Founded in 1982, Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto stands as one of the few dual-accredited guide and service dog trainers and providers in the nation, placing more than 100 dogs with owners in need across the country each year. Whether it be guide dogs for the vision-impaired or service dogs for veterans and service-members battling stress and anxiety disorders, this nonprofit and its staff has the perfect poochy partner.

Don Olinger and Ralphie

Diagnosed in 1989 with Stargardt disease, a rare double-recessive disorder, doctors told Don Olinger that he would never go blind nor need a guide dog, and for the first seven or eight years, as his vision gradually declined, Olinger believed them, until he went through seven eyeglass prescriptions in a single year. “Up until around 2013, I was in denial that I was blind,” says Olinger, who retired from his ministry in New York and moved to Florida, where he entered an independent living facility populated by residents 20 years his senior. He was at a low point and had given up his old life, Olinger admits, when his then-six-year-old niece suggested a guide dog. “If a little one that age realized I needed a guide dog,” he recalls thinking, “there was a good chance I needed a guide dog.”

Olinger’s entry wasn’t the smoothest, with the first dog from Southeastern becoming uncooperative and unwilling to work with the necessary harness. Olinger had already bonded with his new friend and the separation was painful, leaving him unsure whether he could try again. Then came Ralphie. “After his first day, I was in love,” says Olinger, who just needed a bit of time to get to know the little Labrador. “Such a personality—he’s a great, big, old clam.” Within two months of meeting, Olinger moved out of the living facility and into his own apartment.

Responding to over 40 different commands and trained in ‘intelligent disobedience,’ whereby the dog will not obey orders it sees to put itself or its owner in jeopardy, Ralphie guides Olinger through outings as peaceful as a neighborhood stroll and as hectic as the heavily-trafficked New York streets, which Olinger recently revisited. “I felt confident enough to do that,” says Olinger. “I trust him and he trusts me, and it’s a team.”

Together with Ralphie, Olinger now gets out and walks 5-7 miles each day, making up for lost time cooped inside, making friends along the way. “No one ever came up and asked about my cane,” says Olinger, sharing an old joke amongst the guide dog crowd, “but everyone wants to know about Ralphie.” 

Morgan Watt and Foley

A former security police first responder and K-9 handler working explosive detection in the U.S. Air Force, Morgan Watt became accustomed to working in high-stress, high-stakes environments, but the accumulated effect would rear its head upon leaving the service, with Watt subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Debilitating migraines and paralyzing anxiety heralded a dark period. But today, Watt stays centered and upbeat with the help of his service dog, a ‘goldador’ named Foley, whom Watt discovered via Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Paws for Patriots program. “He’s pretty much the key to me being grounded,” says Watt.

Leaving the Air Force, Watt estimates alcohol was likely his coping mechanism, a practice he calls ‘typical’ in that environment, but it wasn’t until he began volunteering at Southeastern that he felt the peace he’d been seeking. “I just wanted to give,” says Watt, who continued volunteering at Southeastern for almost a year before considering getting a dog himself. “I didn’t realize that the dog was my most effective coping mechanism. It took a little while to figure out, but it’s true.”

Foley, whom Watt describes as goofy and a bit of a climber, won him over from the very beginning, chasing his tail before pausing to grin up at his visitor. “I just remember lightening up,” says Watt, who left thinking, “This is exactly what I need to reset my attitude toward the world.”

Now Watt brings Foley with him just about wherever he goes, a constant source of comfort and assurance. “You never know when you’re going to run into a trigger,” says Watt, who will occasionally take a moment to just be with Foley if he feels the depression or anxiety coming on. “There’s this instant   eye contact and tactile feel that brings you back into the moment.” Perhaps most amazing and important, Foley has learned to recognize panic attacks and migraines on the onset and sometimes before Watt, responding with a cascade of licks or even fetching migraine medication.

Britt LeBlanc-Simard and Barker

Struck with neuromyelitis optica, a neurological disease that attacks the spinal cord and optic nerve, Britt LeBlanc-Simard lost nearly all her vision practically overnight, with eye pain one day turning into total vision loss excepting minimal use of the right eye. With four children under the age of 10, all of them with the requisite extracurriculars like soccer and competitive gymnastics, LeBlanc-Simard found herself suddenly unable to take the guiding role she always had. “That was the hardest thing,” she says, “losing that independence.” A doctor recommended a guide dog.

Growing up in Bradenton, LeBlanc-Simard was familiar with Southeastern and reached out, getting response in the way of a home visit from three prospective pooches, including Barker, a black Labrador with enough love for the two of them. “He should have been named Licker,” jokes LeBlanc-Simard. “He’s very affectionate, which is what I need in the household.”

There remained but one hurdle—LeBlanc-Simard’s aging Akita. Southeastern brought the dogs to her home to see how they would adapt and adjust to a new life, and that includes getting along with any pets that may already be on the premises. “It didn’t go well,” laughs LeBlanc-Simard, though at the time she faced a tough choice: wait for her pet to pass away before getting a guide dog or sending her pup to a new family. In the end, she had to go for Barker. “That was more needed at that point,” she says. But aside from companionship, Barker plays an integral role in allowing her greater freedom and mobility, even in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac with no sidewalks. “[Barker’s] given me so much more independence,” she says. Whether it’s grocery shopping or just a trip around the neighborhood, Barker pads ahead.

Most importantly to LeBlanc-Simard, she can finally take all four of her kids out together again for a day of exploration, something previously impossible, safely keeping track of four running children by her lonesome. As she said to Southeastern at the time, “My seven-year-old has been my guide and now I can let her be a seven-year-old.” With Barker at her side and a telescope lens over her right eye, LeBlanc-Simard keeps watch over her rambunctious clutch. She begins to laugh. “And when they say, ‘Look, Mommy!,’ you just wave and say you saw them.”