By Joseph Charney
Special to the Review
A year ago, Gabriela “Gigi” Rodriguez, a sophomore at South Pasadena High School, embarked on a personal mission — to help raise a guide dog for the blind. She was inspired by watching the Netflix series “Pick of the Litter” that traced the process of a puppy raised by volunteers and then trained by professionals to become a certified guide dog.
Gigi thought how amazing it would be to channel her love for dogs into helping give the gift of more independence to someone who is blind.
To become a puppy-raiser required a lengthy process. First, Gigi, her brother Derek and their parents joined a local club of “puppy raisers” that is part of Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest guide school in North America. They attended regular meetings, outings and trainings, and were taught the proper way to handle the puppy and the commands to use. Only after learning these techniques with the puppies did she and her family become certified as “puppy sitters” to watch other raisers’ puppies for a few days. After six months of being sitters, Gigi and her family became puppy raisers and were introduced to Nessa, a female Labrador.
Being an 8-month-old transfer puppy, Nessa had already been taught commands and knew desirable behavior from her first puppy raiser. Gigi’s first job was transitioning Nessa into her new family. Like any pet, Nessa was taught basic commands, taught house manners, and to be well-behaved. The challenge of raising a guide dog for the blind is that puppies in training must be socialized in public settings such as stores, movie theaters, public transportation and even air travel. As a guide dog, they will regularly be going into these places and anywhere else their handler needs to go.
Taking on this challenge, Gigi began the process of exposing Nessa to the various venues that she would be required to enter. That included the school grounds and classrooms. After Nessa was enthusiastically welcomed by Principal Janet Anderson, teachers and fellow students, Nessa would stay at Gigi’s side in her classrooms. Gigi’s brother would do the same when Gigi was unavailable. The students adored Nessa and appreciated all the efforts their schoolmate was making to prepare her to eventually assist someone who is blind. Nessa’s birthday was joined with student birthdays and celebrated jointly at school.
Raising Nessa has had its challenges, including navigating how to raise Nessa during the lockdown. She was used to going places every day, and it became necessary to replace specific locations with more daily walks. But the greater challenge is emotional: the recognition that eventually, if successful, Gigi and her family would have to say goodbye to their beloved Nessa.
“My family and I have never regretted our choice to raise a puppy, and I now can’t imagine a life without volunteering for GDB. We went into it knowing that she is not our dog and it has been a wonderful adventure having her live with us and raising her and learning all about the kind of dog she is. When you have a puppy, it’s very important to focus on the present, work through what you need to, enjoy the precious time you have together, and not worry too much about having to let them go, until the time comes. It will be difficult to let her go, but she really has the ability to change someone’s life in the best way possible, and that is what makes saying goodbye easier. Nessa brightened my life and made me feel I had a larger purpose.”
Well said, Gigi.