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Southeastern Guide Dogs fundraiser at JetBlue Park April 9

By Staff | Mar 31, 2016

The Southeastern Guide Dogs Fort Myers Walkathon will be held Saturday, April 9, at JetBlue Park, 11500 Fenway Drive, S., in Fort Myers. The festivities will kick off at 8:30 a.m., followed by opening ceremonies at 9:45 a.m.

The 3K walk will begin at 10 a.m. and the raffle drawing will start at 11 a.m.

All well-behaved dogs are welcome to attend and participate in the walk and festivities. The event will include a walk, live music, local vendors and a Southeastern Guide Dogs gift shop within the stadium concourse area, as well as the park’s complex.

A few incentives are being offered for individual and team fund-raising efforts. Those include a Walkathon T-shirt and bandana for participating dogs for $100 raised; Walkathon Tervis Tumbler for $250 raised; Walkathon Top Dog T-Shirt for $1,000 raised and choosing to name a Southeastern Guide Dogs puppy, or fund a student scholarship for $5,000 raised.

Those interested in participating, can sign up at www.GuideDogsWalkathon.org.

Roy Kennedy, Southeastern Guide Dogs area coordinator. said the Southeastern Guide Dogs school located in Palmetto, began holding walkathons 15 years ago to raise funds for the school, which has started to spread throughout Florida. He said last year was the first year a walkathon was held in Fort Myers.

A little more than 11 years ago, Kennedy became involved in the organization after retiring at the young age of 55. He said it was a public broadcast about service dogs that eventually led to finding a puppy raising group in Fort Myers that sparked his attention.

Although he spent many years helping train puppies for the Southeastern Guide Dogs, now he oversees all of the puppies in the Fort Myers and Cape Coral area. A training class is also held every Tuesday with the puppies and thier raisers. He said on occasion he will bring a puppy into his house if one of his puppy dog raisers goes on vacation.

Southeastern Guide Dogs, a nonprofit organization, has provided individuals with visual impairment a guide dog, free of charge, since 1982. Since then, they have provided more than 400 active dog partnerships, as well as more than 2,800 guide dog teams.

“It’s the only guide dog school in the south,” Kennedy said.

The organization has 50 breeder dogs – Labradors, golden retrievers and “goldadors” – that are used for the visually impaired.

“Guiding dogs don’t get a chance to make a mistake,” he said, adding that they find other careers for the dog. “Dogs will tell you if they don’t want to be a guide dog. These dogs know the person who needs help. It’s their mission in life, they enjoy it.”

If the dogs do not meet the training criteria for becoming a service dog, they are placed within other areas such as with veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and in need of companionship and emotional support, military hospitals and public service dogs for bomb and arson detection, search and rescue and narcotics detection.

For example, Kennedy said a dog working with a veteran who has PTSD knows when to do “blocking” – standing perpendicular to another person. Veterans who need emotional support can give certain hug demands to their service dog to help calm anxiety that begins.

Once the puppies are 10 weeks old they are placed with a puppy dog raiser. Kennedy said at any time they will have 225 puppies in training, 12 of which are currently residing in the Cape Coral and Fort Myers area.

Some of the training the puppies go through is learning not to approach their food before sitting first, going to the bathroom on demand, left and right, stopping a certain distance from a curb and putting their nose in the middle of a chair letting an individual know where to sit.

“We have to get them to an age that they make wise choices,” Kennedy said. “The dog has to make a decision to obey, or disobey for protection. We don’t raise followers. You open a door and that dog has to go first.”

He said when a puppy is only 10 weeks old, a dog raiser may only do five sessions for 10 minutes at a time for training. As the dog gets older, Kennedy said they will mold their training into their routine, which might include a trip to the grocery store.

Once the puppy reaches 14 to 18 months old it returns to the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus for assessments and further 6-month training with professional trainers. Once completed, the dogs go through an intense 26-day training with the visually impaired individual they are being paired up with.

“They have to learn to work with and take care of the dog,” Kennedy said.

The second day on the campus, he said individuals are paired with the perfect companion, enabling the pair to stay within the same room together for the remainder of the training. Kennedy said, the individual will also wash their dog on the same day, offering a great bonding experience.

The dog works until it is 10 years old and retires. The organization will then pair an individual with another dog.

Those in need of a guide dog are asked to call the school and talk to the graduate service manager, who is also a guide dog user. Those who qualify will receive training and the dog free of charge.

For more information about Southeastern Guide Dogs, visit www.guidedogs.org.