Through a Guide Dog Puppy’s Eyes
This story, translated by Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy-raiser Jill Nieglos, shares a dog’s perspective on becoming a service dog. You can read more about Lilo and another dog Jill raised named Heloise in Partners with Paws: Service Dogs and the Lives They Change.
Hi, I’m Lilo, a Yellow Lab guide dog puppy born at Guide Dogs for the Blind in California. When I was just three weeks old, some very friendly and specially-trained people began cuddling me and whispering sweet nothings in my ears. Bet you didn’t know puppies learn more quickly and bond with humans better when we are handled gently while very young, did you? This type of interaction with humans actually makes more synapses in our brains. And, as you know, we guide dogs have to be extremely smart; this is one of the tricks of the trade.
At about seven weeks I went on short walks exploring our campus, but I must say I wasn’t a pro on the leash then. My handlers were gentle and patient while I bounded about on my leash smelling the flowers and bushes.
At eight weeks I went on a long ride with my siblings and friends all the way to Colorado. If you ever see our puppy truck, you will recognize it right away because it has my baby picture on it! The puppy truck really is a very special truck. Not just because my picture is on it but also because the puppies in this truck will forever change people’s lives. When we arrived in Colorado, I saw smiles and tears and cameras everywhere. Everyone was so emotional! Well, I must say, after three days on the truck, I was too. I kissed my new puppy-raising mom again and again before I became so exhausted from all the excitement that I fell asleep in her arms.
Puppy raisers are often goofy at the puppy truck. For some raisers who were previously raising a puppy, this is a little bit sad because they have to trade their grown-up puppy for a replacement puppy. For others who are picking up their first puppy to raise, the event is exciting and nerve-wracking. Emotions are running high! When we came off the truck one by one, there were enough “Oohs” and “Ahhs” to make you think you were at the Miss America contest.
What fun I had when we got home! A huge yard to play in with grass where I could “do my business,” flowers to sniff, and even an older dog to play with. My older sister, who has helped Mom raised seven puppies before me, is pretty strict. No chewing on her ears, I bet. When we were in the backyard, mom told me, “Do your business,” and when I did it on the grass, you’d of thought I was the smartest puppy in the whole world! She told me what a good girl I was. Humans are a strange. My Lab mom didn’t care where I did my business.
The next year went by in a whirl! I’ve been just about everywhere starting with church. In the beginning I had to sit with Mom in the cry room, but guess what? I’m a baby myself, so I had fun with the other babies. Soon I sat out with everyone else, but I had to be a “good girl,” which meant no chewing, playing, or barking. Naptime! (Nothing against the minister, I hear he is good.)
During the next year, I went to lots of puppy meetings where I saw my friends and learned all sorts of neat stuff. For example, at the outside mall, I learned not to bark at the skateboarders or the fire truck and how to walk over grates (scary) or up open stairs (yikes). But the hardest part for me was learning not to snag the ice cream cones the little kids were holding. I admit this is not to say that I didn’t try a couple of times, but Mom was quick.
The inside malls had all sorts of interesting stuff like toys that talked, funny people that did not smell like people, weird floors, and see-through elevators. Sometimes I was scared, but Mom was patient and showed me I was safe; I really trust Mom.
My mom retired from an airline and still has friends all over, so you should hear about all the places I went: A Polish wedding in Chicago (I do not polka, thank you); Yosemite (I met lots of nice tourists who asked to pet me, and when I was a perfect lady, I did get petted); Las Vegas (pretty lights but very crowded); New York City (Boy, was that an experience). I am now a pro when it comes to airports, buses, planes, trains, automobiles, and subways.
I went many places close to home, too. We visited the doctor’s office and the grocery store (I must say I’m so good at staying by those onions while Mom gets the tomatoes). Mom tells me the grocery store is important since my future blind person will surely go grocery shopping. I also went to concerts, banks, and restaurants, with restaurants being the most challenging because despite all the great-smelling things that were going on the table, I had to just sit on the floor and act disinterested.
Mom tells me I am the best of all eight puppies she has raised, but I bet she says that to all of them. One day we went for a ride, and I saw the puppy truck again. You remember: the one with my picture on it. Mom whispered in my ear, “See you at graduation.” I didn’t understand, but she did since she has had several of her puppies become guides already.
That day I went off to school. Wow, was I a busy girl! Six months of intensive training to learn about curbs, stairs, and obstacles. I learned about how to guide a person at night, in the rain, in the mall, and on country roads. The final test was whether I could do my job in San Francisco amidst the noisy cable cars.
After I passed all of my tests, I was assigned to my own person. She’s different from my puppy raiser, but she loves me; I can tell. She hugs me a lot. We worked together for a month before the big day… Graduation! Can I tell you a little about it?
What an occasion that was! Over 100 people were there, and us dogs were the center of attention, up on the stage beside our blind people. Everybody gives a speech (well, not us dogs, of course). There was not a dry eye in the house. First, the recipients thanked everybody for their dog (tears). Then, each puppy raiser made a speech about how happy he or she was that his or her “baby” made it (more tears). Finally, we (the dogs) gave a demonstration about how guide dogs actually work. Everybody was so happy that they were crying and hugging… Well, you get the picture. Lots of Kleenex. Humans are weird. None of us dogs were crying.
Now I am official, harness and all. I look nothing like the little baby I was when I left California about 18 months ago. I have been a busy girl with so much to learn, but it was all worth it because now I have a wonderful life serving as my friend Pat’s eyes. I get to go everywhere with Pat, which makes me one happy dog.
Now that you know my story, I’d like to say thanks for listening, and hey, would you do me a favor? Wave if you see the puppy truck on the road between California and Denver.
(Transcribed by puppy raiser “Mom,” Jill Nieglos)