South Carolina visually impaired teen gets Palmetto guide dog

High school junior Emily Miller spent three weeks at the Southeastern Guide Dog Camp in Palmetto.

PALMETTO, Fla. — A South Carolina teen living with a rare genetic eye disease is getting help from an organization in the Tampa Bay area.

South Carolina teen Emily Miller spent three weeks at the Southeastern Guide Dog Camp in Palmetto. She was there to get acquainted with a guide dog of her own before heading home.

“His name is Hugo and he is a yellow Lab. He’s a lot tinier than the rest of the dogs in the class but he’s a very sweet boy and very energetic,” Miller said.

Hugo’s energy fits right in with his mission to help Emily with her vision and guide her away from people and obstacles that could cause her injury.

The teen has dealt with a degenerative eye condition called Stargardt’s disease since she was a child.

She said she has lost her core vision and some of her peripheral as well. From her point of view, most things appear blurry and she would keep bumping into things.

“Ever since I was little, I was always nervous to tell people about my vision. I used to go on walks by myself sometimes and there would be a person coming towards me and I would completely miss them,” Miller said.

With a guide dog of her own, she said she can now look forward to being independent.

“I’m in high school and then soon going to college so the dog needs to have some energy to be ready to go to the next class,” Miller said.

Southeastern Guide Dogs has about 100 adult dogs in training to help visually impaired people.

“They’ve gotten more and more skilled at working together as a team, so he’s (Hugo) learned how to stop at different types of curbs and how to keep her on her line of travel so that she doesn’t step off a curb Unexpectedly or enter the road without realizing it,” Caitlin O’Brien said, senior trainer with Southeastern Guide Dog.

O’Brien said she had to train Hugo to meet the unique needs of a teenage girl like Miller, including getting familiar with the horses she rides during her free time.

“We’ve done more mall routes so that Hugo gets a lot more experience with that type of environment,” O’Brien said.

Hugo was matched with Miller at no cost to her family.

“I feel like I could finally and look up and see a lot of the things around me that I couldn’t see before,” Miller said.

Southeastern Guide Dogs services are supported by community donations. The program said it needs volunteer caretakers to train the dogs on basic life skills until they are around 18 months old, which is the age of many of the dogs head in to be enrolled in guide dog school.

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