Behind the Scenes: Bringing “Dear Superhero” to the screen
Behind the Scenes: Dogs of Destiny, Episode 2: Dear Superhero
When creating a video that tells a number of individual stories, it’s often a challenge to find a foundational theme or narrative technique to unify them into a coherent episode. Dogs of Destiny producer Jen Noble faced exactly that situation—until one very special letter came across her desk, as she explains in this interview about the second episode, the stories it contains, and just how emotional it still is for her to watch even after shooting, editing, and reviewing it tens, and even hundreds, of times while creating it.
This episode has an interesting title. What is it? And what is it all about?
Jen Noble: We call it “Dear Superhero.” It came about when one of our students wrote a letter to her future superhero—her future guide dog. Her name is Lynn Puckett. She is one of the people featured in this episode and she has a pretty amazing story.
She’s very articulate, and she talks about her losing her eyesight and how she felt after that, and then her journey towards finding Southeastern Guide Dogs and being paired up with the “Dear Superhero” she wrote about. Her journey, told through her letter, is woven throughout the episode.
I want to be very careful not to give any spoilers, but I will tell anyone who watches this episode, one thing, and that is to have some tissues handy because by the end of it, you’re going to need them. But I think it really captured a lot of the stories, not only looking at what it takes to train a dog from puppy to adult, but working with the students in school, and then pairing them with their perfect match—and more.
Jen Noble: Yes. Some are tears of sadness, but more are tears of joy. The thing about the stories in this episode is, you really root for these people, especially when you see just how empowering their matched dogs are. They help the people in the episode, and you cheer them on. You really do. And there are a few stories that I’ve watched many, many times looking for details during the editing process, and I still get emotional, no matter how many times I view it.
Not All Blindness is the Same
One of the interesting things about this episode is that compared to the first episode of Dogs of Destiny, which focused on veterans of the United States military and the service dogs Southeastern can match them with, this episode is dedicated to visually impaired individuals.
I think a lot of people might believe you’ve got to be totally blind to qualify for a guide dog, but from what I’ve seen in this episode, that’s not true at all. In fact, you show a gamut of visual impairments and the people affected by it, and you show how these guide dogs work for all of them to overcome those impairments.
Jen Noble: Yes. One thing that I asked students when I interviewed them was whether they were born with their impairment or developed it later in life. Whether they had full sight at one point, and they had some visual reference from the past. I asked them to describe their specific situation to me, with questions like “What do I look like to you? What do you see?”
Each one described it visually very differently. And in this episode, there are a couple of people who were born blind or they lost their vision very young. And then there are some that developed a medical condition that came on over time, and then for another, it was an unfortunate circumstance of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The thing I’ve learned when talking to all of these people about this, is their incredible bravery. The one thing that you’ll hear in this episode is how they feel about people and the way they are perceived, and sometimes treated, by the sighted community.
The bravery part comes in after losing their eyesight and their independence, or needing to wholly depend on a loved one, or friends and family. It’s incredibly brave to come to the Southeastern campus and leave all of that support behind for three weeks on their own.
Yes, it’s a major mental commitment, it’s a courage commitment. It requires a lot of support not only from the individual inside themselves but their families as well. There are a lot of family stories in this episode, too. I noticed that you actually interviewed some of them as well.
Every story is different, yet the needs are the same. But the interesting thing is those needs are not necessarily, “I need a guide dog so I can cross the street.” One of the stories you tell is of a young woman who said a very pithy quote, which was something along the lines of “When I use my cane, I’m invisible. With my dog, people come up and talk to me.”
Jen Noble: Yes, that’s Jessica. She has her fourth guide dog now, and she really captures that feeling. And even for me, I’m like, wow, I never thought of that, but yes, it’s like, if somebody has a cane, they’ve all told me that people, they walk away around them. That’s not fair—they’re people just like you and me, you know? There’s nothing wrong with their brain. They’re smart. They just can’t see the same way we see. They look at the way they see the world a little bit differently, but I will tell you that they use their other senses very acutely.
That’s interesting because again, the use of a cane almost creates a barrier, a moving barrier. It’s like a radar sweep, which says “Stay away from me.” Whereas having a dog breaks down those walls in such a beautiful way and really enables them to create conversations by answering questions like “What’s your dog’s name?” or “Is that a Labrador retriever?” I found that very remarkable.
Jen Noble: Me too. I spoke with one student who called his cane “People repellant.” He was so excited to get a guide dog. You’ll see in this episode that people have different things that matter to them. When they find out they’re losing their vision or their vision isn’t coming back, there are different things that are important to them that they’re going to miss.
It’s very interesting, the things that are important to some people. And what I want this episode to do is basically let viewers walk in these students’ shoes for 20 to 30 minutes. To experience what it feels like to be them. To get them to think about what is personally important to them. That’s what I hope these stories do: Inspire them to think, what would I do? What would I miss?
In this episode, there are younger people and older people. There are some who’ve had their visual impairment from a very early age. There are people who were adults for years before their visual impairment developed. And I think it’s really interesting, too, because it’s not like everybody gets a guide dog at age 18 or something like that. Some people can be quite a bit older.
Jen Noble: For some of our students, it isn’t like they lose their vision and say, “I’m going to get a guide dog.” Sometimes there’s a little bit of denial. There’s a little bit of hope that maybe their vision will come back or they just don’t understand how a guide dog could change their lives. It sometimes takes a little nudging, or it takes them time to process and they have to warm up to the decision that it’s time for a guide dog.
But it’s also not like, instantly “I’m going to go and get a guide dog.” They have to learn how to live independently. There are some skills they learn beforehand about how they’re going to get around and how they’re going to live their life independently without vision. That comes first. And then I think after that is when, as I’ve interviewed them, it might take a nudge or two from someone around them to get them to consider it.
Puppy Love and Puppy Raising
One of the segments within this episode is called Puppy Love, and I think anybody who loves puppies is going to love it. But the segment points out that a key part of the development of any dog that’s associated with Southeastern Guide Dogs happens off-campus, away from its actual location in Palmetto, Florida. How do puppies become superheroes like the ones you can see around town helping their human partners?
Jen Noble: After around eight weeks, they go home with a Southeastern Guide Dogs volunteer puppy raiser. I think Leslie Shephard, who’s in charge of our Puppy Raising services, says it best when she says, “Puppy raisers are the heart and soul of Southeastern Guide Dogs.” Without them, you wouldn’t have these superheroes because these volunteers take puppies into their homes, house-train them, teach them basic skills, and expose them to things in the outside world that as full-grown dogs they’re going to be exposed to on a regular basis.
Our puppy raisers have their puppies 24/7 for at least a year until it’s time for them to come back and get their advanced skills training at Canine University. There are hundreds of them out there that do it all over the country, and they do a wonderful job. When people first hear about our puppy raiser program, the number one question is “How can you do this and give them back?”
In this episode, I asked that question of several puppy raisers. They all have different reasons for why they volunteered to become, but they all say the same thing; that they realize these dogs aren’t meant to be lapdogs. They truly are born to become Dogs of Destiny. They’re destined to become superheroes. They understand that there is a much bigger picture here and that they’re contributing to a much bigger cause. It’s a very selfless act, and we’re grateful to every single one of them for all they do to help our pups reach their superhero potential.
If people wanted to raise a puppy, do you have to be located close to the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus in Palmetto, Florida, near Sarasota and Tampa?
Jen Noble: No. We have puppy raisers located throughout the United States. Anyone can apply to become one, so if any viewer of Dogs of Destiny is interested, they should definitely check it out.
Let’s go back to puppy raisers just a bit because it’s such an interesting thing that I don’t think people truly understand. You can be associated with Southeastern Guide Dogs as a volunteer puppy raiser, and you’ll have that dog for a solid year or thereabouts. They will learn all their best behavior based on you and the training and support you receive from Southeastern Guide Dogs. But eventually, you’re going to be driving that dog back to campus.
Jen Noble: Yes, to drop off the dog for what we call Freshmen Orientation.
What happens then, especially for the puppy raisers on that day.
Jen Noble: It’s the day that they drop off the dogs and they go to college. I got to witness it, and it really was like watching parents drop off their kids at a university campus.
When you drop your dog off, pretty much everybody I’ve interviewed has said, it’s the same as with human kids; you can tell the dogs are ready to go there. They’re not puppies anymore. They’re teenagers. And it’s like, they don’t want Mom and Dad around anymore. They’re tired of that.
And when you actually witness the puppy raisers bringing their dog out, it’s an interesting thing to see Southeastern staff take pictures of you with your dog at different stages along the way. They have a little banner up there with a picture of your dog as a puppy, and their name on it. You take a picture with them before handing them off to a trainer. You also get these things called ‘Love Bones.’ It’s a dog biscuit, and it has a little note rubber-banded to it. And the puppy raisers get to write a little note to their dog, who gets that as a treat their first night in Canine University. It’s kind of a sweet thing.
It’s funny because the dogs, they hear the other dogs and they’re like, “Oh, I gotta go!” The puppy raisers are hugging and kissing their dogs, but the dogs are like, “Yeah, but I’ve got a party to go to in the dorms right over there.” It’s really fun, and also a little bit sad. It’s an emotional day to say goodbye to the dogs, but they understand that they’re now going to see what their actual destiny is.
I’m reminded of one of the puppy raisers that’s featured in the episode saying that her friends tell her that she’s not the same person when she’s not raising a puppy. I thought that was so perfect. As a puppy raiser, you get to nurture these dogs in ways that will benefit them, and their matched humans, for years.
Jen Noble: Yeah. There are so many career paths they can go into. The woman you mentioned, that was Colleen Heagy. And what’s funny is she and her husband were so cute together. Her husband was like, “When this happened, I was just thinking about retirement.” [laughs] No, that wasn’t going to happen, Ralph. It’s really sweet to see that, but thankfully, Freshman Orientation is not the last time that the puppy raisers get to see the puppies.
When do they next get to see them?
Jen Noble: They get to see them six months later, after their advanced training, when the dogs are about ready to be matched with their forever friend. They get one last time, an hour with their dog. And it’s very sweet to see because the dog recognizes them, even though it’s been six months. They recognize them and they’re all wiggly and come up and they get to spend a little bit of time. The trainers are right there and sometimes the trainers will show them what the dog has learned. It’s very sweet and they get to say goodbye one last time.
Are there any things that you’d like to point to in this episode that people should really watch for?
Jen Noble: One of the puppy raisers featured in this episode was also a sponsor or donor. That meant that they were able to name the dog as well as raise him. And I think that’s something that people don’t get to see or understand; how the dogs get their names, and how important and meaningful those names can be. That’s a story in the show I think everyone will want to watch for.
I think that’s one of the best things about this “Dear Superhero” episode. It makes it clear that if you have anyone in your family who may be challenged visually or is a veteran facing PTSD, Southeastern Guide Dogs probably has a program that can help. If these episodes can help people understand that, then I certainly think this series is doing its job. Kudos to you and your team for putting it all together.
Jen Noble: Thank you. And the only spoiler I would give is there is a happy ending.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned here, if a Southeastern guide or service dog is involved, you can count on the fact that there’s going to be a happy ending.
“Dear Superhero” is the second episode of Dogs of Destiny, a web series that dives deeper into the many programs and stories of Southeastern Guide Dogs. Watch for new episodes on the Southeastern Guide Dogs Facebook or YouTube pages, or here on the website at www.guidedogs.org/dogsofdestiny