This is the second installment in our Gil’s Journey series, where we track the progress of a pup in training with the Guide Dog Foundation. Check out his paw-some updates at amNY.com/Gil and follow him on Instagram at #GuideDogGil.
The subway is no match for Guide Dog Gil.
Bunny-hopping down the steps on the corner of 35th Street and Eighth Avenue in his yellow vest, Gil blends in as a seasoned transit rider — though he is, arguably, the cutest commuter around.
The pup training with the Guide Dog Foundation is learning how to assist an individual who is blind or otherwise visually impaired in the transit system. At 4 months old and nearing 30 pounds, the yellow Labrador retriever eagerly takes on the challenge.
"I’m anticipating him getting interested in all those sights and sounds he’s experiencing," Gil’s trainer (and mom) Lorin Bruzzese says before Gil places his paw in the station.
Getting him ready for this baby-book-worthy step involved plenty of preparation.
The pup who’s still growing into his oversized paws has been working for weeks on his concentration, obedience and socialization skills. Bruzzese, 24, is helping him nail the necessary commands, like "sit," "down," and "touch."
"We’ve been taking him on plenty of socialization outings to make sure he’s especially comfortable and engaged with me," she says. And while those outings — meeting the New York Islanders’ mascot, strolling through Target — have translated to plenty of fun for pup, they’ve also helped get him ready for the crowded city streets.
"Moving through an environment like NYC, it’s important that I’m able to regain his focus as he becomes interested in something surrounding us or a person approaching him," she explains.
Inside the station, Gil keeps his focus locked on mom. Together, they practice "loose leash walking" (a relaxed, tension-free leash) and hop on the downtown E train.
"What is this strange place? This shiny box you keep swiping that paper through?" Gil thinks to himself, probably.
Stumbling only slightly to figure out why mom has to head through the turnstile first, Gil quickly prances over the gap between platform and train into a relatively empty subway car. "Ahh, air conditioning."
The next step comes quickly: mastering an "under."
Once on the train, Bruzzese locates an open seat and leaves space between her knees and the edge. She creates a safe nook for Gil to settle. Providing a food lure, she guides Gil quickly under her legs and rewards him with an upbeat "yes!" and a crunchy piece of kibble.
"’Under’ is a cue that will tell Gil I want him under a seat, or bench, or wherever it might be to stay as out of the way as possible in public, but also to keep him safe as there are lots of feet moving around in these sorts of scenarios," she says.
At such a young age, Gil is learning through the use of positive reinforcement. "Yes!" is his marker word, meaning he’s come to expect it’s to be followed by a treat. The more Gil hears it after settling on the subway, the quicker he’ll master his role as a commuter.
"Right now I’m offering kibble to his nose and bringing it through, under my legs," Bruzzese says, demonstrating on the train. "I’m putting him in a ‘down’ once he’s there." Eventually, he’ll be able to perform the task on his own once he hears the "under" command.
A Guide Dog Foundation graduate can help his handler locate an open seat on the subway and assist with entry and exit. Gil still has several months of training ahead of him to hit that target.
For now, the obedient Gil stays in his "under" despite the distracting vibrations of the train moving from midtown to Greenwich Village. Occasionally, he pops his head up to check in on mom.
"I’m really proud of him," she says. "I honestly expected a little more challenge with a pup his age. His food motivation is definitely a gift in these exciting scenarios. He’s pretty tuckered out, but he handled it like a real champion."
Guide Dog Gil’s stats
Age: 16 weeks
Skills: Sit, down, touch, come, recall, loose leash walking
Likes: Playing with his sister Dakota (Bruzzese’s beagle mix), chomping on his Nylabone and visiting his guide dog "co-workers" at the Guide Dog Foundation.
Dislikes: "Not much can sway him from being happy-go-lucky, but he probably doesn’t appreciate the heat very much," Bruzzese says.