things I didn’t know before.” Hauch said she really liked the segment on “Paws for Patriots.”
Those attending learned there are three breeds of dogs used: Labradors, golden retrievers and a combination of the two — a goldador. Southeastern Guide Dogs breeds all its dogs at its campus in Palmetto. Once weaned, the pups become socialized and are housed by the “puppy raiser.” After nine or 10 weeks, they go out to the “puppy trainer.” Only 45 percent of the puppies are chosen to be guide dogs for the sight-impaired.
Nancy Cottrell is a volunteer at Southeastern Guide Dogs. Cottrell, with her husband George, are puppy raisers. They must take a personality test to be matched with the puppy they will raise. The puppies live with them before going to the puppy trainers. According to Nancy Cottrell, the canines chosen to be guide dogs have been bred to be lovers. Sixty percent of their personality traits come from genetics, she said.
“When the puppies are two days old, staff starts picking out the puppies,” Cottrell said. “We cannot have a dog that is afraid of any surface, or afraid of thunder and lightning.”
When a puppy is from four to six weeks, Cottrell said, future guide dogs become familiar with their service dog vests and with cement as a walking surface; they walk over grates and through water and they are housebroken. At six weeks old, they are exposed to the public in a petting area at the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus. From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., 20 visitors interact with the puppies.
From six to 10 weeks old, the dogs are trained by leash and are also walked. They are placed in golf cars to become familiar with motion and riding in any vehicle.
There are 15 commands the puppies must learn. They learn movement, they learn to “find” places, and must learn intelligence disobedience, or when to go directly against the owner’s instructions in an effort to make a better decision, such as when crossing a busy street. The dogs are “crate trained,” for sleeping purposes and so that the visually impaired can always find their dog.
At this point, the puppies then become the responsibility of the puppy trainer, before being matched with the person they help. That final training takes from four to six months to complete.
“Gloria learned to manage Billy and herself in the case of fire,” Cottrell said, describing instances that could happen to Gloria and Billy. “Billy goes to the front door because the sight-impaired can’t find the door.”
Cottrell explains how Gloria has a new-found freedom with Billy as her guide dog.
Orodzielowicz said that when she moved to Florida, she started to seriously think about getting a guide dog. After touring Southeastern Guide Dogs, she was so impressed with the staff there, she said, that she went home and filled out an application to be considered for a guide dog.
After Billy was paired with Orodzielowicz, Gloria said they walked around the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus before “practicing” walking in Bradenton. Every morning they worked on obedience training, she said, and they still practice that training so they don’t lose the commands.
Sarasota has more traffic, so they walked around that city next. They went to DeSoto Mall, Target and then Brandon Mall to practice getting Orodzielowicz to the stores she would need in the future.
After bonding with Billy, on the third week Orodzielowicz met Billy’s puppy raiser. Billy had been the 37th dog she “raised.” After 90 days, Orodzielowicz met Billy’s puppy trainer.
“Anything that I needed to do had been dealt with at school,” Orodzielowicz said. “We are cruising together in September. I am hoping he will like the water, since it’s a 10-day cruise. He has become my best friend.”
Cottrell receives no compensation other than payment for any veterinarian bills for being a puppy raiser, and Orodzielowicz pays nothing to be trained with Billy, even for the room and board on campus while training, or for the use of Billy.
Ownership papers stay with Southeastern Guide Dogs. After 10 years, the guide dog is usually retired.
The total cost of each guard dog is $60,000. It can take up to six months to a year to get a dog, and not every applicant is guaranteed a dog, even after going through physical and medical exams and a background check.
Volunteer Nicolas Olson’s dog is Bobby. Bobby is an ambassador, which means Bobby is not used as a guide dog for the visually impaired, but instead is taken to assisted living facilities, hospitals, libraries and reading programs for kids. Bobby and others are “ambassadors” of Southeast Guide Dogs in every sense of the word.
Olson said that Southeastern Guide Dogs is not the largest school but is considered by many to be “the best dog school in the nation.” The school recently opened a clinic with a genetics lab on the Palmetto campus to breed dogs with the pleasant, calm personalities needed to guide people who are vision impaired.
After training, said Olson, the guide dog is matched to the individual. They live together and train together for 26 days.
“The dog bonds to the individual,” Olson says, “and the individual bonds to the dog.”
Olson shared another story with the group gathered at SunTowers. Mike Jernigan was helped through the “Paws for Patriots” 10 day-10 night program for post-traumatic stress.
In Iraq, a bomb explosion had crushed Jernigan’s head, destroyed the vision in both of his eyes, and caused a brain injury. After 31 surgeries and months in rehab, Jernigan became depressed and lost in despair. He and his wife divorced. With help from one of the guide dogs, Brittany, he went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in American history and remarried his wife. Now he goes to VA hospitals and speaks about the Paws for Patriots program.
The dogs are very special. It is evident they are well taken care of and loved.
“We consider the dogs very precious,” Cottrell said. “We want them to have a great life.”
Southeastern Guide Dogs is a not-for-profit with an operating budget of $9.3 million annually funded by private donations. Since 1982, the school has provided guide dogs to people with visual impairments. Since then, there have been more than 410 guide dogs provided. The 35-acre campus has a park-like setting, three kennels, nine student rooms, a cafeteria and gift shop and an administrative facility in Palmetto. There are other training facilities in Sarasota, Bradenton and St. Petersburg. The Palmetto campus is at 4210 77th St. East, Palmetto, FL 34221, 941-729-5665. Dog-walking days are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m. Their website is GuideDogs.org.