Southeastern Guide Dogs: Support Throughout the Journey


Written by:

Bio not available.

By adding a fitness and nutrition program to its already robust training regimen, Southeastern Guide Dogs is creating healthier outcomes for its graduates. 

The commencement for graduates of the Southeastern Guide Dogs’ training program is a cause for celebration. Class 301 was no exception. There was Guide Dog Barry, ready to help his new owner Annabell navigate college with a rare eye condition while pursuing a degree in cultural and social anthropology. Guide Dog Buster made fast friends with his new owner, Ethan, who lost his eyesight at 11 and will need Buster to safely navigate the halls of his high school. And Guide Dog Tommy graduated to serve new owner Michael, a minister and former Marine who will need Tommy’s help to gain more independence after suffering two major strokes.

“To our graduates: Our supporters, volunteers, and staff members have invested time and resources in your dogs because we believe in the power of independence – and we believe in you,” Titus Herman, Southeastern Guide Dogs’ CEO, wrote in a commencement letter to the graduates. “Do all you can do with your dogs. Be who you want to be. Learn what you want to learn. Go where you want to go. As you enjoy the company of your new best friends, please remember that we’ll support you throughout your journey, and we’re wishing you all the best.”

Indeed, a tremendous amount of time and resources were poured into each graduate’s journey from staff, volunteers and supporters. Southeastern Guide Dogs’ mission is to transform lives by creating and nurturing extraordinary partnerships between people and dogs. The organization breeds raises, and trains guide dogs, service dogs, and skilled companion dogs to provide life-changing services for people with vision loss, veterans with disabilities, and children with significant challenges. They offer lifetime follow-up services at no cost. Since 1982, Southeastern has successfully created thousands of guide and service dog teams throughout the U.S. and currently oversees the well-being of over 1,200 puppies and dogs.

Photo of Southeastern Guide Dog resting in pool.
SINCE 1982, SOUTHEASTERN HAS SUCCESSFULLY trained thousands of guide and service dog teams throughout the U.S.

Building their endurance

For puppies bred and raised for the program, there’s no guarantee that they’ll make it to graduation and be paired with a new owner. Their temperament is evaluated, as well as how they react to outside stimuli while performing tasks their owners would need them to focus on.

But about six years ago, Dr. Kevin Conrad, Southeastern’s senior veterinarian, identified another obstacle that could hinder a dog’s advancement through training – their overall health. While evaluating the dogs’ nutritional needs, instructors would tell Conrad that many of their dogs could not tolerate training outside in the heat for very long. “It often took 4-6 months of the training time just to get dogs to have enough endurance to handle the heat/stress/daily training time,” he said. “That suggested to me that not all the Labradors are the same in physical and mental preparedness at 15 months of age and could be a reason dogs would drop out of the program.”

To address this, Southeastern Guide Dogs developed a canine fitness program. Conrad said Southeastern seeks out the dogs for the program that struggle in one of four areas: weight, confidence, gait abnormality, and body sensitivity. They work four weeks together to improve the dogs’ strength and endurance to swim, climb, build core strength, and lose body fat. Then, the dogs are sent to training.

Since fitness activities are still a relatively new field in the veterinary world, the program has grown and developed alongside the latest findings in the field, said Jessica D’Ambrosio, certified canine rehabilitation technician. The canine fitness program includes five different types of activities that the dogs can participate in. The first activity is physiotherapy. This is the area where dogs do a variety of exercises to promote muscle development in specific areas of the body. These areas include front legs/shoulders, back legs, core, and overall body. “We alternate the muscle groups throughout the week to help build muscle mass without overworking the muscles,” she said. “There are several different pieces of equipment that we use that include inflatable peanuts, wobble boards, and mini-trampolines. All of these pieces move and can be altered to increase complexity as the dog goes through the fitness program.”

The second activity is a dry treadmill, much like the ones that humans use. On average, the dogs will stay on for 10-15 minutes and walk anywhere from 2-4 km/hr.

The third activity is an agility section which includes weave polls, cavalettis, and army crawls.

The fourth activity is swimming in a pool. The pool is about 4-feet deep and includes a sun deck/stair area that serves as an introduction to the pool. “We often use a device called a ‘Super Swim’ that resembles a fishing pole, and it’s attached to the side of the pool,” D’Ambrosio said. “This device connects to the dog’s life jacket as they swim against their own body weight. Swimming is a wonderful activity that helps to improve their cardiovascular health, stamina, and muscle development without putting any stress on their joints.”

The final activity is an underwater treadmill that is used in place of the pool if the dog chooses not to go in the pool.

Photo of Southeastern Guide Dog waiting for toy to be thrown into pool for retrieval.
APPROXIMATELY 400 DOGS have gone through the program since it started.

The “lightbulb moment”

Conrad said approximately 400 dogs have gone through the program since it started “and with the new facility, the program has just pushed the reset button. We now have all our equipment and team working together to make the most efficient improvement for our dogs’ health and physical improvement.”

Most dogs that go through the fitness program experience something Southeastern trainers lovingly call a “lightbulb moment,” said D’Ambrosio. “This is when they come to the realization that they are able to do something they didn’t realize they were capable of.” For example, if the dogs are nervous about a piece of equipment that moves, they may take a while to stand or walk on it. “Then suddenly, something clicks with them, and not only are they comfortable getting on the equipment, but they are excited to do so!”

In terms of graduation rates, about 76% of the dogs that are graduating as working dogs have participated in the fitness program, said D’Ambrosio. The fitness program doesn’t take the place of their guide/service training but is more of a tool to help get them ready before they begin their training with their trainer. “We are also seeing better stamina and an increase in their muscle mass,” she said.

Southeastern has plenty of success stories to share. For instance, one guide dog, a Labrador, was experiencing limping from his front leg during training intermittently. He went through rehab for about a month to help strengthen that shoulder in hopes of correcting the limp. During his rehab, he swam in Southeastern’s pool about 2-3 times a week and went through a variety of physiotherapy exercises. The pool helped to create resistance against the shoulder without any added pressure to his joints. “He also really loved being in the sunshine and in 80-degree water,” according to Southeastern trainers.  The physiotherapy portion consisted of exercises that resemble a pushup and utilized inflated “peanuts”. “Through conditioning, our pup was able to make a full recovery and went on to graduate as a guide dog!”

Another female Labrador retriever went through the program because she struggled with obesity. Over the course of her rehab program, she lost a total of 25 pounds. Like others, she also swam in the pool frequently and completed different exercise regimens using physiotherapy equipment. These activities included army crawls, up/overs, and crunches. The army crawls helped to strengthen hips and back legs and are typically performed using several chairs back to back to create a tight and narrow space. The up/overs are when a dog jumps over an inflated peanut several times and is a fun and effective aerobic exercise. The crunches are very similar to the ones humans do and are all about promoting core strength. She has since gone on to become a facility therapy dog for the National Guard.

Photo of Southeastern Guide Dog being seen by veterinarian.
THERE IS AN ENTIRE DEPARTMENT that focuses on the needs of Southeastern’s graduates.

Local outreach

Southeastern’s services – which include state-of-the-art research on canine health and development; selective breeding; expert dog training; comprehensive on-campus student instruction; and a large alumni support program – are provided at no cost to recipients. The organization relies 100% on private donations.

Conrad said there is an opportunity for local veterinarians across the U.S. to support this program by offering to be a veterinarian for the graduates that live in their area. These veterinarians can help Southeastern keep the cost of veterinary medicine reduced, and develop a relationship with the veterinary team at Southeastern directly to coordinate on a guide dog’s care. “Supporting each other for the benefit of their client and dog is a win-win for everybody!” Conrad said. “Through the generosity of Elanco and Fromm Pet Foods and the support of donors, we’ve been able to offer food, heartworm medication, annual vaccinations, and some preventative care, free of charge to all our graduates.”

There is an entire department that focuses on the needs of Southeastern’s graduates. From the medical side, some graduates use Southeastern’s veterinary hospital as their primary source of care if they live locally. Many of the other graduates farther away may use Southeastern as a second opinion or for specialty care and they may travel to us. Southeastern’s veterinarian team helps the alumni support team by communicating through email or phone long distance to help graduates with questions or concerns regarding the health of their dog.

There are also some special procedures that can be offered at a reduced cost using this program, Conrad said. “You can imagine how this one program saves a large amount of money to the graduate each year,” he said. “We feel this can allow the graduate to focus their financial decisions on more specific needs for both them and their service dog, and allow them both to have a more fulfilled life together.”

Photo of Southeastern Guide Dog being seen by veterinarian.
Local veterinarians across the U.S. support this program by offering to be a veterinarian for the graduates that live in their area.

Canine fitness program components and activities:

  • Electro acupuncture – stimulates specific pressure points linked to unwanted symptoms
  • Agility training – strengthens muscles and increases body awareness
  • Aromatherapy – promotes relaxation
  • Cavaletti rails – improves foot placement, muscle strength, and range of motion
  • Land and underwater (hydrotherapy) treadmills – enhances joint health and muscle endurance
  • Hyperbaric chamber therapy – reduces swelling and improves healing through high pressure, high concentration oxygen; builds lean muscle and promotes strength
  • Massage therapy – reduces stress
  • Soft tissue laser – helps reduce swelling and inflammation
  • Thermal imaging camera – diagnoses inflammation or weak circulation
  • Access to the Canine Aquatic Center – for low-impact fitness workouts as well as fun