When Sunshine wears her blue jacket, she’s on the job as a Southeastern Guide Dogs puppy-in-training.
Even if she’s just sitting quietly while her “puppy raiser,” Nancy Whittemore, is working at her volunteer job as Daystar Life Center’s pantry manager, she’s at work.
At 18 months old, she will return to the SEGD school campus in Palmetto for further training, with the goal of becoming a guide dog for people with vision loss or a service dog for a veteran with disabilities, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
But for now, Sunshine is learning how to behave.
“As a puppy raiser, what I do is the basics — getting them out in public, teaching them not to jump on people and commands like ‘heel,’ ‘sit’ and ‘down,’” Whittemore said. “Basic manners.”
When Sunshine goes back to the school in May or June 2022, it will be like college for dogs, Whittemore said, where she will learn advanced skills for her future full-time job as a working guide or service dog.
Sunshine is Whittemore’s fifth SEGD dog she has raised so far.
Whittemore is also the SEGD Nature Coast area coordinator for local puppy raisers.
On Saturday, July 31, the Nature Coast Puppy Raisers will be doing an outreach from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Animalade Inc. Thrifty Dog Thrift Store, 9017 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee.
SEGD is looking for more volunteer puppy raisers willing to work with a Labrador retriever puppy for about 15-16 months, from about age eight or nine weeks, teaching it basic manners and simple commands.
As Whittemore explained, all the SEGD dogs begin as potential guide dogs for people who are vision-impaired, but not all dogs are suited for that role, only about 30-35%.
Those who don’t make it go into one of the other SEGD programs, including programs for veterans: service dogs for veterans with PTSD, emotional support dogs, military medical facility therapy dogs and Gold Star family dogs that provide comfort for families who have lost a loved one in service to the nation.
“One of the dogs I raised went to a veteran in Bradenton who has PTSD,” Whittemore said. “He had nightmares, and they put a tap light at the end of his bed and the dog was taught that, when the man has a nightmare, to tap the light to turn it on and then put its paw on the man’s chest to wake him up.
“It’s very personalized to what the person needs,” she said.
There’s no cost to those who receive a SEGD guide or service dog, including lifetime support for the dog — food, veterinary care and preventatives.
Before a person brings a guide/service dog home, there’s a two-week training program at the school. Prior to that, there’s an extensive evaluation to determine what the person needs, whether they’re active or more of a quiet homebody, so they know which of their dogs would be the best match.
Once they’re at the school and matched with the right dog — it might take a few tries to get the right match, sort of like dating — then the person and the dog train together.
Whittemore said when she brought her first puppy back to the school, she cried.
“I was a mess,” she said.
But it was a child’s question that helped her with her subsequent puppies.
“Whose dog is it?” the child asked.
“The dogs belong to the school and then they belong to the people who need them,” she said. “So, it’s not MY dog. I get to take care of them for a while, and I never have to see them grow old.”
For more information about SEGD or becoming a puppy raiser, go to the website at www.guidedogs.org.