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


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" . . .  my heart goes out to all who are affected by COVID-19. My thoughts are with our staff   
and volunteers constantly as we continue to navigate these unprecedented circumstances . . ."
~ Titus Herman, CEO of Southeastern Guide Dogs, in a heartfelt letter to 
staff and volunteers March 30, 2020 re: significant cuts to programs
March, 2020 was an unusual month for Puppy Don, our family, and our country. In this entry I'll mostly explain how it evolved in regards to Don's guide training.

The first day of the month was great!

We received an e-mail from Callaway Gardens & Resort to let us know their world-famous azaleas were starting to bloom. It was a gorgeous spring day. Jim had other plans so I made a quick decision to take Don down there to do some hiking and photographing.





Since it was a couple weeks before peak bloom in the two major azalea gardens, it wasn't busy that Sunday morning. That made the photography easier.

I loved the "forest therapy" as we walked through two of the large azalea gardens, and Don got some new exposures and training opportunities at the Discovery Center that included "down under" a low bench and theater seats . . .

. . . some very large metal insects at the entrance to the Center . . .

. . . going into two different kinds of public restrooms, listening to hawks squawking in the distance distance during a raptor talk, watching squealing kids pedaling past us on bicycles near the visitor center, and examining preserved wildlife in the kids' discovery center. He was particularly interested in a bobcat in a Plexiglas case on the floor.

Don was a perfect gentleman indoors and out, and he did well with all the new distractions and "novel objects." You can see lots more photos from the gardens in my entry dated March 1, 2020.


Wow, that went fast. Seems like he was a wee little puppy just yesterday . . .

I posted on Facebook some close-ups that I took of Don at Callaway Gardens in lieu of a separate photo shoot at home three days later when he actually turned nine months old:


Isn't he a handsome boy?!

That week I also took Don to Home Depot twice. That is one of his favorite places to visit because many of the employees and some shoppers love to pet him. He's getting almost old enough now that I'll need to stop allowing petting when he's in coat but it's been all right until now since he waits politely to approach them until I give him the OK.

Thanks to the pandemic, those were his last trips to Home Depot or any other store for a good while.

Watching me take his picture in the lumber department

Above and below:  Getting drowsy while watching people walk by in the lumber department; 
he has very good impulse control with people and dogs in most situations.


We didn't realize the first nine or ten days of March how much the newly-spreading COVID-19 pandemic would affect our lives here in the United States but by the middle of the second week, the transformation began. Every day there were new guidelines and additional restrictions.

By the end of the month, international travel was banned or seriously curtailed to try to stop the spread of the virus between countries. People were encouraged to stay at home and they began stock-piling and/or hoarding food and other supplies. Schools, non-essential businesses, and group activities were encouraged -- and soon ordered -- to shut down. The stock market plunged. A national state of emergency was declared to try to deal with the medical and financial ramifications.

Above and below:  More good impulse control on a walk, with a deer
close to the path; Don has never been interested in chasing wildlife.

The economic impact affected Southeastern Guide Dogs, too, and we started getting written and verbal messages with increasingly bad news about staff furloughs, discontinued team training, several campus buildings closed, cancelled graduations, dogs in advanced training being moved off-campus to live with the trainers, no new pups going back for advanced training, breeding of new litters suspended indefinitely, and the school's major fund-raising events -- several spring Walkathons -- modified to become virtual events.

"Virtual training" became the new model for training guide and service dogs, just as school kids and college students began remote learning from home and adults worked from home if they could. Computers and all things technical became even hotter commodities than usual. "Zoom" became a household word, and it didn't have anything to do with puppy zoomies!

Don says, "Less Zoom, more zoomies!!" (training and conditioning
to put his paws up on something higher than a paw pad)

During the second week of March all the puppy raising groups were advised to suspend in-person training meetings and outings until at least May. Ditto for individual puppy evaluations by the regional managers that were left on payroll. Three of the five regional managers, including ours, were furloughed for several weeks at the end of March.

Our group did not meet in person from February until September, and the number of participants was strictly limited in September and October to only the raisers, trainers, a few sitters, and the area coordinator. Face masks and social distancing were required.

After two of the regional managers, including ours, resumed working in May they were allowed to do one-on-one puppy kindergarten training and evaluations (Walk & Talks, etc.) with older pups still in raisers' homes.

Above and below:  Homemade conditioning equipment for Don and the girls

No one had any idea the pandemic would last as long as it has. I'm writing this in November, 2020 and every state in our country is currently seeing a second or third wave of the virus. There are more positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths due to COVID now than there were in the spring.

Ditto for many other countries around the world. Several countries are working furiously to fast-track effective vaccines but none are completely done with the testing required for even FDA emergency approval in the U.S.

Despite not knowing the duration of the pandemic, Southeastern Guide Dogs -- with severely limited staff in March and April -- did a yeoman's job of putting together virtual training sessions on Facebook for pups like Don who were still with their raisers. There were daily "calendar challenges" to watch and practice at home. Regional managers and area coordinators also kept in contact online with raisers via Zoom meetings and other ways to answer questions and monitor the in-home training. 


I had planned to take Don down to Callaway Gardens several times in March and April to watch the morphing flower show. Enough else was going on in our lives as the pandemic worsened and more places shut down that I made the trip only one more time this spring.

Although CDC guidelines have also morphed throughout the pandemic as scientists learn more about how the virus spreads, it's always been suspected or known that it spreads faster inside than outside.

As a result, the outdoor spaces at privately-owned Callaway Gardens & Resort have remained open all year even as many local, state, and national parks were closed for a period of time in the spring.



It was ironic that while the little parks along the cart paths in Peachtree City where we walk the dogs were taped off for several weeks in March and April to control the spread of the virus on playground equipment, benches, etc., I was still able to take Don to Callaway Gardens on March 19.

The azalea gardens, other garden areas, Discovery Center, and Butterfly conservatory were open to visitors but their restaurants and overnight accommodations were shuttered temporarily.

March 19 was a hot, sunny day at Callaway -- up to 80 F. -- so Don and I walked only about a mile at the Azalea Overlook and Azalea Bowl. It was peak azalea bloom time and I loved all the gorgeous flowers! I posted many more photos of the flowers in a journal entry dated March 19, 2020.


Although it was a weekday, so many kids and adults were at home now that I was surprised there were so few people walking around.

As mentioned in the previous entry, I also took Don to the Day Butterfly Center that visit.

I had called a few days earlier to ask if Don would be allowed into the conservatory where the butterflies are located and was told that yes, guide and service pups/dogs are permitted in there. However, once I was there he could only walk through the lobby, theater area, and gift shop and was denied entry into the conservatory.

I don't know which employee got it wrong or whether perhaps COVID had anything to do with the USDA regulations changing for the conservatory, but I didn't argue. Don was already tired from walking in the heat and the conservatory -- a large greenhouse -- is very warm and muggy inside, so we left.

I was a little disappointed but realized that, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't an important exposure for him and we had a lot more critical things to worry about.


By the end of the month we would even more personally feel the effects of the pandemic as it related to Don and Southeastern Guide Dogs. 

Because of the large temporary reduction in staff, moving the pups in Canine University off-campus, suspension/delay of matching class-ready dogs with their new handlers, and the loss of major income from the cancellation of all the Walkathons, area coordinators were advised in late March that it was necessary to reduce the number of pups at all stages of training.

Area coordinators were asked to identify any puppies in their groups they felt would be candidates for release because they were less likely to make it as a guide or service dog for temperament and/or health reasons.

Any released puppy or dog would be offered first t the puppy raiser, then to staff, then to volunteers for adoption. That was also SEGD's policy prior to the pandemic.

Because I submitted Don's formal 8-month PupDate in late January and my area coordinator and regional manager hadn't seen him since the middle of February at PuppyCon in Savannah, I thought they were due an update on his training, health, and temperament. I sent an email to them for their consideration.

I know from things I've read online and people I've talked to at both SEGD and Warrior Canine Connection that there are a myriad of reasons why pups are released from guide and service dog programs. Some pups are released because of only one of them if they are serious enough, such as allergies, infections, or a lack of confidence.

The standards are higher for a guide dog than for a service dog or other careers, and guide dogs are what SEGD focuses on the most. I knew Don has several potential health and temperament "issues" that have caused previous releases. In my update I included those, as well as his many strengths. I still thought he would make a fabulous facility dog, Gold Star Family dog, or kids' companion and I hoped that he would remain in the program.

Jim and I talked all weekend about what we'd do if Don was released and offered to us for adoption. We certainly never volunteered to raise a guide or service puppy with the intention of keeping it permanently, so this was an unexpected wrinkle. We knew there are many visually impaired people, wounded warriors, and challenged kids out there who need a well-trained guide or service dog more than we need a third pet Lab!

On the other hand, we are a bonded family after seven months. Don is part of the pack. Jim and I love him, Holly and Casey love him, and he loves all of us.

Above and below:  Holly and Don are BFFs.

How could we say "no" if SEGD offered him to us? It was a long weekend, wondering when we'd know more about Don's future.

On March 30, I read an e-mail written by Southeastern's CEO addressed to staff, volunteers, area coordinators, puppy raisers, and breeder hosts regarding the difficult decisions he's had to make with his leadership team regarding cuts and reductions to operations, staff, and dogs.

This paragraph addresses the dogs:

. . . Because we’ve had to cancel upcoming classes, we are facing a backlog of dogs in our programs. Keeping too many dogs in the training pipeline isn’t fair to the dogs or the people caring for them. Typically, about 30% of our dogs do not qualify for one of our working careers, and we are taking steps now to select some of those dogs earlier than normal and transfer them out of our programs. We are identifying these dogs—some of whom are enrolled in Canine University and some in puppy raiser homes—based on their assessments, trainer records, and puppy raiser records. We will then place these wonderful dogs into loving forever homes through our extensive network of friends.

Chillin' out, completely relaxed

Since I'd already seen the first notice a few days earlier and knew some dogs would be released earlier than usual, what surprised me the most about the CEO's remarks was that typically 30% of their dogs don't qualify for one of their working careers. I thought it was more like 10-20% in a good year when they had the resources to consider other working careers besides guide and service dogs.

We still didn't know on March 31, my birthday, if any decision had been made about Don remaining in the program or not. We continued training and loving him as we had for the past seven months.

Next entrydetermining what's best for Don

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