After she and Sunny — a puppy wearing a blue "Guide Dog in Training" cape — were turned away from Clearwater's Sea-Blues Festival at Coachman Park in February, Stephanie Miller turned to the city's Facebook page. "Sorry that we won't be able to hear (the musical lineup). My Southeastern Guide Dog in training and I were just denied access to the venue," she wrote.
That's after she had pointed out the pup's blue cape, provided credentials and quoted a Florida law that says any service dog in training has the same public access rights as a working dog.
After reading Miller's post, Joelle Castelli, the city's public communications director, responded with a heartfelt apology and assurance it wouldn't happen again.
"Our tail is between our legs," Castelli posted. "Can we buy your pup a dog biscuit?"
But Miller, Pinellas County Schools' Exceptional Student Education Coordinator, had a better idea: Would the city sponsor a Southeastern Guide Dog pup?
She would, she said, raise not only the puppy, but awareness about guide dogs, their role in the lives of the visually impaired, and their public access rights.
Castelli and Mayor George Cretekos were intrigued and visited the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus in Palmetto.
It only took a few wet puppy kisses from some bouncy Labrador retrievers for Cretekos to be swayed.
"There is no way you are not going to fall in love with those puppies," he said. "Plus, it was the right thing to do. Coastie is an ambassador, not only for us, but to make people aware of the need out there to help others."
Southeastern Guide Dogs, in business for 30 years, is one of 12 accredited guide dog schools in the nation and the only one in the southeast United States.
So far, about 2,600 Southeastern Guide Dog teams have been created. It costs about $60,000 to fund a guide dog team from breeding to training to matching with a recipient and lifetime followup care. There is no cost to the receiver of a guide dog.
For their $3,500 puppy training sponsorship, Clearwater received naming rights. Officials chose the moniker "Coastie" in honor of the city's recent designation as a Coast Guard City.
The yellow Lab is now 7 months old. His photo graces the cover of the fall issue of My Clearwater, a magazine published by the city.
He is one of about 260 puppies — Labs, golden retrievers, and "goldadors" (a mix of the two breeds) — being raised now by volunteer puppy raisers like Miller who teach basic obedience skills and expose the puppies to everyday life.
Coastie is Miller's third guide puppy. She received him at 9 weeks old and will keep him for 12 to 15 months. Then he'll work with a certified guide dog trainer for another six to nine months to learn at least 40 commands. After that, he will be paired up with his new owner.
Miller knows when the time comes to say goodbye, it will be a bittersweet moment.
"It's like sending your child off to college, not knowing if or when you will see them again.
"I may want the dog, but I know someone else needs the dog."