By Erika Webb
Deltona City Manager Faith Miller's eyes filled with tears at the regular commission meeting on Jan. 7. Not over a staff directive. She wasn't in trouble, but she was hard-pressed to believe Mayor John Masiarczyk was able to keep a secret from her.
The mayor presented Ms. Miller with a certificate of recognition for her participation with New Horizons Service Dogs. She has been a puppy trainer for the organization for more than two years. A sign recognizing Ms. Miller and her first trainee, Sunshine, will be placed at Deltona's Keysville Dog Park.
Mayor Masiarczyk said he and the commissioners wanted to ease the emotional pain they knew Ms. Miller had experienced since "Sunny" left her care to go into advanced training last June.
His recollections suggested Ms. Miller might not be the only one at City Hall missing Sunny. The mayor had a lot to say about the gentle golden retriever, who waited for him behind the gate in Ms. Miller's office doorway, who played ball with the assistant parks and recreation director, who rode like a celebrity -- paws atop the elf bench -- in Deltona's Christmas parade.
"Sunny was a very gentle soul, smart, too," Ms. Miller said. "When school group tours would come through City Hall you could almost sit her in the middle of 50 kids and she'd just sit and let them pet her."
After the eldest of her three dogs died, Ms. Miller began looking at service dog training programs. She said she talked with DeLand City Clerk Julie Hennessee, who had been raising service dogs for some time.
"I applied to three agencies, but New Horizons got back to me within a week and said you can pick up a puppy on Friday," Ms. Miller said. "I live in Deltona and New Horizons was close, right off of 472."
She said off-premises foster training begins when the puppies are eight weeks old, though it's around four months when their immune systems are considered strong enough for them to be around other animals.
Since state law permits service dogs to be in public buildings, Ms. Miller was not opposed by former Mayor Dennis Mulder, or the City Commission, when she wanted to take Sunny to work with her.
She said she also talked with her employees beforehand to be sure none of them were allergic to dogs.
"Some people thought it was kind of strange, but some people love dogs more than others and would take her for walks," Ms. Miller said. "We had a birthday party and a going-away party for Sunshine."
When she knew Sunny would be moving on to a permanent home, Ms. Miller decided to begin training another golden retriever puppy, Kendall, hoping to ease the pain of separation. The dogs were in her care together for four months before Sunny went on to advanced training and placement.
"I was bringing Sunny in the morning and Kendall in the afternoon, to give both the exposure they need," Ms. Miller said.
She said both Sunshine and Kendall got accustomed to stopping at the IT manager's office for treats.
The unanimous decision at City Hall is Kendall is a bit more boisterous than Sunny.
"She's just got different habits. I'm signing her up for individual training because I need some help with her," Ms. Miller said laughing.
She said while Sunny was very calm, Kendall has "a couple of behaviors people may not care for."
Kendall has been to obedience training at the West Volusia Kennel Club three times, but finally achieved her AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy designation.
"She's not aggressive at all," Ms. Miller said. "She's just more active (than Sunshine)."
Ms. Miller said former Vice Mayor Paul Treusch, his wife and Mayor Masiarczyk set a precedent, bringing toys and treats to Sunshine and Kendall. New commissioners Chris Nabicht and Nancy Schleicher have quickly fallen into line, sharing offerings with Kendall.
Mayor Masiarczyk told Hometown News that having a dog in the office "lightens the mood," relieving tension. He said Kendall is not destructive and he feels good about the process that will ultimately "help someone."
"She's a great addition to the city," he said.
New Horizons Service Dogs was started in 1995. Founder and Executive Director Janet Severt has been confined to a wheelchair for 48 years, after becoming disabled when she was seven.
"My dogs work for me and I know how the dogs help other people," Ms. Severt said. "There weren't enough dogs to go around for people in Florida who need them."
New Horizons is now an industry leader in breeding and training dogs to assist people with mobility issues. The organization provides service dogs to adults and children with disabilities, such as brain or spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and other diseases that result in severely limited mobility.
The organization also sponsors such programs as Prison Pups and University Raisers, partnering with the state Department of Corrections and with colleges to offer inmates and students the opportunity to be of service and experience the gratification associated with dog training.
In recent years, service dogs have been assisting men and women who serve to protect freedom.
"These dogs have helped a lot of veterans," Ms. Severt said. "A lot weren't able to leave their home until they got their dogs. And many couldn't be parents again, because of PTSD, until they got their dog."
Ms. Severt said it's not unusual for puppy raisers to get emotionally attached, especially the first time. She said City Manager Miller was no exception.
In November, Sunshine found a permanent home.
Ms. Miller said she received a handwritten note, through New Horizons, from Sunshine's new owner, "a gentleman from south Florida who suffered a stroke," Ms. Miller said. He called Sunshine a "great dog" and assured Ms. Miller they are bonding well.
"It was so sweet," Ms. Miller said.
When she found out Sunshine had been placed she shared the news with the commission, "because they had asked," she said.
"I love that Faith has been involved with our program," Ms. Severt said. "It's very commendable for someone to give their time, and it's a big financial commitment. If we didn't have puppy raisers like Faith, we wouldn't have a program."
Ms. Severt said the organization needs more puppy raisers.
"We need people to take them for like four months at a time, to train them and socialize them," she said.
Sunshine will officially graduate on Feb. 10, Ms. Severt said. Ms. Miller said she hopes to see Sunshine that day.
"During the first six months New Horizons monitors the match," Ms. Miller said. "My understanding is after that they release ownership and then I think they leave it up to the actual owner whether the raiser can see (the dog)."
Ms. Miller raised Sunshine from eight weeks to 26 months old.
"I feel bad because I get too attached, and maybe I'm not the most-strict disciplinarian," Ms. Miller said. "You don't want her to go back to New Horizons and have to go through that training again. The better a volunteer does, the shorter time the dog has to be in advanced training."