Five guide dog teams graduate from training

Southeastern Guide Dogs Issac
Guide dog Issac takes a break onstage during the graduation ceremony. - Kristin Swain | Sun

It was a happy day May 24 as five newly-trained guide dog teams received their diplomas and graduated from Southeastern Guide Dogs.

The ceremony took place at the T. Pepin Hospitality Center in Tampa and was the final step before the handlers, who received 20 days of immersive training on the Southeastern Guide Dogs Palmetto campus, and their guide dogs, who received two years of training, could go home to start their new lives together. Class #278 included Lisa Murphy and her guide dog Snoopy, Gloria Miller and her guide dog Dougie, Tommy Gagen and his guide dog Isaac, Ronda Shore and her guide dog Giovanni, and Arnold O’Neal and his guide dog Rizzo.

For Shore, Giovanni is her fourth guide dog and for O’Neal, Rizzo is his second guide dog. For Gagen, Murphy and Miller, this is their first time receiving a guide dog.

Prior to being matched with Snoopy, Murphy said she relied on a cane to get around and didn’t find it to be very effective as she still bumped into things.

Southeastern Guide Dogs Lisa Murphy
Lisa Murphy and her new guide dog Snoopy celebrate with Lisa’s family during the May 24 Southeastern Guide Dogs graduation festivities. – Kristin Swain | Sun

“She’s so playful,” Murphy said of Snoopy, who she called her “sidekick for life.”

“She’s a little bit of puppy and I’m a little bit immature so it’s a nice match,” she joked.

“It’s nice to have a sighted guide, like you can go walking with people and holding their elbow and everything like that but to do it on your own, I mean I know you have help from a guide dog but to do it on your own, it’s a lot different. When I was walking down there (with Snoopy) you feel like your head’s picked up, like you can see where you’re going. It’s like a self-esteem boost,” Murphy said of the training program.

For Murphy, the end of the three-week training session at Southeastern Guide Dogs and graduation marked the time for her and Snoopy to go home to Clearwater where Lisa’s family is happy to welcome the new addition.

“I’m excited to have a new member of the family,” Lisa’s daughter Kaylee said of Snoopy coming home. “She’s like my sister.”

Miller said the word “independence” sums up her whole experience with Southeastern Guide Dogs. With Dougie by her side, she said she feels like she’s regained her independence and ability to do daily activities without relying on friends and family. For Miller, she said it took 10 years to work up to getting a guide dog.

“I’m here, I’m at graduation and I’m still pinching myself because I’m actually taking a dog home. Thank you all so much,” she said during the commencement ceremony.

“Southeastern is an extraordinary place,” O’Neal said. “My family and I are just so grateful. It does allow someone to go from a less than ordinary to an extraordinary life when you have a guide dog. It opens up so many opportunities, so I really am just so grateful.”

Southeastern Guide Dogs trains and puts into service more than 150 dogs every year that help with everything from being eyes for people who can’t see to providing emotional support for military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and comforting military families and children who have lost loved ones. All of the services at Southeastern Guide Dogs are provided to clients at no cost. The organization relies solely on private contributions and receives no government funding.

Five guide dog teams graduate from training
Southeastern Guide Dogs Chief Executive Officer Titus Herman congratulates class #278 on their graduation from training. – Kristin Swain | Sun

Chief Executive Officer Titus Herman said the nonprofit organization has more than 220 dogs in training on their Palmetto campus with around 150 staff members and more than 300 volunteers who help the dogs along from birth through their two years of training. Anna Maria Island residents are probably familiar with some of these volunteers, particularly the puppy raisers who bring guide dogs in training into their homes for a year to socialize the dogs, house train them and teach them everyday skills before the dogs return to the Southeastern Guide Dog campus for the remainder of their training. Each dog undergoes about two years of training before being matched with a handler.

The guide dogs of class #278 were sponsored by puppy naming sponsors IP Capital Partners LLC, Jet Mobile Home Park, LC Industries Foundation, Mastro Brothers Auto Group and Barbara Miller and her sons. Scholarship supporters include Interfaith Social Action Council Inc., Pinellas Optometric Association Inc., and the Raymond George and Ruth Bitner Fisher Foundation. Puppy raisers for this class were Rosemary and Mike Cliburn, Janet Daniels, Tom and Chris Limanni, Haley Smith, Trudy and Kevin Vetter, and Eileen “Annie” Westermann. The commencement ceremony was sponsored by the NLH Family Foundation.

For more information on Southeastern Guide Dogs, call 941-729-5665 or visit their website.