Our guide dog and service dog training continued during the season of community closures surrounding the pandemic. Through it all, our trainers continued to train nearly 100 dogs enrolled in Canine University, dogs who were temporarily housed with staff and volunteers. Many trainers worked with our dogs in their homes and the surrounding neighborhoods. We caught up with two of our trainers: Jennifer Johnson, certified guide dog trainer and training team manager, and Emily Dombrowski, certified service dog trainer.
For guide dog trainer Jennifer Johnson, isolating at home in St. Petersburg with her husband, Brandon, daughters Angelina (12) and Caroline (9), two pet dogs, four chickens, and a feisty 16-year-old cat—while hosting a guide dog-in-training—became a passion project.
She happily volunteered to homeschool a black Lab named Echo until he eventually returned to campus.
Despite the challenges of homeschooling kids while working remotely, hosting Echo became an excellent hands-on experience. The family embraced the joy that comes naturally with a “goofy and loving” Lab. All the Johnsons were helpful in training and walking Echo, using bikes, balls, the pet dogs, and even the cooperative cat as distractions and boundaries.
Brandon took time away from his own work to support Jennifer and Echo in any way he could.
In an outpouring of support and generosity, everyone who hosted dogs—whether a trainer, volunteer, or employee—had an opportunity to shine. “It’s blown me away,” Jennifer shares, “that people who have their own jobs to do or are still working from home have said ‘What else can I do? What more can I do to help?’”
Service dog trainer Emily Dombrowski has rotated a variety of dogs through her St. Petersburg home, and this spring, she welcomed a sweet yellow Lab named Zion for an extended at-home training course. Emily volunteered to host Zion to provide continuity while getting him expertly set up for his future working life. And in the process, she and her husband, Blase, gave this playful pup a big piece of their hearts.
Emily believes that “staying in a positive mind space, being present, and finding joy in the moment” were critical during this time of disruption, and Zion provided precious positive reinforcement daily. “I’m always pleasantly surprised at how resilient dogs are,” she notes. “They really live in the moment. We people are struggling to cope with changes in our lifestyle. Dogs need predictability in their lives, but change is just another beautiful adventure to them. They roll with the punches.”
This season also stretched Emily’s creativity as a trainer. “I needed to find new and different ways to accomplish the goals we worked on previously in busy public places or working with groups of other trainers on campus,” she explains. With social distancing, it became impossible to venture to shopping malls, restaurants, or grocery stores, so big, empty spaces like public parks became favored training destinations.
Emily is prouder than ever to be part of the Southeastern Training team. “We’ve come together to overcome challenges and obstacles in unprecedented times,” she says. “We are all passionate about our dogs and training them, regardless of everything else happening in the world around us.”