By Nicona, Boulder Creek, CA

     On November 8, 2003, I stood with a microphone in one hand and my new partner's leash in the other. Standing in front of a large audience, I tried to gather my thoughts to make my speech. Tears of happiness escaped my eyes as I thanked my friends and family for their priceless words of encouragement and endless support during my process of applying for a guide dog and the 28 days of intensive training I spent in San Rafael learning to work with my new companion. I thanked the staff and instructors at Guide Dogs for the Blind for showing me techniques for safe and effective guide work for Pia and me, and for giving tips and advice when I was unsure and for cheering me on when things were going well.

I had known for a long time that I wanted to work with a guide dog, but that summer I realized the time was right and decided to take the fall semester off from high school so I wouldn't need to skip a month of classes for the training.

I knew a number of people who had guide dogs and the idea of abandoning my white cane and learning to work with a guide dog was definitely appealing. In the interview, they assessed my mobility skills before I was approved for training. I felt like the whole world was going to explode with my happiness!

Three days after I arrived at the guide-dog school, I was told that I would be receiving a female Black Labrador/Golden Retriever cross guide dog named Pia. I sat on the small, hard bed for what felt like the longest hour of my life. Nervous excitement pulsed through my veins, and my hands felt clumsy as I tried to crochet. Questions stampeded through my mind, including: What if the dog and I didn't get along? And I had envisioned a small Yellow Labrador with a typical dog name like Buddy or Sparky.

Finally, after what felt like a lifetime, I heard a knock. It was time to meet Pia, and my heart skipped a few beats. I took the instructor's arm and was led to the library for another eternity of waiting. But that soon ended with an abundance of black doginess that promptly covered me with wet kisses. I was told that Pia was in love with life; she was 75 pounds and 24 inches tall. It was love at first sight, a love that continues to grow with each day.

Pia and I returned to my room. I felt as if I was living inside a hazy dream. My new companion sprawled on the floor with her head on my lap and I told her about my life as I listened to her tail thumping the linoleum floor. My nervousness subsided and I felt wonder wash over me. I couldn't wait to start learning how to work with her. I knew that I was ready to share my life with this four-legged creature.

Once Pia came into my life, the days flew by. We began at 6 a.m. with eight others who were also learning to work with their dogs. There were also seven in the "retrain class" - people who'd had guide dogs and were back learning to work with their second, third, fourth or even fifth dog. There was a morning lecture, and then we would head downtown to work our dogs, returning for lunch. Then another lecture was followed by more adventures in learning how to work our dogs.

For the first few weeks we practiced commands and hand gestures. We learned how to work our dogs in department stores, elevators and on crowded sidewalks. Guide dogs are taught to guide their partners around pedestrians, overhead obstacles, poles and so on. During the four months of training that the dogs experience before they are matched with a human, they are taught to stop at stairs, curbs and drop-offs. After we became more comfortable with our dogs, we ventured out into the busy streets of San Francisco and Berkeley, and even country roads without sidewalks.

By the time we graduated, the class (and dogs) had become inseparable. Saying good-bye was very hard, but beautiful since it marked the beginning of 15 new working guide-dog teams. Looking back, I can honestly say that the 28 days I spent learning to work with Pia were some of the most memorable of my life. Pia has earned her place as my hero and greatest companion, and each day we grow closer as we move forward through the waves of life.

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i love this so much!


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