When Patty Spellman took her first walk with Ace, it was more than
a training exercise for a visually impaired woman and her guide dog.
“It was freedom,” she says. Since Spellman lost most of her sight
two years ago, she always had to rely on others to help her move
from place to place. Feeling guilty, Spellman reverted to staying
in her home. Now, thanks to Ace, Spellman does not have to worry
about inconveniencing anyone again.
Ace, a smooth-haired Collie, was trained at the Southeastern Guide
Dogs based in Palmetto, FL, one of only 10 certified guide dog
schools in the country. The school, located on the corner of
Independence Drive and Freedom Way, breeds their own dogs and
training usually begins when the puppies are just a few weeks
old. "Puppy huggers" come in a few mornings a week to get the
dogs use to human contact. They then go to foster homes where
they remain for the next 14 to 18 months. In the foster home,
they learn social skills and are exposed to situations that they
may face as a guide dog. "They take them to the bank,"
Southeastern’s Communications Director Patsy French says.
"They take them to the movies, they take them on planes."
Collies, Labradors and Golden Retrievers are among the seven different breeds the school uses. A good guide dog candidate
must be intelligent, attentive and have "a joyful spirit," French
says. Learning to trust a guide dog in unfamiliar situations
takes courage. "It is a huge leap of faith," says Trainer Kate
Flamm, "but once the connection occurs, the sparks fly and then stick."
Spellman expresses her joy when she was first matched with Ace.
"I heard the Rocky theme in my head as we completed our first walk
together. I was really putting all of me in his hands. It was his
eyes and we did it – we did it – and that felt good." Spellman gets
emotional as she talks about how Ace has become so much more than
just man’s best friend. "You take care of your pets," she says.
"This is equal. We have to take care of each other."