This month, A Beautiful Perspective is exploring touch in all its forms and contexts. Click here to read more stories from the TOUCH Issue.
It’s a postcard perfect morning in Palmetto, Florida, and I can’t see a thing.
But before I slid the blindfold over my eyes I took note of my surroundings: Up ahead, a winding trail meanders through a subtropical paradise of palms, pothos and Boston ferns. Fallen branches and low-hanging limbs obstruct the path. Overhead, an oak tree canopy casts dappled shade onto the foliage below. It’s uncharacteristically cool. In my left hand is my lifeline, a handle tethered to a harness on Marty, an 18-month-old yellow Labrador to whom I’ve ostensibly abandoned my sight for the next 10 minutes.
In a few seconds I’ll begin a blindfolded tour at Southeastern Guide Dogs, one of the largest accredited guide dog facilities in the country. Each year hundreds of dogs are born and trained here, before being gifted to new owners in need of canine companionship. Recipients are either disabled veterans or people with visual impairments. For “those who cannot see and those who’ve seen too much,” these dogs are their saviors.
More so than with any other animal, humans and dogs have a tangible bond. Dog lovers don’t need evidence of this, still, study after study has shown the benefits of simply petting a pup. From fortifying heart health to combatting depression by flooding the brain with the feel-good chemical oxytocin, dogs allot us happier, healthier lives.
For the visually impaired, that bond is magnified. The blindfolded tour is meant to simulate what it’s like to navigate a world of unforeseen obstacles with a guide dog by your side. It won’t be easy. I’ve been warned about the branches, curbs, limbs and other intentional hazards that lie ahead—and I’ve been told to be attuned to the cues Marty communicates through the handle.
With an upward sweep of my right arm and a firm directive—“Marty, forward”—the tour begins, and I immediately realize I am out of my depths. I start to shuffle my feet like a penguin, unsure about what’s just a couple steps in front of us. Marty tugs to the left. I’m pretty sure he’s turning too early, so I resist and pull a bit to the right. He acquiesces.
“You’re going into the bushes,” warns Stephanie Spence, an apprentice dog trainer, who trails closely behind. “Remember to let him lead.”
“Okay, okay,” I say and finally commit to let Marty take the reigns. This is, after all, in his blood. It’s written in his genes, an elite sequence of DNA passed down through generations of highly selective breeding. His training and conditioning regimen would exhaust a lot of amateur athletes. And he, unlike I, has done this all before. I take a deep breath, adjust my blindfold, reach down and pet his head. “Good boy,” I say, then sweep my right arm up again. “Marty, forward.”
Southeastern has churned out packs of preternatural puppies year after year since 1982. Among them are yellow and black Labs, Golden Retrievers, and a hybrid called the Goldador, bred specifically for its aptitude as a guide and service dog. Fall brings peak puppy season, when the kennels are full of languid new mothers, who seem, to my elation, never too tired to get up and greet a stranger with their wagging, trunk-like tails. Their eight or so offspring are veritable fluff balls of curiosity and sloth, ranging in color from platinum blond to charcoal black. Littermates often look alike, so caretakers use colored collars to tell them apart. For the next few weeks, they’ll simply be known as Red, Blue, Yellow, etc. If heaven does exist, it looks something like this.
The Southeastern facility is divided into six buildings across 33-acres that take their nominal inspiration from academic campuses. There’s the Puppy Academy, where dog breeding and kindergarten classes take place, the Canine University, where young-adult dogs socialize and train, and the Student Center, where soon-to-be-recipients of guide dogs spend three weeks in comfortable hotel-style rooms, as they’re matched with their new canine companion and taught how to be a responsible handler.
Personality traits make some dogs well-equipped for service and others more fit for life as deluxe lap dogs, carrying $5,000 price tags.
At the Puppy Academy, a black Lab named named Nicie is adapting to life as a new mother and the subsequent luxuries that affords. Acupuncture and aromatherapy sessions are on her itinerary. Cabbage wraps are on the menu.
The pampering is for good reason. She’s got a fresh litter to feed. Not yet one week old, her eight puppies lounge around next to her in a kind of canine cuddle puddle, their supple fur and skin folds together like layers of monochromatic Play-Doh. It’s tough to tell where one pup ends and the other begins. Nicie, meanwhile, is sponging up all the attention she can get from her caretakers, who meticulously monitor her temperature, nursing patterns and food intake.
Over the next few weeks, Nicie’s color-coded pups will be periodically removed from her care and introduced to a range of toys and playground equipment meant to acclimate them to the great big world out there. In one room, a pathway with 17 different surface textures helps them come in contact with all the different physical sensations they might experience as adults. They call it “play with a purpose;” by desensitizing the dogs to new experiences and environments early on, their later years can be spent training more advanced skills.
Creating a guide dog isn’t cheap. Southeastern estimates that, when all is said and done, as much as $60,000 will have gone towards raising each of its graduates, depending how long their training continues. And yet, visually impaired people and veterans don’t pay a cent. Southeastern is primarily funded by private donors, who make small monthly donations or offer heftier sums. For $5,000, for example, you can name a dog, like Butzi, Cashew or Boonoodle. For a few hundred thousand more, you can name a building. Donors recently helped fund the construction of an air-conditioned training center, an arguable essential during summertime in the Sunshine State.
Some 700 core volunteers help keep Southeastern operational, lending hands at the facility or fostering adolescent dogs at home. Once puppies graduate the Academy at about 10 weeks old, they’re handed off to puppy raisers around the country. In their youth, the dogs are mature enough to learn basic canine etiquette—don’t pee inside, chew chairs or pounce on guests—but too exuberant to engage in rigorous guide dog training. Plus, it helps to unload all that boisterousness in someone else’s home. But it’s not all fun and games. For the next year or so, the dogs will stick to a pretty strict diet, lest they get fat, lazy, and unfit. Puppy raisers have treasure in their charge.
A fostered dog’s return to Southeastern is a period of excitement and angst for the pups, and often tears for their foster parents. From here on out, trainers will strive to identify the best candidates for different roles. All dogs are good dogs—that’s a hill I’ll die on—but personality traits make some well-equipped for service and others more fit for life as deluxe lap dogs, adopted out for a “cost-recovery fee” of $5,000. It’s up to the Southeastern trainers to determine who’s who.
From fortifying heart health to combatting depression, dogs allot us happier, healthier lives.
The first stop upon return is quarantine. This sounds more dramatic than it is. An endless playlist of new age music is piped into the kennel to keep new arrivals calm. Besides the ongoing melody, the building—in fact, the whole campus—is remarkably quiet. Southeastern abides by positive reinforcement only, and their strictly enforced “silent rule” means noisy dogs are denied attention until they quiet down. Then they get all the love they can handle.
During quarantine, dogs are tested to see how they respond to stimuli. Some are easily distracted by sights or smells. Others seem to care less. Only those that show the most promise will go on to train as a guide or service dogs, while the rest find lives as companions or sometimes even bomb sniffers. On average, one out of 10 dogs will become a breeder, two will change careers, three will be sold for adoption, and four will graduate as guides.
Training really begins after quarantine, when the dogs are taught over 40 commands, from “forward” to “find my phone,” and assessed on qualities like attentiveness and tolerance. The most promising prospects work with Southeastern’s accredited trainers and apprentices like Stephanie Spence to learn guide and service dogs skills, and complete a conditioning regimen prescribed by head veterinarian Kevin Conrad and Lauren Hugus, a canine conditioning and rehabilitation coach. Twice a week, dogs are brought individually to a room filled with Swiss exercise balls, balance boards and treadmills. There, Hugus uses healthy, green treats to encourage them through canine calisthenics that engage both their body and mind.
“I’m a believer that our dogs are athletes. All of the equipment serves a purpose,” Conrad says, pointing to a gorgeous Golden named Watson who’s just climbed onto a balance board with encouragement from Hugus. “This bidirectional board here wobbles on both sides, so Watson has to decide, Can I handle motion or does that scare me? Can I handle sound, because it makes sound? We can then separate these dogs into those that are sound-sensitive, motion-sensitive, body-sensitive, and then work with their weaknesses and focus on strengthening that.”
As a triathlete, Rachel Weeks understands the importance of training and conditioning. She also knows when to identify weaknesses and put in work to make them stronger. In the early 2000s, Weeks was diagnosed with Usher syndrome, a rare condition that causes both vision and hearing loss. In 2016, the single mother of two applied for a guide dog from Southeastern and was matched with a black Lab named Plum. Like the other recipients, she spent days training on campus and at home, learning the finer points of effective handling, as Plum learned Weeks’s needs.
Before she met Plum, Weeks recalls how her best friend, who also has a guide dog, told her, “Say goodbye to your left hand,” At the time, she didn’t get the significance. But now she does. “That left hand becomes the lifeline between the dog and the handler,” she says. “At first it’s very awkward feeling but now it’s just normal. I pick up the harness and that’s her signal—it’s time to work.”
Among the most important skills the dogs at Southeastern learn is “intelligent disobedience.” For Chad Bouton, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa and received his guide dog Andros four years ago, intelligent disobedience may have saved his life. At the very least, it has saved him from some bumps, bruises and embarrassment. While preparing to cross the street one day, Bouton told Andros to walk but the dog disobeyed him. “Andros, forward,” he said again and, again, Andros refused to move. It was only after an electric scooter—too quiet for Bouton to hear approaching—passed in front of them that Andros safely guided them across.
Four years of everyday contact has fostered an intimate bond between Andros and his handler. “He almost has a sense of telepathy,” Bouton says. “At times he understands me without me having to say anything.”
Back on the blindfolded tour, Marty’s becoming fed up with me. I’m tall, lanky and a “ping pong walker,” according to Spence, which means I tend to zig and zag like a drunk guy trying to pass a sobriety test. We’re the most difficult humans for guide dogs to work with because our gait is so inconsistent. As the tour ends, Marty seems to act out his frustration by walking me into a bench.
That was just an accident, Spence assures me. Marty was just confused. He may be genetically elite with supernatural powers of perception, but he still has a lot to learn in the months before graduation. And his future isn’t yet certain. Marty may end up a guide dog, service dog, bomb sniffer or couch potato. Either way, one thing is certain—he’ll always be a good boy.