You may have noticed the colorfully painted dogs that started appearing around Sarasota this past summer. These decked out canines were part of the Superheroes on Parade campaign and served as ambassadors for one of the most well-respected non-profit organizations in the country.
Founded in 1982, Southeastern Guide Dogs is a unique school that makes a mission of transforming the lives of extraordinary people—those who are visually impaired or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders.
From puppyhood to working dog, SEGD has developed a program that guides its miracle animals every step of the way. All the Labrador, golden retriever and “goldador” puppies are bred and born right on the SEGD main campus in Palmetto—a sprawling 33 acres devoted to the cause.
Director of Graduate Services, Suzy Wilburn, whose guide dog Carson was a model for the sculpture’s design, says this latest campaign promotes the dogs “as true superheroes, and so much more. They have powers that a pet doesn’t have, and that a cane doesn’t have. They also give us a chance to show the community that you don’t need to be frightful of visually impaired people and their dogs. There’s a fun side to it.”
Training on campus begins immediately in order to socialize the pups and make them comfortable with humans. After about two months, this interaction is continued in volunteer puppy raiser homes for the next year and a half. Over 700 core volunteers comprise the structure that allows SEGD to advance its incredible work.
After that initial period in a home when the dog may have played with children, headed to the office, ridden public transportation, and navigated neighborhoods and city streets, the future hero is ready to return to campus for a more formal education that will determine the dog’s eventual path. Factors like personality, temperament and trainability are assessed to find the right career for each SEGD student. Though the organization facilitates more than 100 partnerships each year, some animals are deemed more suitable for jobs other than guide dog or service dog. These talented individuals may work in law enforcement, in military medical facilities or in the outreach field to educate others about the SEGD mission.
On her first walk with Carson, Suzy experienced a moment that she describes as “like a light going on,” when she was able to lift her head as she walked instead of having to look down and watch where she was going. It was a very freeing, confidence-building feeling.
In one of her early training sessions, Suzy, Carson and a trainer stood at the intersection of a six-lane crossing in downtown Tampa. Before stepping off a curb, Suzy is supposed to measure the dip with her foot. The trainer asked Suzy to give the command to move forward. Carson’s job is to keep still if his owner is not making a good decision. Suzy told Carson, “Forward,” but he didn’t move. Again she gave the command, but Carson didn’t budge. The trainer asked, “Suzy, did you measure your curb?” When she did, she discovered that it was almost a foot and a half drop to street level. Needless to say, interactions like this have encouraged Suzy to learn to trust Carson with her life.
“It’s hard to understand the bond and unconditional love that develops. If someone offered to fix my eyes, but said I would have to give up Carson in return, I wouldn’t do it. I would rather be blind with my dog than fully sighted without him. He’s my everything.”