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Local Organization Prepares Dogs For The Working World

There are four-legged residents of the Tampa Bay area who stand out in public because of their harnesses and vests. Some are working guide dogs, others are guide dogs in training.

Southeastern Guide Dogs, a charitable organization in Palmetto, has spent decades preparing canines for the working world. 

Jeanne Gates of Largo and her dog named Tuesday are one such pair brought together by Southeastern. They have been a team for almost two years.

Gates is visually impaired and used a white cane to get around before Tuesday came into her life.

"You couldn’t find things, like I didn’t know where the door was if I was going into a store or something,” she explained. “So Tuesday was 100 percent better than just using a white cane.”

Southeastern Guide Dogs places trained dogs with people across the country with visual disabilities. It also places them with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We place between 75 and 80 guide dog teams every year,” said Andy Kramer, vice president of philanthropy for Southeastern.

It costs between $60,000 and $70,000 to raise a guide dog and the group gets no government money.

And, Kramer adds, recipients don't pay a dime.

"Being a not-for-profit organization, we rely on donations to fund our annual operating budget."

The process begins when puppies are born on campus. The future guide dogs live in what is called the Puppy Academy until they are 10 to 12 weeks old.

Then, they go home with volunteer puppy raisers who live around the Tampa Bay area to learn how to be a fulltime guide.

Anthony Loffler has been working with his 6-month-old yellow Lab named Jennings since early December. The dog he affectionately calls Jenny will go everywhere with him for 11 months, including the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus.

Loffler is part of the on-campus "Puppy Club" which partners with Southeastern Guide Dogs. The senior political science major attends club meetings twice a month with his canine guide-in-training.

As a group, the members take their pups to new places and practice commands and other training techniques. He says it looks a little chaotic until the dogs learn what they're supposed to do.

"My job is to introduce her to all different environments," he said.

Jennings and other guide dogs are allowed anywhere in Florida.

“She’s a guide dog in-training, so she’s allowed anywhere that a guide dog is allowed," Loffler explained.

Sometimes, though, taking a dog everywhere can be difficult. Loffler shared stories about how Jennings can be both a guide dog and a pet at the same time. One particular incident happened while Loffler was in class.

“My theories professor was going off on a tangent about some theory, and Jennings decided to throw up in class."

Loffler, who has to return Jennings to Southeastern in November, pays for all of her food and toys. Southeastern covers medical expenses for the future guide dogs.

Loffler knows that it will be hard to let Jennings go back to Southeastern when her training is finished.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” he said. “I might just run away with her to Canada or something.”

But he knows that he’s training his pup for a good cause.

“She’s going to help someone that really needs her, so that’s what matters.”

How Jennings and other trainees serve is decided once they're back on campus. Most become guide dogs for individuals, but others go into law enforcement or become visitors to hospital patients. Others stay at Southeastern to breed more puppies.

Kramer says the organization doesn't look much like it did 35 years ago, when several people began training just a few dogs in a two-bedroom home in Palmetto.

"We’ve definitely grown since our beginnings,” he said.

Since 1982, Southeastern has placed over 3,000 guide dog teams. And they've done it by hosting nine walk-a-thon fundraisers around Florida each year. Their most popular fundraiser is one where people can name a puppy, which costs $5,000.

One of the people aiming for that honor is Gates, the Largo woman who lives with her guide dog Tuesday.

“This year for the walk-a-thons, I was able to sell $750 worth of raffle tickets, but next year I’m going to sell $5,000 so I can name a dog,” she said.

She hopes that puppy will help someone as much as Tuesday helps her.