Dan Jones never had a problem getting around. A Marine Corps veteran, he took daily 5-mile walks on the Rails to Trails path close to his home in Apopka, near Orlando.
But he gradually lost his peripheral vision, until the world looked like he was viewing it through a tunnel. Sixteen months ago, Jones, 54, was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy. He needed help to safely function in his daily life.
He got that help from Southeastern Guide Dogs of Palmetto and a devoted yellow Labrador retriever named Coastie — a dog that local residents will recognize as the cuddly, bouncy puppy sponsored by the city of Clearwater, star of local media and named for the city's connection to the Coast Guard.
Coastie and Jones graduated last week from extensive training programs at Southeastern Guide Dogs, and Coastie is headed home to Apopka with Jones to help him tackle the daily impediments created by his vision problem.
Ironically, it isn't the first time Jones has been helped through a Coast Guard connection.
"I'll have to wait and see, but everyone thinks everything is going to go perfect," Jones said.
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The training of guide dogs begins almost at birth. They spend the first nine or 10 weeks of life at the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus in Palmetto. Then the pups are paired with a puppy raiser, who will immerse them in everyday life and do initial obedience training with the help of a 200-page manual, 45-minute DVDs and monthly meetings until the dogs are about 18 months old.
Guide dogs in training are taught basic commands like sit, stay and heel. They are taken to movies and restaurants, on bus rides, to the airport — anywhere a visually impaired person might go.
The dogs then go back to Southeastern for six more months of training and are paired with the person who will take them home. The dog and handler will spend 26 days in intense training, living together at the school. By the end of the training, the dog knows more than 60 commands.
"It all culminates in going to downtown Tampa and crossing eight lanes of traffic," said Jennifer Bement, spokeswoman for Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Jones and Coastie graduated from that final stage of training last Thursday in a ceremony conducted by Southeastern. More than just dog and handler, they bonded during the intense experience.
"We're with each other 24 hours a day," Jones said. "This is like my best buddy."
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Coastie got his name because of a mistake made by workers at a concert in a city facility last year.
Puppy raiser Stephanie Miller of Clearwater was training a dog and took it to the concert. But workers barred the animal from the venue. Guide dogs in training are supposed to have the same rights as certified guide dogs.
As an apology for the mistake, the city agreed to sponsor her next puppy in training. Coastie was named in honor of Clearwater's designation as a Coast Guard city, and local Coast Guard officials approved the name. Coastie's picture and story appeared on the cover of a city magazine and in local newspapers.
Coastie is the first puppy Miller has raised that has been selected to help a person. The two previous ones she raised were trained as other types of service animals, she said.
Before Coastie and Jones graduated, Miller was able to visit with them. Coastie hadn't seen Miller in six months, but they played a little before Coastie returned to Jones' side.
"Coastie didn't forget me," Miller said.
Coastie will help Jones get around to organic gardening trade shows, go to the movies, and take his daily walks.
Coastie knows how to "find a seat" on the bus and "find the curb" when they are out. Coastie only disobeys for good reason, Jones said, like if a car is in the way at an intersection.
When Jones was growing up, a friend's dad, Alvin Hooper, was a mentor and guiding voice for him. Although Jones had a father, when he needed advice or someone to talk with, it was Hooper he would consult. They were friends for 40 years. Hooper, a Coast Guard veteran, died a few years ago.
"I look at Coastie as an extension of Alvin," Jones said. "He guided me through my first part (of life) . . . and now I have Coastie to guide me around obstacles I have nowadays."
For more information about Southeastern Guide dogs, visit guidedogs.org.
Jared Leone can be reached at [email protected] or follow @jared_leone on Twitter.