The visually impaired can get free help getting around from “man’s best friend” thanks a Florida-based group that serves west Georgia, according to a local volunteer who spoke last Thursday in Tallapoosa.
“We can’t touch people and cure their blindness like Christ did, but we can give them a tool to help them, which is as close to a miracle as we can get,” said Ann-Margaret Perkins, a partner in the Perkins Law firm of Carrollton whose passion is spreading the word about the availability of guide dogs. “There are three ways the visually impaired can help themselves: select a sighted person to guide them, use a cane, or use a guide dog,” Perkins told the Tallapoosa Lions Club last week.
Perkins, who received the President’s Call to Service Award in 2012, recognizing 4,000 or more lifetime volunteer service hours, dedicates much of that time to Southeastern Guide Dogs of Palmetto, Fla., which breeds, trains and gives guide dogs to the non-sighted free of charge for life. The guide dog recipients are not charged any training or follow-up fees. She told her audience that there are 25 million blind adults in the United States, 10 million of whom reside in the Southeast.
“Our mission is to create a partnership between the blind and their guide dogs to engender mobility, independence and dignity,” she said.
Perkins was accompanied by a retired guide dog, a 9-year-old female black lab known as “Baxter,” who was named for Mary Baxter of the Carrollton Pilot Club, which supports Southeastern Guide Dogs, one of only 12 accredited guide dog training facilities in the United States.
“The Labrador and golden retriever and the crossbreed ‘goldadore’ are the only breeds used by Southeastern because of their gentle nature and trainability,” said Perkins, who is a puppy raiser for “Deidri” and breeder host for Baxter.
“The dogs are bred at our facility in west central Florida and then put out to ‘puppy raisers,’ volunteers who keep the puppies from 12 to 14 months, teaching them basic obedience commands,” said Perkins.
Puppy raisers pay out of their own pockets for food and other expenses. The puppies then go on to “Guide Dog University” (GDU) at the Southeastern training facilit,y where dogs and blind human counterparts are matched up based on compatibility – size, color, temperament and walking speed, she said. The partner students with visual impairments undergo 26 days of training with their dog at GDU until they can pass the final exam: crossing eight lanes of traffic in downtown Tampa.
Perkins, an officer in the Southeastern Guide Dogs since 2003, said it costs $60,000 to take the dogs from puppy through graduation. From 70 to 75 dogs are graduated each year, and they each have a working life of 7 to 9 years. She said Southeastern operates on an annual budget of about $5 million, all raised from private contributions from individuals, civic organizations and foundations without any government funds. Perkins expressed great concern that blindness, which is caused chiefly by diabetes, will increase the need for guide dogs:
“One third of the US population will be diabetic by the year 2050, and macular degeneration will double.”