Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly feeding on Miss Huff lantana flowers in our yard


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"I have a belated birthday gift for you."
~ Southeastern Guide Dogs Area Coordinator Ellen's
greeting in a phone call to me on April 1
It's April Fool's Day 2020 when I get this call, one day after my birthday. I assume it is in regards to our guide puppy in training, Don, but I don't know what to expect. I hold my breath waiting to hear what Ellen has to say because it's been a very strange last few weeks with the global COVID pandemic creating economic, social, and medical havoc.

And did I mention it's also April Fool's Day? I hoped it wasn't some sort of practical joke. It wasn't.

In the last entry I talked about the early, devastating effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic on the staff, volunteers, and guide dogs in training at Southeastern Guide Dogs.

By late March leadership had to make many tough decisions 1) to protect the health of staff and dogs and 2) to financially protect the very existence of the guide school and the 600+ current guide and service dog teams it supports free of charge after pups and people are matched. This non-profit organization relies on individual and corporate donations to operate, and those anticipated sources of income for 2020 were suddenly drying up because of COVID 19.

Handsome Don on his 10-month birthday (4-4-20)

To mitigate the economic loss and follow safety guidelines, difficult cuts were made in every department at the school.

Many staff members were temporarily furloughed or laid off, including our Regional Manager, Laura. Remaining staff mostly worked from home, often with reduced hours. Several campus buildings were partially or entirely closed to reduce operating costs. Dogs in advanced training were moved to staff and volunteer homes off-site. New team matches with the visually impaired and military veterans were postponed.

And about 100 puppies in all stages of training were released from the program or, in guide/service school parlance, "career-changed." SEGD simply didn't have the resources to keep them all.

That's where we and Don were affected. He was one of the puppies deemed less likely to succeed as a guide or service dog. Ellen was calling to let us know he was going to be released. Did we want to adopt him??

Look at that face! What do you think??

Jim and I knew every puppy in the program that was living with raisers or was in advanced training on campus was being evaluated during the past few days. We knew Don has several health and temperament issues, any one of which has caused pups to be released in a good year. 2020 was not a good year. So we had already thoroughly discussed Don's possible release.

And we knew what the answer would be if given the remarkable opportunity to adopt this sweet, lovable, intelligent boy -- a resounding YES!

Prior to this, my best-ever birthday gift was closing on our present house in 2017. Getting to keep Don was way better.


Ellen said the main reasons for Don's release were his various medical problems, which may or may not improve with age -- several ear and groin infections plus allergies, all from unknown sources. I've heard of other pups being released by SEGD for these and other more serious medical issues because even problems that seem minor can be very inconvenient for a disabled veteran or a person with vision loss.

Because of the ear infections, e.g., Don hates having his ears cleaned or solution put into them. That could present problems for some people. Otherwise he absolutely loves all types of body handling, including having his nails trimmed.

Don has seasonal allergies from pollen, dust, or other environmental factors in the spring and fall.  Treating allergies effectively takes time, probable periodic trips to a vet, and money. Not everyone wants to deal with that.

We have learned that one Cytopoint injection quickly stops both Don's and Holly's obsessive foot licking from irritants in the spring and fall. That's not the only treatment but it's the best we've found and worth the expense to us. Those shots cost about $100 each, which would be an added expense for SEGD if Don continued in the program. The school not only pays for medical care of puppies in training, it also pays the medical care of matched guide and service dogs for the life of the team.

Above and below:  such a handsome lad at 10 months!  (4-18-20)

Don (and at least two of his littermates) also had digestive problems for at least two months after we got him. We don't know if the diarrhea and loose stools were from allergies or another cause, but after trying several foods and supplements that finally resolved when the pups were about five months old.

Raisers were cautioned about not giving guide pups in training human foods except things like peanut butter or banana that could be stuffed into Kong toys to keep them occupied. In order to prevent or minimize and digestive problems after his release, we have introduced all new human foods gradually to Don.

All of our town's city parks were at least partially closed in April due to the virus.  (4-4-20)

I know Don has some temperamental issues that may or may not have improved with maturity but Ellen didn't mention any of those -- the lack of confidence and inhibition under stress that she and Laura often observed, some fear reactions, low drive/energy, high dog scent distraction, scavenging things on the floor/ground (not counter-surfing), and potential separation anxiety if he had gone back to the school for advanced training.


We can live with all of these health conditions and temperament characteristics that might make him unsuitable for a career as a guide or service dog because Don has so many awesome qualities that make him a perfect pet for us and potentially a fabulous therapy dog.

Let me count the ways . . . sweet, lovable, friendly with everyone, kissy, cuddly, loves to be petted, funny, intuitive, very smart, easy to train, generalizes cues (commands) well, heels on a loose leash, well-mannered, gives polite greetings, wants to please, very laid back, gets along great with Holly and Casey, shares toys, loves other dogs, excellent impulse control with wildlife, handles loud noises well, loves to ride in the car, truck, or golf cart, enjoys walks on cart paths and trails up to five miles, and more.

To us, he's 99% perfect!

Above and below:  on the cart path near our house (4-15-20)

Don's got some quirks (don't we all!) but we can live with those, too.

For example, he tolerates baths but does not like rain, puddles, creeks, ponds, or any form of water except to drink it. If we had a safe place without so many chemicals in the water I think he'd probably follow the girls into creeks and lakes and learn to swim.

When we first got him he would get into the kiddie pool but that didn't last long. I don't know of any event that caused this aversion to water.

Loves the body handling but not the water so much  (4-5-20)

Don can be quite playful but he loses interest during play more quickly than Holly or other dogs he meets. Our vet says he is perfectly healthy and it's just his laid-back temperament.

He's been like that since we got him at 13 weeks old. It's part of his "old soul" personality where he usually acts older than his age. His easy-going nature makes him very easy for us older folks to live with.

Airing out all his boy bits!  (4-12-20)

And the drool . . . oh, my, it's even worse than Cody's used to be.

Don has floppy jowls that drip water after he drinks so he looks like a moose with its head coming out of pond water. He also drools when I'm fixing meals or we're eating.

I carry paper or terry towels to wipe his mouth periodically when I'm wearing the treat bag because he knows I've got treats for him. That's just about any time we aren't at home, from walking with him on the cart paths to walking through stores. Treats are his "paycheck" for doing what I ask him to do, just like money for people who do their job well.


When people adopt a dog from whatever source -- breeder, animal shelter, friend, etc. -- they say it's the dog's "Gotcha Day." I'm not sure when Don's "Gotcha Day" is because there could be several.

We first met him on September 4, 2019 on Southeastern Guide Dog's campus in Florida and drove home with him the next day.

We told Ellen on April 1, 2020 that yes, we'd be delighted to adopt him after the school determined he'd be happier as a pet (what I jokingly call "the private sector" for a job). After completing the paperwork online, his Puppy Raiser Adoption Agreement became final on April 7, 2020.

I think I'll use September 4, 2019 as his "Gotcha Day:"

On the way home last September

Along with the expected requirements to provide a safe and healthy environment for Don, the agreement states that although Don cannot participate in the school's gifted canine program as an ambassador or therapy dog, we may pursue therapy work with Don independently.

That is my goal after he turns one, the minimum age to be tested by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. He may not have a career through SEGD, but if he continues to show a high level of interest in greeting people I plan to give him the opportunity to bring comfort and joy to as many people as possible when the pandemic is over and we can go to hospitals, veterans' centers, assisted living facilities, schools, libraries, and other places.


I admit it would have been very hard to "give Don up" later in the year if he had remained in the program and gone back to campus for advanced training.

Despite having two lovable female Labs of our own, they and we got very attached to Don in the seven months he was a guide puppy in training and we would have gotten even more attached in another six or eight months.

Above and below:  Don and Holly; they both like having a "puppy" to play with! 
Don often acts more mature than Holly, who is two years older.   (4-21 and 4-25-20)

The most common response I've gotten from people I've talked with about becoming potential puppy raisers for SEGD is that it would be too hard to give the puppy back after a year of bonding. My reply has been the standard one we've learned to use about the selfless thing they'd be doing to help train and socialize a young puppy so it can give independence and companionship to someone who needs it more than they do.

When we got Don at 13 weeks old I didn't realize how easy it is to fall in love with these exceptional dogs. Now I understand why so many people are reluctant to become puppy raisers for a guide or service dog organization.

Flower  Child   (4-8-20)

Although we love Don and feel very lucky to be able to keep him, we've had mixed feelings about his release.

This was our first guide puppy to train and we really did hope that he'd be a Super Hero for a blind or disabled person. After a few months we had some doubts that he had enough drive and confidence to be a guide or service dog but thought he'd make an awesome facility support dog, challenged kid's companion, or Gold Star Family dog.

In any year but 2020, with full staff and funding and enough time to find the right match, I think Don would have ended up in one of those alternate careers. It's a fluke that we and dozens of other raisers had the good fortune to end up with one of these amazing dogs, simply because of the timing.

This may be the only really good thing that happens to us in 2020!


As soon as the day after Ellen called me to ask if we wanted to adopt Don, I felt a giant sense of relief.

Although I feel very responsible for keeping any of my dogs safe and healthy, that feeling was magnified with Don because he wasn't "ours." Purpose-bred guide and service dogs are estimated to be worth $35,000-$50,000 or more when they are fully trained and I didn't want to screw anything up.

Jim asked if we could change his name since neither one of us is real fond of it. Don could learn a new name (especially since I say "buddy" to him a lot) but I don't want to change it. I still want to honor his namesake, even though we don't know anything about him except his name. His son and DIL spent $4,000-5,000 to name Don and I don't think it'd be right to change the name, especially if they do know who we are and read my posts on Facebook or this website.

So "Don" it is, with variations of "Dapper Don" and "Don-Don." He likes his name and when people ask me to repeat it because it's an unusual dog name, I have a good opening to tell them about Southeastern Guide Dogs. Win-win.

Next entry:  how Don's and our life changed after his adoption (think "pet perks")

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Casey-Girl, Holly-Holly, & Dapper Don

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2020 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil