This is the first 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.
New York City, meet Gil, a little pup embarking on a monumental journey.
“Gil is just overall so special,” his mom (aka trainer) Lorin Bruzzese, 24, says as he cuddles up in her lap at the amNewYork office.
At just 12 weeks old, the yellow Labrador retriever is still small enough to be rocked to sleep and timid enough to tread slowly in the strange new world of our midtown building. New sights and sounds still lead to that adorable puppy head tilt and a buzzing tail.
Gil is one of several canines being raised by Guide Dog Foundation volunteers to help change the lives of others. At the end of a projected 14-18 month training process, he’s expected to graduate and be placed with an individual who is blind or otherwise visually impaired.
We’ll be following him every step of the way, and you’ll be there too.
“At this point, we’re keeping it super basic and super fun,” Bruzzese says of the pup she boasts as being confident and eager to learn. “A typical day right now involves lots of sleep, for sure!”
Currently, his afternoons are full of treats, cuddles and trips with Bruzzese to the Smithtown-based Guide Dog Foundation office where she works as a puppy program manager.
What he doesn’t yet know? His days of naps and playtime are preparing him to fulfill his very special purpose.
“He has a long journey ahead, with a wonderful end result,” Bruzzese, of Plainview, Long Island, says. Eventually, he’ll be able to aid with daily tasks like walking down the street or hopping on the subway. But for now, he’s keeping it pretty simple.
Showing off his skills in our studio, he runs through the commands he’s already nailed, like “sit,” “lay down” and a very important one, “touch.”
“Touch is a really fun skill and it’s really cute to watch. It helps us get him through potentially scary situations, but it also helps us move him through distracting scenarios." And, there’ll be plenty of those in New York City once he’s old enough to step out onto the midtown sidewalk for the very first time.
Touch involves Bruzzese holding her vertical palm out in front of her and commanding Gil to “touch” in a high-pitched octave he loves. He jumps up off his bottom and “boops” his nose to her fingers, which helps move him through space safely.
He’ll soon be able to use a similar technique to help Bruzzese locate items, like the stair railings. But for now, it’s all “touch,” “boop,” treat, repeat.
“He’s having a good time, but he’s still learning productively,” she says as Gil wags his tail and chomps down after a job well done.
This early stage also involves lots of socialization, which translates to plenty of pats from amNewYork employees meeting him for the very first time. As a sea of hands close in on his soft golden fur, he rolls over to happily show off his belly as he sticks his growing paws up in the air.
“I’m feeling really excited. It’s definitely motivating,” Bruzzese says, adding that the triumph of seeing Gil succeed and enjoy his learning process keeps her going through the bittersweet journey of raising a guide dog.
While the focus is on Gil, Bruzzese is responsible for the crucial skill-building the pup will need to be paired with an individual with disabilities, at no cost to them. Her job is to gradually increase Gil’s level of abilities through positive exposures to new sights in and around New York City — like Penn Station, Times Square, subways and shopping malls.
“Some firsts coming up for Gil would be getting him on public transit, once he’s a little bit more mature,” she says. “These big upcoming events are going to show us how confident and mature he’s getting.”
Guide dogs are typically paired with puppy-raising volunteers at 8 weeks old, and certified at about 14 months old. Each pup’s path is different and not all complete their certification. Gil is the third guide dog puppy she’s raised to date.
“I certainly hope that Gil continues to really enjoy what he’s been learning,” Bruzzese says. “A big focus of mine is to make sure he’s comfortable and happy with the basics, and then we’ll work our way up.”
If you’re interested in training a guide dog too, visit GuideDog.org. The foundation is currently accepting volunteer applications.
Guide Dog Gil’s stats
Age: 12 weeks old
Skills: Name recognition, sit, lay down, touch
Likes: Playing with mom, eating treats, chomping on his Nylabone, meeting new friends and taking naps, lots of naps.
Dislikes: Experiences that don’t include nap time.