Building a strong bond with a girl’s best friend: The journey of FSU’s first resident guide dog

Fawn makes her way through the crowded cafeteria back to the table that she and Dianna are sharing. She sticks her tongue out at everyone she walks by, and they all can’t help but smile. When Fawn gets back to her seat, she readily curls into a ball on the floor to take a quick nap, while Dianna eats her lunch.

Senior Dianna Leonard made Framingham State history last month when her guide dog, Fawn, moved into her first-story room in Peirce Hall. She is the first guide dog to live inside an FSU residence hall.

Sitting down with Leonard, it was easy to tell Fawn looked a little uncomfortable.

“She’s a little downtrodden today because it’s so cold out,” Leonard said, noticing Fawn’s gloominess as well. “She’s going to need a lot of playtime and cuddling today.”

Fawn and Leonard have been a team for a little over a month now. Leonard is legally blind and has been since birth.

“I was born prematurely,” she said. “I can see things a lot better up close. I can see colors and shapes and stuff, but anything beyond three feet just looks like a mass of colors and moving objects.”

She said the retina in her right eye is detached, leaving her with no vision in that eye. In her left, she only has limited vision.

Over the summer, Leonard contacted the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind (GDF) and applied for a dog of her own.

Fawn, a purebred yellow Labrador Retriever, started her journey in Smithtown, New York at the GDF where she was bred. When she was only seven weeks old, she was sent to Georgia Southern University, where she participated in a volunteer-based program sponsored by the GDF. In this program, students would teach their dogs basic obedience and housebreak them. In addition, they were also required to take the dogs everywhere with them while they wore tiny guide-dog-in-training vests.

“They took her everywhere with them in Georgia – to supermarkets, to meet firefighters and other emergency personnel,” said Leonard.

After a full year, the students at Georgia Southern University had to part with the dogs they had gotten to know and love. The dogs were then shipped back to the GDF in New York where the training was kicked up a notch for another six months.

“If she showed any signs of aggression throughout that, she would be released from the program,” said Leonard. “Even if she growled at someone or showed a lot of fear during a fireworks display or a thunderstorm. They monitored them like crazy when they had the Fourth of July and during storms.”

Meanwhile, back at Framingham State, Leonard had to complete some training of her own. In September, a representative from the GDF met with Leonard on campus to assess what kind of accommodations she would need in order to find a proper match for her. After proving she could navigate the campus safely and easily with a cane, the representative picked up the guide dog harness to simulate being led by one.

“He held onto one end, I held onto the handle and I gave him commands. I had to simulate giving him a correction if he did something wrong,” said Leonard.

Leonard was accepted into the program by the end of September. By November, the week of Thanksgiving, she received a phone call from GDF trainer Olivia Poff, who notified Leonard that a match for her had been found.

“Fawn is very ‘type A,’” said Poff. “She is a snuggly, silly puppy in her downtime, but when she is working, she takes it seriously. She really hates to make a mistake. I told Leonard this before she received her dog, and she exclaimed, ‘I’m the exact same way!’”

When matching guide dogs to their handlers, size and strength of the dog must be considered. Fawn is a medium-sized dog, which is good match for Leonard’s small frame said Poff.

In January, Leonard went to Long Island to train with Poff for two weeks. The bond between Leonard and Fawn “came natural” after only two short days of being together, said Leonard.

“When I was in training, they were so surprised at how she and I worked as a team. I guess we just clicked really well,” she said. “They asked me, ‘Are you sure you’ve never had a guide dog?’ And I said, ‘No, I’ve never had a guide dog. I’ve never had any dog actually. Why?’ They said, ‘Well, you look like you’ve been a team for two years.’”

In training, Leonard and Fawn were woken up at six in the morning, and had an hour to get themselves ready for the day. After feeding Fawn and taking her outside by 7:00, Leonard stopped briefly for breakfast before going for their two morning walks. By noon, the group was back for lunch, before going on two more walks in different locations than in the morning. At five in the evening, the group was back for dinner.

“The training got more intense as the week went on,” said Leonard. “We went in to busier areas. We went to Queens for a while and did a lot of crowd work and traffic work there.”

Poff said, “The work is often physically demanding. We average walking 10 miles a day.”

Despite “some of the worst weather conditions,” according to Poff, “the team dominated each and every challenging environment from mall settings, heavy crowd work, escalators, a college campus, subways – you name it, they achieved it.”

Every evening at 6:30, Leonard was required to attend a lecture for an hour. The rest of the night was for playtime, which often incorporated small doses of obedience training for Fawn.

Leonard said, “It was all very exciting,” sneaking glances down at Fawn, who was dozing off on the floor.

“Everything has been so amazing,” said Leonard. “I can’t even describe it. I just have so much more independence, and I just feel so much more confident.”

A guide dog with the training that Fawn has gone through costs about $50,000, but Leonard did not have to pay a penny, not even for her stay in New York.

“This is paid for by the Guide Dog Foundation through grants and donations because they are nonprofit,” said Leonard. “I didn’t have to pay for anything. They covered my airfare, they covered my stay, they paid for her and they covered all my meals.”

Today, Fawn helps Leonard not only with basic navigation, but also with everyday tasks, such as finding a seat to eat during lunch, or finding a vending machine.

“She knows what elevators and escalators are, and she knows how to find crosswalks – that was part of her guide dog training,” said Leonard. “She even found a crosswalk for me in the blizzard, when the streets were covered in snow.”

According to Leonard, even the winter has been “1,000 times better” than it would have been if she did not have Fawn.

“She knows to take me around, or to stop when there are snow banks in the way, and to find an alternative route,” she said. “Any time there’s ice in front of us she will stop, so I’ll reach my foot out and see that there’s ice. Then she’ll walk at the crawl of a snail over the ice.”

Fawn’s cuteness might cause people to run over to pet her, but Leonard asks that such temptations are resisted, because Fawn is likely working, and it could be hazardous if she were to be distracted.

“Essentially, Fawn is performing the same task as a cane,” said Director of Disability Services and Co-Director of CASA Ladonna Bridges. “And no one would ever think of touching the cane of a visually impaired or blind individual.”

Bridges admitted that Fawn “is adorable, especially in her snow booties,” but she emphasized that guide dogs are not pets – they are working animals.

“I would love for students and the campus community as a whole to become familiar with common etiquette recommended for service animals,” said Bridges.

“I believe this will be more common on our campus, and we are happy about that,” she said. “We have another current student who has applied for a guide dog, and I’ve received an inquiry from a prospective student as well.”

The leather harness that Fawn wears helps Leonard get a more accurate feel for where Fawn is heading, opposed to using a leash.

“The harness is what puts her into work mode,” Leonard said. “Once she is in harness, I am the only one who is allowed to touch her.”

When it comes to basic guide dog etiquette, Leonard said, “a lot of people have been really good about it, but some people are like, ‘Oh my God, dog!’”

Leonard said that if someone tries to pet or talk to Fawn, she reacts to it by moving toward them, or just not listening to the commands that Leonard is giving her. In those cases, she has “to give a correction, which is a pop back on the leash and harness. It doesn’t hurt her, it’s just like a ‘Hey, focus.’ … The main thing is to just ignore her when she has her harness on.”

But when it comes to distractions, just like everything else, “Fawn’s really great about it. … She’s a superstar worker.”

Leonard said in just one short month, “The bond has been so immediate. … A real stable bond takes six months to a year, but we already have a really great one. I just really love this dog.”

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