PALMETTO -- Man's best friends gathered Saturday to dedicate the latest addition to the Southeastern Guide Dogs training facility.
Trainers, volunteers, puppy raisers and the management and board of directors of the nonprofit, which trains and pairs guide dogs with the visually impaired, gathered with special guests and friends to celebrate the grand opening of the new Keith. G. Hirst Canine Assessment Center.
The construction of the new assessment center was made possible by Hirst, of Sarasota, who established a matching challenge in early 2013, matching $500,000 raised by the community.
Hirst again began a second matching challenge later in the year to raise $100,000 for the center's equipment and furnishings.
"After you probably know, after 28 years of solid and productive use, Southeastern had outgrown the old assessment kennel. That old building and our new one always will be affectionately referred to as the freshman dorm where puppies arrive when their puppy raisers bring them back for training," Hirst said Saturday. "Here in the new building is where amazing dogs are evaluated for their future and careers. Now with a modern and better-equipped home, the staff has plenty of room to do this important work."
For Hirst the journey began with his love for his dog as a young boy.
"To this day, I think back to a very happy day when my dad handed to me Patrick Henry's leash and he
said something to me like, 'Here son, this dog belongs to you now. Take good care of him. You'll learn a lot from each other'," Hirst said.
The new center includes features such as improvements in sanitation, lighting and air quality, with specialized systems to regulate moisture and minimize noise, as well as individual runs separating male and female dogs, a temperament assessment area and space for basic lab testing. The center also has sterilization stations, supply storage and working space for trainers and veterinary staff.
Staff veterinarian Dr. Kevin Conrad was thrilled with the opening of the new assessment center.
"It's big and beautiful," Conrad said. "It's going to serve our needs four times better."
Last year in August, the facility opened up a new veterinary center to replace the previous 550-square-foot one. The new 5,892-square-foot center includes a surgery room, ultrasound, special procedures room and dog pharmacy.
For Susan Wilburn, director of admissions and graduate services, this all holds a special place in her heart. Wilburn, who has no central vision, uses a guide dog.
"It can bring tears to my eyes," Wilburn said as she held on to her dog, Carson. "It has a special place in my heart."
The new center, she said, will be life changing for the dogs that come through its doors.
"The technology that is in that building and for the dogs to have that extra room," Wilburn said. "This gives them room to grow both mentally and physically."
One major change is that the new center has air conditioning, said Joel Clark, director of information management & capital projects. In the past that has been a challenge in battling certain medical issues, he added.
"This at least gives us the best opportunity health-wise," Clark said. "It's such a clean, safe and hygienic environment."
After the event, Hirst was still beaming with delight.
"In the years we have accomplished our mission because we have helped people through a quality organization for individuals who are in need," Hirst said. "And we see the results on a daily basis."