PALMETTO -- The dog is more than just a human's best friend. It is often considered a family member, a loyal supporter and, at times, a heroic warrior, law enforcement officer, valued worker or trusted service animal.
How to determine where a service dog will best serve its human is left up to expert trainers and evaluators such as those at the Southeastern Guide Dog Assessment Center, which will celebrate a grand opening of its new Palmetto facility with a VIP event Saturday at the site of its former location, 4210 77th St. E.
The facility, the Keith G. Hirst Canine Assessment Center, was named after Hirst, a Sarasota resident, for helping to raise more than $1 million for the construction, furnishings and equipment set to be on display to the public on Saturday.
Southeastern Guide Dog CEO Titus Herman called Hirst a true friend to the organization and in a prepared statement said the new facility will increase the organization's service capacity for years to come.
Hirst established a $500,000 matching fund challenge for the construction and then set an additional $100,000 matching challenge. In all, the building, equipment and furnishings cost about $1.4 million.
"I like to get others involved and inspire them to work together to accomplish a mission," Hirst said in a press release. He is scheduled to deliver the opening remarks of the grand opening celebration scheduled for 10 a.m. Refreshments are planned and after Hirst and Herman speak, the facility will be opened for public tours.
According to Leslie Rowe, public relations associate for Southeastern Guide Dogs, staff and volunteers at the assessment center will be on hand at their stations to explain to guests how the process works and what each room is used for in training and assessing the dogs.
Rowe said there is a formal, structured assessment process for each "string" of dogs that comes into the facility. She said a string is made up of about 20-25 dogs, and they remain together as a group during the training, but only after they are all returned from volunteer puppy raisers, whose responsibility is to teach the puppies the basics of obeying commands.
At about 18 months, the dogs are delivered to the center for "Puppy University," said Rowe.
The dogs are evaluated for personalities, intelligence and how they interact with other dogs and humans, as well as how they react to various sounds and smells.
The Keith G. Hirst Canine Assessment Center replaces the organization's 28-year-old facility. Rowe said the building offers more training space within its 6,639 square feet, which includes a 1,000-square-foot assessment room, clinic, exercise yards and more.
Construction began in July 2013 and is ready to house the continued work of an important organization.
The event Saturday is not open to the public.
"We are so excited," said Rowe. "This has been such a long time coming."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.