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Playful puppies make for a day full of free fun

There's nothing like puppy love. Not young love or pre-teen love, I mean real puppy love: cuddling a warm, soft, squirming, licking little dog.

Kids especially love puppies, and there's a place you can get a big dose of puppy love without the responsibility of actually owning one yourself.

Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc. in Palmetto invites the public to come in and play with their puppies, guide dogs to be, from 9-11 a.m. every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. There is no charge. I took my girls over the holiday break, and our time there was worth the 25-minute drive from St. Petersburg.

The kennel had about 30 puppies from newborn to eight weeks. They breed mostly Australian huskies, Labrador retrievers, collies, golden retrievers and Goldadors, a Lab and Golden mix.

Volunteers who work at the kennels bring about 10 puppies out at a time to a room with a cement floor where we sprawled out and played with them.

With about 30 adults and kids there, at first I was worried we wouldn't get ample puppy time. But the puppies bounce around so much, as soon as one left your lap another was headed toward you.

The room is full of balls and chew toys to aid in the play. Some jumped so much and nibbled on our hair enough that my 4-year-old, who has been raised with a bossy bassett hound, was a little overwhelmed at first. But she got used to it. Just be sure to caution smaller children or kids who aren't often around dogs. After about 30 minutes, the first batch of collie puppies were put away and out came the Australian huskies.

The non-profit guide dog organization welcomes the public to play with the puppies so these dogs can get used to being in large crowds of people from the beginning.

We also walked around the kennel and almost melted when we looked through the nursery window at three-day-old Lab puppies nursing and sleeping with their mom.

On most days, visitors can go to another kennel and walk older dogs who are in training. Our dog took off pretty quickly and did more leading than we did. My girls decided he was going to need lots of schooling to be a guide dog. A volunteer assured us when they have their guide harness on, they walk a much straighter line then when they are getting some exercise with visitors. The small campus is pretty with wooden bridges, gazebos, statues of dogs and a winding sidewalk. We enjoyed reading the names of dogs and people that were etched into bricks in the sidewalk. People can buy a brick to honor a pet or friend and help raise funds for Southeastern Guide Dogs. There also is a gift shop with plenty of neat dog stuff.

Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc. has trained more than 600 dogs and given them to visually impaired people around the country. Before they are trained to be guide dogs, the puppies live with "raiser families," who take the puppies when they are eight weeks old and return them for training when they are 14-20 months. The puppy raisers are responsible for all the dog's needs except medical expenses.

When the dogs return, they are trained for several months and learn more than 40 commands before their visually-impaired owner lives at the school and trains with their dog for 26 days.

The school is always looking for volunteers to work with the youngest puppies or raise a puppy in their home. It also accepts donations for the student dorms and puppies such as sheet sets, towels, radios, blankets and laundry soap. Take something when you visit and take a camera, too.

For more information, call 941-729-5665 or log onto www.guidedogs.org.

_ You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at snowsmithverizon.net; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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