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Southeastern Guide Dogs brings you 'Beyond the Dark' with new multi-sensory experience

The new program invites you to see, hear, and feel what it is like to live with visual impairment or PTSD.

SARASOTA, Fla. — We’ve all been there. You see an adorable dog at the store or park and reach to pet it, only to see that it’s a service dog. We all know that you shouldn't pet these furry friends because they have a bigger job to focus on.

But the workers over at Southeastern Guide Dogs felt that everyday people didn’t fully understand what huge role these dogs truly play in the lives of the visually impaired and those suffering from PTSD.

That's how "Beyond the Dark" was born. The multimedia program shows visitors what it’s like to go through life with one of these impairments.

The demonstration includes simulations, testimonials and demos with dogs, all in the setting of a café. When you leave the campus, you have a totally different understanding of what that service dog is doing every single day. 

“We’ve talked about how we make a guide dog, but we’ve never gotten to talk about why it’s so life-changing. So this is really our shot at making it a tangible opportunity for folks to see what a service dog can do and the difference they make," said Alexandria Young, project leader for 'Beyond the Dark.' 

Both of the presenters are service dog recipients, and now Southeastern employees. 

“I didn’t want to stick out so I didn’t want to get a guide dog," said Katie McCoy who is visually impaired. "I just had a really hard time in D.C. and everyone lives from Virginia to Maryland, and so my friends would just live so far away. And I couldn’t go out because it would get dark. So I was very lonely. And that’s when I decided to get a guide dog so I could have that independence and go places.”

Sean Brown, a veteran, was self-medicating and taking 16 pills a day before he received his service dog, Pella. 

“Like many motorcycle riders, part of the military, we all kind of dealt the same way. We drank a lot, partied a lot and rode a lot. But most of us were dealing with PTSD,” said Brown.

Attendees wear a blindfold to simulate being blind and experiencing a PTSD dream. When they emerge from the darkness, visitors meet Sean and Katie, and of course their dogs.

A trainer is also woven throughout to explain how all the training leads to real-life protection. The guide dogs are trained in "intelligent disobedience," a skill that means they ignore their owner if danger is present. 

McCoy was grateful for that skill from the beginning. “In our first month together back in Charleston, she saved me from getting hit by three cars, that I know of.”

As McCoy explained during the video portion of "Beyond the Dark," her dog Bristol does a lot more than help her cross the street safely. 

“People often ask, why do you need a guide dog? And I answer, because I’m legally blind. But the real answer is because, without you, I would never go out with friends, I would never go on dates, and I would have a well of loneliness inside that could never be filled.”

Guests like Emelie Krueger were moved. “It’s powerful because you get to step into the shoes of what people are dealing with, particularly for me, the PTSD aspect. To hear the sounds. They don’t have the choice of taking the blindfold off. It’s just so amazing that they’ve opened up this program.”

For Southeastern Guide Dog owners like Brown, he is glad to share his experience, "because a lot of the American population just doesn’t understand what it’s like to live with PTSD, and to live with chronic pain and chronic illness. They see the movies, but it’s a movie, they don’t get the reality of it. This, this really puts it in perspective for people.”

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