Organization guides dogs down the path to becoming guide dogs

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MANATEE COUNTY - For thousands of blind people stumbling in the dark, Southeastern Guide Dogs has provided a miracle: a strong, wise, loving companion to step up beside them and lead them safely through life.

Visually impaired Helen Arnold has depended on dogs from Southeastern Guide Dogs for 40 years. Her dog helps her at work. "Go around obstacles, he would help me if I told him to find the copier, he would do that."

Troy is the 8th dog she's gotten from Southeastern Guide Dogs over the years. He makes the extensive travel for her job possible. "He locates doors, he locates elevators, he can find my room in a hotel after we've been here once."

He also helps her in restaurants. "I'll go in and ask him to find a chair, and he'll go to a table where there's an empty chair and no one else sitting there."

Her guide dog once even saved her life. "I had one guide dog that kept me from stepping into an elevator that stopped about 4 feet below the floor.”

"We train them to keep their handlers safe. So they are taught to find obstacles, take them around them safely, and changes in elevation like curbs and steps," says Alice Ryskamp, a trainer at Southeastern Guide Dogs.

The dogs learn about 40 different commands, like find the bench, or show me when the elevation of the sidewalk changes. Dogs that will serve the hearing impaired also learn sign language -- but they don't always obey. "The dogs are taught intelligent disobedience. So if the handler makes a wrong decision, or if there's a car they couldn't hear, the dog will stop them and keep them safe that way."

About 250 puppies are born on the Southeast Guide Dogs campus every year. About half of those will be able to pass the stringent criteria required to become a guide dog for the visually impaired.

The others will take alternate careers, and they will make a huge impact on the people they serve. They will go into the Southeastern Guide Dogs Paws for Patriots program, where they will become a companion for a veteran who is disabled or suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder. "The main responsibility of these dogs in order to help a vet with post-traumatic disorder is to define their personal boundaries," says trainer Judy Bordignon.

She says the vets fear having people invading their space, so the dogs learn to block anyone who comes too close, or to give a warning if someone is about to surprise the vet from behind. "We've taught these dogs to do the watch command. The dog will stand next to the veteran facing backwards and signal if somebody coming up behind them."

And if post-traumatic stress sends the vet into a panic, the dogs are taught hug therapy. “We teach them, tap your shoulders and say hug, the dog will gently jump up on their lap and they can hold on to the dog and just be grounded until that experience of post-traumatic stress passes."

The cost of breeding, training, and caring for each puppy to raise it to become a guide dog is about $60,000. But there is no charge to the visually impaired or the veteran.

They come in to get their dog and learn to work with it. "They stay here on campus for 26 days to learn how to work with these amazing dogs. It's a very intensive training lesson, but it is so rewarding to see them walk away at graduation with their new guide dog and know how freedom is out there for them," says Jennifer Berment of Southeastern Guide Dogs.

There about 500 active teams of dog and owner from Southeastern Guide Dogs right now. Over the past 30 years, Southeastern Guide Dogs has matched up 2,600 teams.

Southeastern Guide Dogs receives no government funding. All their support comes through donations.