Gil’s Journey: Guide Dog Gil goes to puppy class at JFK Airport

Gil, second to the right, is in training to learn how to assist travelers at JFK. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Gil is in the early stages of learning how to assist travelers at JFK.

Gil, second to the right, is in training to learn how to assist travelers at JFK.
Gil, second to the right, is in training to learn how to assist travelers at JFK. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Apple and the artist

This is the third 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.

Guide Dog Gil and his pals snarled human traffic at JFK this week when they stopped in Terminal 4 to partake in a puppy class with the Guide Dog Foundation. 

At just about 4½ months old, our Gil — who’s learning to assist a blind or otherwise visually impaired individual — was a bit too young to be a participant in the training session with the big dogs twice his age. Instead, he got to lead the pack with his mom, Guide Dog Foundation Puppy program manager Lorin Bruzzese.

Teaching the class, Bruzzese showed a group of five other pups and their volunteer trainers how to keep their dogs focused in the busy terminal while Gil demonstrated class tasks. He loose-leash (a relaxed, tension-free leash) walked near the other pups, practiced concentration when tempted with a fun tennis ball and showed off his "sit" and "stay" skills around strangers.

Lorin Bruzzese, left, a puppy program manager at Guide Dog Foundation, guides her dog Gil and other dogs during a training to learn how to assist travelers at JFK.
Lorin Bruzzese, left, a puppy program manager at Guide Dog Foundation, guides her dog Gil and other dogs during a training to learn how to assist travelers at JFK. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

"Gil did really well while I was running puppy class. It’s a challenge to not have my total focus, because he is very interested in eye contact and receiving feedback from me," said Bruzzese, 24, who’s been working with Gil since he was a few weeks old. "While I’m teaching puppy class, my focus is not entirely on training him because we’re working with and guiding the other handlers, but he handled it really well."

Gil also posed for a few photos with his traveler fans. 

"This was the first time that the Guide Dog Foundation has come to Kennedy airport," said Joanne O’Connell, the in-transit and companion animal director for The Ark at JFK. As a Guide Dog Foundation volunteer of 11 years, O’Connell helped the foundation secure rare access to use the terminal as a training ground. 

"An experience like this is so unique," said Bruzzese. "To allow them to move through security and experience a lot of the distractions that are going on around us, it’s something that they most often would not experience until they’re traveling with their full-time permanent handler."

While a certified guide dog is allowed full access in the airport and on a plane to assist their handler while traveling, those still in training require preapproval. 

A traveler at JFK takes pictures of Gil, a guide dog in training.
A traveler at JFK takes pictures of Gil, a guide dog in training. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

"When they’re young, the more distractions you introduce them to, the better it is. We take them on the subway, out to dinner, to the bank," said O’Connell, whose current guide dog in training Roisin took part in the class. The youngest in the group, she’s used to joining her mom at The Ark, which opened JFK’s Pet Oasis, an in-transit facility for animals, in 2017. 

"It is so common that people travel with their pets," she said, "much more than you would even think." 

When Gil, Roisin, and their other pals are guide dog graduates, they’ll be able to cruise through Terminal 4 without being distracted by the rolling suitcases or crowds of people and pets. 

"When a guide dog is traveling on a plane, they’d be doing tasks like leading them onto the plane and helping them find an open seat, though there would likely be assistance from staff on the plane," Bruzzese explained. "They’ll be resting under foot and that’s a good example of why we teach ‘under.’ Once I find a place in a seat, he scoots himself ‘under’ and earns a reward." 

Want to train a guide dog puppy? You can apply to become a puppy raising volunteer with the Guide Dog Foundation here.

Meghan Giannotta