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Southeastern Guide Dogs’ New Puppy Academy

by Leslie Rowe

Magic is make-believe and superheroes are the stuff of comic books, but the fresh new Grant and Shirle Herron Puppy Academy mixes in a bit of both. This is no ordinary building, and these are no ordinary puppies.

“This is a magical place,” says Southeastern Guide Dogs CEO Titus Herman of the brand-new facility, which opened April 12, 2017. “This is our school for our tiniest superheroes, a place where our newborns, moms, and growing puppies flourish from birth to kindergarten graduation. Our puppies form the foundation for our guide dogs and service dogs, and we take their early education very seriously.”

Special puppy, special home

Located on the nonprofit’s 33-acre campus in Palmetto, the new Puppy Academy facility is remarkable. But let’s focus on the fun stuff – puppies. About 250 Labradors, golden retrievers, and a mix called a goldador will pass through these halls each year. What makes these puppies so special, and why did the school build a 15,094-square-foot building to house them?

“We outgrew our old, outdated puppy kennel,” explains Herman. “It was costly to maintain, had no climate controls, and could not accommodate growth.”

The evolution of superhero puppy training

The old puppy kennel served the school well for over three decades, but its age, size, and condition were not conducive to the quality of work happening here. “Our guide dogs and service dogs are like Olympic athletes,” Herman says. “We’ve developed a data-driven genetics and reproduction program to create elite dogs, bred with specific characteristics for a specific purpose. We’re creating healthier dogs, with excellent hips and elbows, strong hearts, high intelligence, and eager-to-please, willing-to-work temperaments. Their socialization and early education begins when they are literally three days old.”

And it all starts here in the Puppy Academy, named for lead donor Shirle Herron and her late husband, Grant. Let’s take a tour, but rather than focus on gleaming tiles in a soothing waterfall pattern, light wood tones, natural lighting from 28 Solatube skylights, hurricane-ready walls to withstand up to 150 mile-an-hour winds, commercial washers and dryers for all those puppy bath towels, and oh-so-much more, we’ll look at the facility based on what’s really important: the chronology of a Southeastern Guide Dogs puppy.

“Our guide dogs and service dogs are like Olympic athletes.”

First things first

The new Puppy Academy houses the Genetics and Reproduction Department and its innovative technology such as SpermVision® for semen viability testing. The magic happens here, too, with natural breeding and artificial insemination. The quiet breeder boarding area welcomes male and female breeders to 14 individual runs with indoor/outdoor access. This is where they’ll arrive and stay for “dates” before returning home to volunteer breeder hosts.

Mommy and baby

In the whelping and neonatal care areas, 12 whelping bays with indoor/outdoor access offer privacy and serenity for puppies’ birth and moms’ well-being. Moms and litters stay here together until weaning at six to seven weeks, when moms return to their hosts’ homes.

Preschool play with purpose

Days-old puppies receive handling and stimulation here in the preschool area, and puppies up to six weeks receive multisensory activities — and plenty of playtime — in sunlit indoor and outdoor classrooms. Staff and volunteers use these spaces to expose puppies to people, sights, sounds, textures, motion, and more.

Puppy kindergarten adventures

Puppies six to ten weeks old stay in 18 individual runs with access to the kindergarten classroom, where staff, volunteers, and the public conduct daily enrichment activities in the Puppy Kindergarten Adventure program. Weather permitting, kindergarten also takes place in an enclosed outdoor classroom, an interior courtyard with blue skies above. In the kindergarten complex, siblings live, learn, and play together, with plenty of time for naps in between.

Making a splash

An outdoor splash park, funded solely by volunteer puppy raisers, offers puppies a multisensory water experience — and fun! Puppies love to frolic here, and visitors enjoy seeing the silliness only found in puppy play.

Kindergarten graduation

The school’s Puppy Raising Services Department, housed in the Academy, matches ten-week-old puppies with volunteer puppy raisers for their next phase of training. A special “graduation” room serves as a private space to introduce puppies to their new families, sign contracts, and say goodbyes.

The doctor is in

Here in the Academy clinic, puppies receive vaccinations and other minor procedures; moms receive X-rays prior to whelping; and Genetics and Reproduction staff perform lab work and reproductive procedures such as insemination and cryopreservation. Two campus veterinarians oversee the health of all campus dogs from the school’s on-site Veterinary Center as well as in this new puppy clinic. Locating this clinic within the Academy means that puppies don’t have to be transported to another building for checkups and preventative care.

Something for everyone

The Southeastern Guide Dogs campus Gift Shop occupies a front corner of the new Puppy Academy, where visitors stop in for a gift for themselves, two for the dog, and three for the grandkids. Pet-friendly toys, stuffed animals, tee shirts, hats, dog treats, and plenty of other merchandise makes for a fruitful shopping stop.

Into the future

For this growing nonprofit, the new Puppy Academy is part of a multi-year, multi-building capital improvement program taking the campus into the future. “Our Puppy Academy is a one-of-a-kind facility built with a heavy emphasis on ‘frugal quality’ — a building that reflects our commitment to both superb stewardship and exceptional quality,” Herman explains. “In an environment enhanced by warm sunlight, privacy, and serenity, our staff and volunteers perform cutting-edge work, while future superheroes learn and grow into their very special destinies.”

And what destinies they are. Guide dogs for people with visual impairments, service dogs for veterans who bear invisible scars of PTSD, facility therapy dogs offering comfort in veterans’ healthcare facilities; they all begin their journeys here at the new Southeastern Guide Dogs Puppy Academy. Because superheroes must start somewhere, and in this case, they start right here in our own backyard.

Now that is magical!

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