ST. PETERSBURG — Worf was palpably excited. Sitting in the bright lobby of the Dalí Museum Saturday, the 17-month-old puppy tossed his head back to look up at his trainer before gently lunging toward someone in proximity. Audie, his more well-behaved classmate, sat at attention waiting for instruction, while 11-week-old yellow lab Gracie melted into her trainer’s arms, too young to fully participate.
They weren’t there for the fine art. They were working.
Worf and seven other dogs were part of the Eastern Pinellas Puppy Raisers, a Southeastern Guide Dogs group that trains puppies to work for visually impaired people or veterans. As part of their training, they visit places such as the Dalí Museum to train them to focus.
But the museum has an even deeper connection to guide dogs. Dropping in on the training was one of the museum’s longtime docents, Patricia Allen. She has a furry friend from the program — Dave.
Allen, 70, began to lose her sight in 1975 because of complications with a diabetic condition she was born with. When she trained to become a docent in 1996, she still had 70 percent of her vision. Now, she can only see some shapes.
The 11-year-old yellow lab helps guide her through her day, including on tours of the museum that she leads Tuesdays.
“When I start the tours, you get the impression they’re a little uneasy with somebody with a seeing eye dog,” she said. “How can they give an art tour?”
So she often cracks a joke.
“I tell them, ‘If I make a mistake, Dave will bark,’” she said. “Everybody usually chuckles, but it relaxes the group.”
For most groups, she describes the painting’s contents using clock hands to help orient the group to the feature she’s talking about. But for visually impaired tours, she starts with the size of the painting, which is often the groups’ first question. Then she describes the colors based on their intensity — “hot” for colors such as red, and “cold” for colors such as blue or black. On all tours, she focuses on the history of the paintings and Dalí’s relationships with people in his life to give the viewers context.
“Even with the little vision I have, I’ll still discover something new in Dalí’s paintings,” she said, especially when guests prompt her with questions she doesn’t know the answer to. “I’ll go and find out (the answer). It only helps me explain the paintings better.”
The dogs were at the museum to learn, too.
“We always want them to focus on the handlers first,” Kristin Rogers, the group’s leader, said. “That’s really important for our puppies to learn.”
That means putting aside natural dog tendencies — no miscellaneous sniffing, interacting with other dogs or humans or sneaking items off of low gift shop shelves. Impulse control, Rogers said, is key.
The group of 15 trainers took the dogs on a series of exercises throughout the lobby, walking up and down the museum’s spiral staircase, taking the elevator and doing laps around the atrium.
Mike Jackson, 62, was training 8-month-old CW, a black lab. Jackson dutifully ignored a frustrated huff CW let out when Jackson diverted his attention from the dog. The most common question he gets is how he can give up his trainees when it’s time.
“He’s not my dog,” Jackson said. “He’s Southeastern Guide Dog’s dog, and you’re training him for a higher purpose.”
Allen appreciates Dave’s calm temperament — the same as her own — and how close the two are. But don’t be fooled by his fastidious work ethic. He has a more devilish side, she said, occasionally walking an unsuspecting Allen through puddles so he can avoid fear-inducing water.
“I can’t underestimate his intelligence, as far as he’s concerned,” she said.
Allen plans to retire Dave around October and select another dog from the program. She’s particularly interested in the cuddly puppy who couldn’t quite participate in the Saturday training.
“I’m looking for Gracie,” Allen told group leader Rogers as she left.