WESLEY CHAPEL — The steel bus ramp lowered slowly, beeping as it went. Buffy, an 8-month-old golden Labrador retriever waited patiently before boarding, then sat calmly alongside her handler, Emma MacDonnell.
It was Saturday school, of sorts, for canines. For the next hour or so, commands were put into real-life practice as six dogs and their handlers got on and off the bus before taking a short trip around the Wiregrass Park n Ride.
MacDonnell, 16, is a volunteer puppy raiser with Southeastern Guide Dogs, a nonprofit in Palmetto. The organization breeds, trains and provides service dogs for free to qualified recipients.
"We love the program," said her mom, Lisa MacDonnell, noting that her daughter took the stint to fulfill volunteer requirements at Land O' Lakes High School. "We love meeting all different types of people who are willing to give their time. And we love the dogs, of course."
Donning the harness and traveling to the supermarket, the movie theater, church, the library and anywhere else a person might go are all part of the training, said Loretta Holtkamp, volunteer and area coordinator for Southeastern's North Tampa/University of South Florida puppy raiser group.
She coordinated with Rosemarie Bruckner, public transportation program coordinator for Pasco County, to provide the transit training.
"I think doing this kind of training is key when these dogs go to their forever home," Bruckner said.
In a few months, Buffy and her comrades will leave their temporary homes for professional training at the Southeastern Guide Dog campus in Palmetto. It's not an easy goodbye.
"Puppy raisers are people with very big hearts and a lot of patience who are willing to put the time in to raise these puppies," said Holtkamp. The former geologist started volunteering with Southeastern when she and her husband became empty nesters about seven years ago. They have fostered five dogs.
Dakota became a bomb and arson dog. Peggie is service dog for a veteran with vision loss and other disabilities. Liberty is a guide dog for a woman who is visually impaired. Subie, who was sponsored by the local Subaru dealer, became an ambassador dog for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Tatty Max, the latest, will leave for formal training soon.
Giving the dogs a loving home is an essential step in getting them to forever owners.
"These dogs cost the recipients nothing," Holtkamp said. "There is no public funding. Everything is donations and volunteers."
The puppies — Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers or a mix called a goldador — are bred to be service or guide dogs. They are raised in a kennel until they are about 10 weeks old. The dogs then live with puppy raisers, where they are housebroken and taught basic obedience skills and house manners, such as not taking food off the table or chewing shoes. Puppy raisers must attend obedience classes following special protocols developed by Southeastern.
"Everything has to be done appropriately for accreditation with Assistance Dogs International and International Guide Dogs Federation," Holtkamp said.
When they are about 14-months old, the dogs move back to the campus for formal training. There they learn a variety of skills — navigating stairs, riding elevators and escalators, finding a street curb or chairs for a person with visual impairments. They also learn intelligence disobedience, Holtcamp said.
"For instance, if a person was in an elevator and the door did not open properly, the dog would have to disobey the command to go forward so the owner would know," she said. "There's about 40 commands. Training can take four to six months, sometimes longer."
Not all of the dogs make it. Puppy raisers often adopt those dogs.
It's fulfilling for puppy raisers like Jannel Meagher of Land O' Lakes. After the death of her last dog, a Pomeranian named Doodles, she was ready for companionship.
"I wanted another dog, but I didn't want to go another 12 or 15 years and then lose him," said Meagher.
She is raising a black lab named Stanley sponsored by Steve Griggs, an executive with the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team. Stanley is the brother of Bolt, an ambassador dog with the Lightning.
"It's been a wonderful experience," Meagher said. "This is such a good-hearted group of people. Nobody is doing this for themselves. They're doing it for someone else."
Learn more at www.GuideDogs.org. Pasco County video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiUsvKfymo4
Contact Michele Miller at email@example.com or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.