Palmetto's Southeastern Guide Dogs plans new $4.7M puppy academy

SARASOTA -- The most common theme for those involved with Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto is: "It all started with the puppy hugging."

The popular public program is offered by the agency that trains guide dogs for the vision impaired and for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The visitor takes a seat on the floor, a door opens and about a dozen puppies swarm over you, washing every care you have away in a bath of puppy love. That's how it all started for John Auer, CEO of American Strategic Insurance Corp., who is offering a dollar-for-dollar donation up to $375,000 to fulfill Southeastern's final fundraising leg for a new $4.7 million, 20,000-square-foot puppy academy building.

Southeastern Guide Dogs CEO Titus Herman unveiled the artist rendering of the agency's latest upgrade Wednesday evening at the dog friendly Sarasota Hyatt Regency on National Dog Day.

Auer said the more he learned about what Southeastern does for people in need at no cost.

"I knew it was a good cause and I'm happy to support them," Auer said. "I've got to know a lot of people that have gone through this program and saw firsthand the impact it has had on their lives."

The puppy academy will replace existing puppy kennels and was designed strategically to be "all purposeful," said Herman.

"This new building will enable us to grow our programs and our

capacity and provide a better environment for our puppies," Herman said.

Building Design for Animals, an architectural firm based in New Mexico that specializes in animal care facilities, will head the project. Herman said it should break ground in November if the final funding goal is reached.

It's being called a one-of-a-kind facility that will help elevate Southeastern Guide Dogs into one of the best service-dog training facilities in the world. Herman said that's pretty good considering how Southeastern started 33 years ago as a two-bedroom house in the middle of an orange grove.

Facilities now include a state-of-the-art veterinary care clinic built two years ago, a new assessment center built last year and a new student center now under construction.

Joel Clark, project manager, said the academy will be "the crown jewel and pinnacle of what we have on campus."

Clark said the building is broken into three zones to allow for public viewing of new moms with puppies, streamlining into the puppy-hugging zone and then out through the gift shop. A new water park for puppies to play in and experience water will be in front of the building. Puppies begin sensory training from the time they are 3 days old.

Clark said design took everything into consideration, including floor surfaces that won't change temperature during steam cleaning to creating more space for nursing mothers.

"Before, we would have a new mom come in and have to move one of the mom's with puppies to a new room and they weren't getting a stable environment," he said. "This will allow six full weeks for the puppies and mother to be in the same room and we call that time preschool. From there, they graduate to the kindergarten area."

Herman said two more projects remain from the strategic plan created eight years ago. A new five-building complex for the guide dogs in training will be constructed in the future to replace existing kennels. The second future Paws for Patriots Retreat project will be a separate training building specifically for veterans and service dogs.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.

Academy is 'the crown jewel and pinnacle of what we have on campus' -- Joel Clark