Many tears were shed as the “Atlantic Shores/Guiding Eyes for the Blind Puppy Love Program” came to an end on February 15, 2013. This inspiring program was one of the first in the nation to link tiny puppies, young schoolchildren, and seniors with giving hearts in a partnership to raise guide dogs for deserving individuals. The program came to life at Atlantic Shores, an energetic 100-acre retirement community in Virginia Beach, Virginia, which embraced their smallest residents, two black Labrador puppies, on October 27, 2011.
This unique project was a partnership with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an internationally accredited, nonprofit guide dog school with a 50-year legacy of providing the blind and visually impaired with superior Guiding Eyes dogs and lifetime support services, for free. This inspiring organization relies on volunteers for the critical first step of basic obedience training and socialization for their puppies. Specially selected black lab puppies, “Joanie” and “Godrick” were matched with Atlantic Shores residents and staff, who opened their homes and hearts to raise the puppies during a critical time in their lives. The puppies lived with their Atlantic Shores raisers, with GEB volunteers leading training sessions at Atlantic Shores to help the puppies undergo crucial socialization and behavioral training. All veterinary care, major supplies, and personal support were provided by Guiding Eyes.
The “Puppy Love Program” also included partnerships with Ocean Lakes and Corporate Landing elementary schools in Virginia Beach, where special curriculum helped students understand the invaluable service these puppies will eventually provide, and how to properly interact with guide dogs they see in the community. The puppies and their Atlantic Shores resident raisers made visits to the schools as part of their socialization training. Special needs, and visually impaired students had an opportunity to touch and interact with the puppies as a therapeutic activity. Students also followed the puppies’ progress with student reporter segments broadcast on the schools’ in-classroom TV feed.
While living at Atlantic Shores, the puppies became integrated into the dog-friendly senior campus, with the puppies attending such resident activities as Arts & Crafts, and unique events like “Yappy Hours” with special treats for both human and canine residents. The puppies also brightening the spirits of residents, with visits to the community’s Harbourway assisted living facility, Seaside skilled nursing center, and Memory Care Unit. During these visits, the healing power of the puppy’s presence was undeniable. “Puppy Love fans” from around the world have followed the progress of these canine heroes by logging on to http://www.atlanticshoresliving.com/press-room/puppy-love-program/, where a photo gallery and Dog-Blog tracked the puppies’ adventures. The program also won a Silver “Stevie Award” by the American Business Awards for Community Relations Campaign of the Year.
After almost 16 months of training and love, the “full-size” puppies were returned to Guiding Eyes to identify their unique skills, and further train them to be the perfect companion for a deserving individual, or the career best suited to them. The approximate value of each fully trained guide dog is $45,000, a cost that is entirely underwritten for each GEB graduate who receives a dog from the program. A special Goodbye Ceremony was held at Atlantic Shores on February 15 to send-off Godrick, who left to join the program’s other puppy Joanie in New York for their Guiding Eyes tests to move forward in the program. As they left Atlantic Shores, these amazing dogs left behind friends, young and old, who have come to love them, and will soon meet hundreds of others whose lives they will change forever.