Guiding Lights

Southeastern Guide Dogs Give Hope to the Blind

Almost every Southeastern Guide Dogs graduate has the same response when asked how having a guide dog has changed his or her life: These animals have set them free.

By Megan McDonald March 1, 2009

 It’s 9 a.m. on an unseasonably cold October morning in the heart of downtown Tampa. Though the sun is out, reflecting off car windows and multi-story buildings, the air is crisp and breezy. Early-morning traffic whips by, and pedestrians clutching Starbucks cups and leather briefcases look carefully from left to right—several times—before crossing the city’s bustling, six-lane intersections.           

Today, however, another group of pedestrians is mixed in with the usual sidewalk crowd. A group of visually impaired students from Southeastern Guide Dogs is braving city traffic for the first time with their dogs and trainers. The students were matched with their guide dogs only two weeks ago, and they are understandably apprehensive. But with some gentle nudging from the trainers, they all tighten their grips on the dogs’ harnesses and set off. They’re depending on the dogs to help find doors, stairs and elevators, navigate sidewalks and—at this moment—cross streets.

Tom Lemos, 38, is one of the students here this morning. Lemos, who lives in Bradenton, is bald, wearing thick black sunglasses, a navy-blue hooded sweatshirt, shorts and pristine white sneakers. His guide dog, Taylor, a caramel-colored goldador (a Labrador/golden retriever mix) with expressive chocolate brown eyes, appears unruffled, but Tom is visibly nervous. While some of the other students have had other guide dogs in the past, Taylor is Tom’s first guide dog.

“Ready?” Jennifer Johnson, a trainer who has worked with Tom throughout his time at Southeastern Guide Dogs, asks, as the traffic light turns red and cars halt.

Tom, who is white-knuckling Taylor’s leather harness, nods, but he doesn’t move, though traffic has stopped and the white light on the crosswalk signal lets pedestrians know it’s OK to go.

“Ready?” Jennifer asks a second time. Her voice is gentle, but she knows there’s only so much time for Tom to cross the street before the light changes.

Tom nods again. Almost as if doing so will protect him from the outside world, he pulls the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and says, “Forward. Find the curb,” one of the most common commands used with the dogs. Taylor takes a few steps forward and stops at the curb of the crosswalk, where she waits for Tom to feel the edge of it with his shoe—this way, he’ll know he needs to step down and he’ll avoid tripping and falling. “Forward,” Tom says again, and the pair begins to slowly cross the street

All of a sudden, a young driver in a flashy silver car, eager to turn right on red, zips around the corner, dangerously close to Tom and Taylor. Even though Tom ordered her to go forward, Taylor stops in her tracks and begins to back up, her furry body nudging Tom backward and out of the car’s way.

Finally, after making sure the coast is clear, Tom and Taylor finish crossing the street and step onto the sidewalk. Tom removes the hood of his sweatshirt and draws a ragged breath, dropping to his knees and hugging Taylor. “Thank you,” he whispers.

A few feet away, the traffic light turns green and the cars surge forward again.

Tom, like some of the other students in his class, has always had some visual impairment. “I was born with a lazy [left] eye,” he explains. After moving to Bradenton from Massachusetts to get away from the cold weather with his wife of 16 years, Audrey, and their two children, ages 15 and 21, he began working for a construction company in Sarasota and settled into his life in Florida.

 Then, three years ago, he had an accident.

 “I was framing a building, shooting pressure-treated wood onto cement for a door frame with a nail gun, and a nail popped out of the gun and into my right eye,” he says matter-of-factly.

 With only 20 percent of his vision left—“I have tunnel vision now,” he explains—Tom had to quit work and began going to Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that offers the visually impaired instruction and advice on how to handle everyday tasks. He began walking with a cane, although he found true mobility difficult to attain.

“I started to notice myself not going anywhere, he says. “I almost got hit by a car twice, and—” here he sounds angry “—some kids once kicked my cane out of my hand. There were times when I felt uncomfortable walking.”

Though he hadn’t originally wanted a guide dog, he decided he’d had enough of being afraid. After meeting a man at Lighthouse for the Blind who had a service dog and seeing how well that partnership worked, Tom decided to apply for a guide dog from Southeastern in mid-2008. The school originally told him he wouldn’t be able to start its program until early 2009. Tom was prepared to wait.

But then he got a call telling him he could begin the class in early October. He and Audrey were thrilled. “I was shocked when they called me,” he says.

Several members of Southeastern’s staff came to visit Tom before the class began to make sure he was paired with a dog that would meet his needs. They reviewed everything from his daily routine to his gait, and they chose Taylor for Tom based on those observations.

When he first met Taylor, Tom was apprehensive. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it through the entire program and was still questioning whether a guide dog was the best choice for him. That’s when Taylor—who had only known Tom for a few minutes—licked his hand, then rested her head against his leg.

 “It was like she was saying, ‘I’m all yours,’” Tom says. 

The Southeastern Guide Dogs campus is located on a stretch of 23 acres in Palmetto. Though easily accessible from I-75, the school is quiet and serene. There are curving sidewalks for students to practice walking with their dogs, a kennel, a nine-bedroom dormitory and administrative building, and plenty of green grass where the dogs can play. The street names of the intersection at which visitors enter are telling: Independence Drive and Freedom Boulevard.

At Southeastern, future guide dogs are bred, born and tended to by school staffers before they’re matched with “puppy raisers”—people who volunteer to give the dogs a home, socializing them and teaching basic obedience under the watchful eyes of the school When they are 14 to 20 months old, the dogs return to the school for extensive medical examinations and six to eight months of harness training. During this time, they are taught more than 40 different commands that will help them guide their humans. The dogs are then paired with their new masters.

Students, for their part, apply to become part of the program and, if accepted, agree to live at the school for 26 days. Tom lives only a short drive away from Palmetto, but other students in his class—like Johnny, a veteran from Sanford who slowly lost his sight after his last overseas assignment, or Elaine, who’s traveled there from Tallahassee—have come much farther; the school accepts applicants from all over the Southeast. Students don’t have to pay a cent, either for the dog or the training period—the school waives the entire $60,000 that it costs to train and prepare a guide dog team, relying solely on private donations. It receives no governmental aid whatsoever. Even meals, prepared by a professional chef, are included. There are more than 830 active Southeastern Guide Dogs partnerships nationally; in Florida, there are about 475.

Tom says he was pleasantly surprised when he got to the school.

“I thought, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to have to share a room with somebody,’ and I thought the food would be sandwich meals,” he says with a chuckle. “But it became the experience of a lifetime. The food was out of this world, everything is kept nice and clean, and the staff wasn’t afraid to answer any questions I had about anything. They make you feel like part of the family.”           

In between the training sessions, students often sit out on the dormitory lanai, talking among themselves with their dogs curled at their feet. The trainers are quick to stress that when the students remove the dogs’ harnesses, the animals are off-duty—meaning they behave just like any other dog might. It’s only when the harness is slipped on that their responsibilities begin.

Southeastern Guide Dogs gives the students and their dogs a wide array of experiences. They travel to Super Walmart in Ellenton, where they practice navigating curbs, automatic doors and grocery aisles, and to St. Petersburg Beach and the mall. The dogs are also walked at night. This, of course, is in addition to the countless hours spent working with trainers on the Southeastern campus’ trails.

After his initial apprehension, Tom has grown to love Taylor; and although he is sometimes forced to correct her behavior—when she gets distracted and stops to sniff something on the ground while wearing her harness, for example—he is also quick to praise her, petting her often and calling her “baby.”           

Taylor, for her part, is happiest when she’s next to Tom, resting her chin on his thigh or lying across his feet. In those moments, an observer can clearly see the relationship between dog and human taking shape. Eventually, students and their guide dogs become so in tune with each other that if the dog sees something that might endanger her human—such as the car that almost hit Tom and Taylor in Tampa—she’ll disregard his command in order to keep him safe. This is called “intelligent disobedience.”

The students in the class have varying levels of visual and physical impairment. Johnny, the veteran, has lost his sight completely and wears a pair of glass eyes. His guide dog, Seamus, is the fourth one he’s had from Southeastern; part of the school’s mission is to provide all of its students, past and present, with guide dogs for their entire lives. Tiffany, a recent graduate and Sarasota resident, is confined to a wheelchair. Her vision had been deteriorating for years; she finally woke up to blackness on Christmas Eve morning of 2002. Her guide dog is a black Lab named Andre.

Almost everyone in the class has the same response when asked how having a guide dog has changed his or her life: These animals have set them free.

“Before I got a guide dog, I didn’t leave my house,” says Tiffany. “But these dogs are so intelligent—Andre is more like a human to me. He knows how to find doors and clear obstacles, and he makes sure my wheelchair tires aren’t too close to other objects. Before I got him, I didn’t feel safe.” 

Tom cites the Tampa experience as the moment he knew that Taylor would protect him at all costs. “I knew then that she wasn’t going to let anything happen to me,” he says. “That’s when I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to work.’ I have a lot of hope now.” 

The process of getting acclimated to and training a guide dog is long and requires much of dog and student, physically and emotionally. And when the program ends, the student’s relationship with his dog really begins. Southeastern wants to provide students with a sense of their dogs’ history, and one of the most emotional days of the training period is “Puppy Raiser Day”—a Saturday morning near the end of the session when the men and women who have helped raise the guide dogs come to the school for a brief ceremony and to meet the students who are benefiting from their generosity.

Tom’s puppy raiser, Pat Gurley, a white-haired woman with a big smile, has come to Palmetto to meet Tom and see how Taylor has morphed from wriggling puppy into serious guide dog. The morning is cool and overcast, and as Tom, Taylor and the other members of their class walk down Southeastern’s sidewalks in front of the group of puppy raisers, Pat clasps her hands in front of her heart and smiles. It’s a solemn moment, and aside from the soft sound of paws and feet padding on the sidewalk, everyone is still.

When the last student has completed his processional, the puppy raisers move inside to the cafeteria, and the class’s trainers introduce each student and dog.

Then, finally, the students, their guide dogs and the puppy raisers get to meet—or, in the case of the dogs and the puppy raisers, reunite. When Taylor sees Pat, the dog immediately recognizes her, letting out a happy yelp and bounding forward to cover Pat in sloppy kisses. Taylor’s joy at seeing her puppy raiser is palpable, and by this point, Tom and Pat are both crying—they wrap their arms around each other and hug for a long moment before wiping their eyes and sitting down to talk. Around the room, similar reunions are taking place. All the guide dogs have been let off their harnesses, and several are splayed out on their backs, looking adoringly at their puppy raisers as their bellies are rubbed and their heads patted.

In great part, it’s the tenacity and good will of puppy raisers like Pat, as well as the trainers who work with the dogs when they return to the school, that have allowed Tom to get to the point where he is comfortable crossing busy streets in big cities holding onto nothing but the harness of a canine companion. And it’s a testament to Southeastern, which chooses those puppy raisers and trainers with extraordinary care, that its students are so changed by their experience. Over the course of his four-week stay at the school, Tom has expressed is gratitude over and over. 

“Southeastern Guide Dogs has changed my life for the better,” he says, his voice thick with emotion, “and I want to try to repay them."

Graduation is the final step in the Southeastern Guide Dogs training process, and it’s a festive day. A throng of people—students’ family members, Southeastern staff and several donors—gather in the cafeteria for the ceremony. Most of the members of the class are here, although some had to leave a few days earlier to get back to jobs and families that were put on hold during their stay at the school.

Several members of Southeastern’s administrative staff speak, and then the class trainers say a few kind words about each student before presenting him or her with a diploma. “Tom was always ready to work,” a trainer tells the group. “He was a perfect match for Taylor’s energy.”

After the presentation of diplomas, the students have a couple of minutes to speak. Tiffany, who is there with Andre, talks about how honored she feels to be part of the Southeastern family. “You’re allowing me to live my life,” she says, “and I’m more than grateful for that.”

Then Tom gets to his feet. His face is red and he chokes back tears as he speaks. In the audience, Audrey, who has come to support him, mirrors his emotions.

“I didn’t think I would be able to make it,” he says. “But Taylor gave me back my freedom. There was a point in my life, before I got here, when I wanted to give up. Taylor brought me back.”

Later, after the graduation celebrations have ended, Tom, Audrey and Taylor walk slowly to their car. Tom is thoughtful about what he wants to do next. He feels that with Taylor, he’s ready and able to go back to work.

“But no one will hire me because of my injury,” he says, his voice a mixture of regret and resentment. “I’d love to do what I was doing before. You don’t hear too many people say that they love their jobs, but when I was [working in construction], I loved my job.” He sighs. “But what can you do?”

There’s no question that Tom has a long road ahead of him. Still, he is optimistic about the future, and he’s sure about at least one goal. “I want to go out and educate people about Southeastern, about what these dogs can do,” he says. “The experience is amazing. It gives you back your freedom.”

Audrey gets in the driver’s seat of the Lemos’ car while Tom instructs Taylor to jump into the back. Taylor looks out for the last time at the Southeastern campus, and Tom climbs into the passenger seat. Then he, Audrey and the newest member of their family—Taylor—drive through the intersection of Independence Drive and Freedom Boulevard and into Tom’s new life with his guiding light.

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