Meet these locals whose lives have been changed by some very special guide dogs
Turning an adorable puppy into a smart, loyal guide dog or service dog is no easy task. At Southeastern Guide Dogs, it’s an important undertaking that requires a great deal of time and effort, as well as patience and love.
The nonprofit organization provides guide dogs, service dogs, and skilled companion dogs to people who are visually impaired and veterans with disabilities. Dogs are also available for young people facing major challenges.
Breeding, raising, training, and matching the pups with people who need them takes two years and costs tens of thousands of dollars, says Ruth Lando, Southeastern’s media relations manager.
Founded in 1982, the accredited service dog school is based in Palmetto, Florida. The organization, which receives no government funding, relies on private contributions to fulfill its mission of creating partnerships between people and canines. The school’s training process relies in large part on volunteer puppy raisers who work with the dogs for a year or more, socializing them and teaching impulse control, manners, and basic commands. Southeastern’s dogs are Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and goldadors, a mix of the two.
“Puppy raisers are a vital part of making this work, and we’re always in need of more,” Ruth says.
Here, we’ll introduce you to three Seminole County residents whose lives have been enriched by these hardworking, top-of-the-line dogs. Two are devoted puppy raisers; the other is a grateful guide dog recipient whose world brightened with the pup’s arrival.
When Kali Todd, a Longwood resident, was a student at Stetson University, her first service dog-in-training achieved celebrity status.
“Living on a college campus, everyone knew who he was,” Kali says, from fellow students to faculty members.
The recent graduate says the black lab, who is named Delta, knew he couldn’t interact with his adoring fans while wearing a training vest. But once the vest came off, he reveled in the extra attention.
Kali, 22, signed up to be a puppy raiser for Southeastern Guide Dogs because she believes in its mission and approach to training the pups. And, she appreciates the way the organization treats its volunteers.
For example, Southeastern pays for the puppies’ major expenses including veterinary bills and heartworm prevention medicine. Puppy raisers are responsible for buying food, treats, and toys.
“Being a struggling college student, that helped a lot,” says Kali, a Lake Brantley High alum. “You still get all the benefits of having a lovable puppy, but without all the financial obligation.”
As a puppy raiser, Kali was tasked with socializing and teaching Delta basic commands through experiential learning – such as taking the dog to her college classes.
“The puppies are a lot of fun to be around,” she says, but being a successful puppy raiser is also a lot of work. “It’s like having a little kid; there are bad days and good days.”
In March, Kali returned Delta to Southeastern because it was time for his advanced training, also known as puppy college. That was a miserable day filled with tears, but Kali takes comfort in the photos and updates she receives about how Delta is doing.
“You grow so attached to them; Delta and I were buds,” Kali says.
She also found another way to ease the heartache of saying goodbye to Delta. The same day Kali brought him back to Southeastern, she picked up another puppy to raise – a yellow lab named Baxter.
Although Kali can’t take Baxter to her new job as a financial analyst at Lockheed Martin, she spends plenty of time training him after work. Recently, she learned that Southeastern chose Delta to be a breeder dog. That was a mixed blessing for Kali, who had hoped he’d be selected for the coveted role of guide dog, a demanding position that is difficult to attain.
“But now, there’s going to be 50 little Deltas running around,” Kali says with a grin.
When he was 18, Eddie Torres went blind in his left eye overnight. During the next few years, he lost almost all the vision in his right eye, as well. Doctors initially thought his vision loss was due to a retina detachment, but the cause was actually chronic glaucoma. Eddie has some light perception in his right eye, but nothing more.
“That meant everything had to change,” says the 50-year-old Sanford resident, who was forced to give up his car and aspirations of becoming a nurse.
At first, he did little more than sit at home listening to the radio and television. But after talking with a social worker, Eddie enrolled in rehabilitation programs where he learned valuable job and life skills to help him be independent.
For years, Eddie relied on a cane to get around. But a few years ago, he got a job at Lighthouse Works, a company that provides job opportunities for the blind and visually impaired.
“When I was around other people who are blind and their guide dogs, that was when I started getting interested,” says Eddie, who decided to apply for his own dog. “It sounded so cool.”
More than two years ago, Southeastern Guide Dogs matched Eddie with Oakley, a yellow goldador. She has boosted his confidence and helped him become even more independent.
Eddie, a native of Puerto Rico, jokes that he’s less accident-prone now because Oakley steers him away from tripping hazards and other obstacles.
“I haven’t broken my face in a while,” Eddie quips. “I’m pretty good with a cane, but having Oakley is way better.”
The dog accompanies him most everywhere, from the bus ride to work to church services to restaurants to family gatherings. Once, Eddie took Oakley to his daughter’s school for a show-and-tell presentation, which was a huge hit with the kids.
“Oakley adds a lot to the family,” Eddie says. “When she isn’t working, she’s more like a pet.”
The sweet, capable canine also gives Eddie’s wife Enid and daughter Mariaisabel peace of mind. They know the devoted dog will be right by Eddie’s side – looking out for him – wherever he goes.
“They feel more comfortable when I leave the house because I have Oakley,” Eddie says. “She makes them feel better.”
Morgan McElrath left her job at a zoo in South Florida because she wanted to do something more impactful for people. However, it wasn’t long before the lifelong animal lover missed working with four-legged creatures.
Her mother came up with the ideal work-life solution: Morgan could volunteer as a puppy raiser. Intrigued, Morgan researched the possibilities and found exactly what she was looking for in Southeastern Guide Dogs.
“Southeastern really touched me because of its involvement with veterans with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and with the visually impaired,” says the 24-year-old Casselberry resident. “I was so inspired.”
Morgan’s father is a veteran who was wounded in combat in 1989 during the Panama invasion. He struggled with PTSD in the past, and some of his friends still do. And, when Morgan was a student at Palm Beach Atlantic University, she had a visually-impaired friend with a guide dog.
“I can’t think of a more perfect way to fuel my passion for working with animals and for helping people,” says Morgan, a Lake Mary High grad. “I’ve seen the impact that service dogs can have. There are few things as beautiful as the relationship between a dog and a person. It’s so healing and therapeutic.”
This spring, Morgan finished raising her first puppy for Southeastern, a yellow lab named Tuesday. Morgan was allowed to bring the pup to her job as volunteer program coordinator at Shepherd’s Hope, a free medical clinic for people without health insurance.
She and Tuesday also participated in Southeastern’s walkathon in Altamonte Springs, raising $4,000 for the service dog organization. That’s a magic number for puppy raisers, who earn the right to sponsor a puppy-in-training if they hit that dollar amount. Sponsoring a pup means Morgan will have the honor of naming a dog, and if the timing is right, she will get to be its puppy raiser, too. She has chosen the name King Lou, in honor of her father’s friend who lost his battle with PTSD last year.
Even if Morgan doesn’t get to raise King Lou herself, she wants to continue raising puppies for Southeastern. Recently, she found out that Tuesday was chosen to be a breeder dog, and she’s excited about the ways those yet-to-be born canines could improve someone’s life.
“I’ve learned so much,” she says. “I almost feel like it would be a waste not to do it again.”
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