It's graduation day at Southeastern Guide Dogs, and a student clings to the reins of a perfectly composed Labrador retriever, anticipation mixing with trepidation as he contemplates life with a brand-new pair of eyes.
"It's a very emotional moment," says executive director Bob DeBusk. "You can only imagine the leap of faith involved in grabbing onto a harness and trusting an animal with your entire life."
The 23-acre Palmetto campus breeds and trains dogs for the visually impaired at no cost to recipients. It is one of only 10 such schools in the country, and the only one serving the South, graduating some 2,000 dogs since 1982.
Volunteers raise puppies for one year, then return them to the center for four months of intensive training. The cost to the center is $27,000 per dog, all of it funded by private donation.
As many as 35 percent of the dogs will not graduate-they may be too easily distracted by squirrels and cats to concentrate on their owner's well-being. But they, too, will serve, becoming beloved companions for seniors or those with other physical handicaps. The dogs that make the cut will learn over 40 commands, including how to disobey orders that might harm them or their owner. "I find the whole process extraordinary," marvels DeBusk.
Foster families are always needed for puppy hugging, housebreaking and basic obedience training. Surrendering the young charges is never easy, says DeBusk, but if you're up to the task, call (941) 729-5665, or visit www.guidedogs.org.