Maja Angeli is led everywhere by her seeing-eye dog.
Trips to the beach, to a park, to work, Angeli follows behind the dog. When she works, when she runs errands, when she goes to dinner with her husband, the dog is there.
But Angeli isn't blind.
Angeli, a real estate investor in Bonita Springs, has volunteered to train Sara B, a 6-month-old mixed golden Labrador retriever, as a guide dog for Southeastern Guide Dogs, the only guide-dog school in Florida.
The woman-and-dog team are a part of a growing initiative by the Bradenton school to provide a dog to every sight-impaired person who desires one — free of charge. There are 350 puppy raisers like Angeli throughout the southeastern United States, according to the school's fact sheet.
"I just wanted to do something that would improve somebody's life," Angeli says. She will spend as many as 20 months working to get Sara ready to take the next step toward becoming a service dog.
"My job is to socialize her," says Angeli of the puppy in training. "Every experience that a person would do, dogs should get used to doing. I take her to the cinema, the grocery store." Sara will even accompany Angeli on an upcoming flight to Denver.
"She's learning to work," Angeli says, "That doesn't come naturally."
Although Angeli has had pets before, she has never trained a dog to do much more than sit. "It's a learning process for me as well," she says.
To make sure puppy raisers and dogs get the proper developmental instruction, the school sends trainers out to give weekly classes throughout Florida.
Angeli and Sara attend classes every Tuesday evening in the Fort Myers County Courthouse parking lot. There are an average of eight teams that attend each class, says Randy Powers, the professional trainer that leads the Fort Myers classes.
As the canine and human teams gather under a parking lot lamppost, the dogs roughhouse with each other, just like they would at a dog park. The playful pups roll around on the pavement, grab at each other's fur, and sniff their surroundings — tails compulsively wagging.
Powers starts the class by having the teams form a semi-circle. He tells the handlers to put blue cloth vests on their dogs, which simulate the harnesses that a sight-impaired person would hold while they are led. Once the vests are fastened, the dogs' playful temperament vanishes. The animals calmly sit next to their temporary masters and await instruction.
GUIDE DOG COMMANDS
- FORWARD: To have the dog walk a head of you. The puppy should be slightly in front on the left side. The pup should not pull.
- FORWARD IN: Used when going into buildings, cars, shops.
- DOWN/UNDER: Used at chairs so the pup is underneath and out of the way
- UNDER/DOWN: Used at tables in restaurants. When you arrive at the table. have the puppy go "Under," then command "Down."
- COME: Put the puppy in the sit/stay position, walk to the end of the leash and call for the puppy to "Come." Never call a puppy to scold it. Keep your voice light and cheerful.
- TO VOLUNTEER: To volunteer, contact Southeastern Guide Dogs at 800-944-3647 or 941-729-5665. Or go to www.guidedogs.org.
- KEEP UP: To keep track of Sara B's progress and help Maja Angeli raise money for her next puppy protege: www.justgiving.com/pfp/sarab
- SOURCE: Southeastern Guide Dog training information. Dogs will know at least 40 commands by the time they are working.
"When the vests are on, the dogs know they are working," Powers says. He explains that the dogs don't have normal lives; their purpose is to help their masters navigate through the visual mazes of life. When they have the harness on, the dogs are not pets, he says, and they cannot be treated as such for fear of confusing their duties.
"Work time is not play time," he says.
Powers leads the teams through a series of exercises designed to simulate real-world obstacles that the dogs will encounter.
The groups go on a "forward walk" where handlers teach the dogs to sit before they go down stairs, before they cross streets, and before they walk through doors.
"We have to condition them," Powers says. To a seeing-impaired person the sitting will signal that there is an obstacle ahead, he explains.
Then Powers has the eight teams form a single-file line in the parking lot, leaving about four feet between each couple.
"We're going to do 'serpentine,'" he says, explaining the next exercise.
He calls out to Angeli and Sara and asks the team snake through the other parings like a car weaving through cones.
"Don't allow your dog to react," Powers instructs. The dogs must sit calmly as Sara passes, and Sara must not stop to greet the other dogs, he tells Angeli. When Sara diverts from the course, Angeli gives a hard tug on the dog's collar.
"That's right," Power says, "Make sure you correct her."
It may seem harsh to physically scold the dogs, but when they are working with a blind person a distracted dog may lead their master into a throng of traffic or down a flight of stairs, Powers explains.
"When you're training them on something, and you're weak on it, they'll be weak on it," Powers says.
Maja and Sara will continue with these classes during their nearly two-year relationship. After that, Angeli will give Sara to Southeastern's school in Bradenton, where Sara will spend another year being taught by a professional trainer.
That trainer will cement the lessons taught by Angeli and fine-tune any bad habits Sara may have learned along the way. Sara will be nearly 3 years old by the time she actually leads a blind person.
Angeli says she knows the separation from Sara will be difficult.
"I'm sure it will be tough, but I know that I'm doing something that will greatly improve someone else's life," she says. "I train Sara. They need her."
"If you think, 'Oh, gee, it would be fun to have a puppy,'" Angeli says, "then this program isn't for you."
Some trainees, however, never become guide dogs. They either fail the classes, unable to learn the necessary skills, or they don't get along with their seeing-impaired masters.
Harley, a full-bodied yellow Labrador, failed to work well with his blind master, and was returned to his puppy raiser.
"He pulled too much," says Margarite Thompson, a trainer in the program who's now the dog's owner. Though Harley doesn't work with the seeing impaired anymore, his skills are still put to use.
Harley is a therapy dog. He visits autistic children and terminally ill patients at local hospitals. "His job is to be pet," Thompson says. "He's what we call a change of career dog."
Thompson has raised five guide dogs, including Harley, and says that giving them up never gets easier.
"It's still hard to say good by," she says, "You've had a dog that you've loved and worked with and he's your best buddy for two years."
Southeastern has a solution for the brokenhearted puppy raiser, Thompson says. "When you go to drop off your dog, they give you a new puppy on the spot."
"I never go home empty-handed," she says.
All this training comes at a price. The total cost of raising a puppy is approximately $37,000, says spokesperson Lindsey Nickel, when you add up medical expenses, the cost of professional training, and the price paid to the breeder. Volunteers like Angeli are responsible for covering the cost of food and flea treatments, Nickel says.
Volunteers also can get sponsorship money to help pay medical costs over the two years they care for dogs. In Angeli's case, the Sarasota Bay Club raised $17,050 and named her Sara B. In return, Angeli will compile a photo album for the club, which will track Sara's development.
Before puppy raisers can get a dog they must fill out an application, which is reviewed by the school. The school also sends a representative to the applicant's home to make sure the it is fit for a puppy, says Charlene Castleman, the program manager.
"We're not going in with a white glove," Castleman says. "The home must be safe and sound," she says, explaining that backyards have to be fenced and there can't be any other aggressive animals in the home.
"The main thing we are looking for is that the raiser has a commitment to the socialization and training of the dog," she says.
Raising a guide dog puppy is like putting a child into a vocational program, Angeli says. Development comes over time. She knows that Sara is going to act like a puppy, but the dog must be taught to suppress its natural desires to play in order to prepare for a life of service.
It's still early for Sara, who has a hard time hiding her youthfulness. She bounces like a kangaroo when she gets excited, she tugs at toys and vies for attention when she's in the mood.
On a recent trip to Bonita Beach, Sara took to digging a hole in the sand, sticking her head up occasionally, as if to show off the cream-colored specks of the beach stuck to her wet nose.
Angeli allows her to be a pup for the moment, keeping in mind Sara's eventual task. She's still young. But soon Sara will have important work to do.
"She's improving every day," Angeli says, "Sara's a wonderful dog."