Deciding to raise guide dogs was a decision that completely altered 17-year-old Hope DiNatale’s life. She never imagined that the hard work she put into the program would ultimately lead to a surprise that she would never forget.
Upon discovering an article in a newspaper, Hope’s mother Cathy thought that joining a program to raise guide dogs would be a great activity for her and her daughter to do together. Hope confessed, “I just wasn’t really into it at first.” However, with a push from her mother, she decided that it would be a wonderful deed to accomplish and she eventually became interested.
Hope, a senior at Iroquois High School, joined a volunteer program called Guiding Eyes for the Blind. In order to begin training dogs, the regional directors review prospective applicants to make sure they are able to raise a dog. Then, each selected volunteer is given an 8-week-old puppy to educate over the next 15 to 18 months.
“My job was to teach the dog basic house manners and acclimate it to every possible situation that it might encounter with a blind person,” Hope said.
It was crucial for her to take the dog into stores and parks, on trains, in cars or any other places a person might encounter during a typical day. Anywhere Hope went, the dog accompanied her.
“The dog cannot be distracted or scared of anything,” Hope said. “The dog’s main focus in the future needs to be the safety of the blind person.”
Hope also had to teach the dog to sit, stay, lie down and nurture it into a polite dog.
Since starting in the program, Hope has had two dogs to train. Her first dog’s name was Bradley.
“He was such a calm and amazing dog,” she said. “I really had hoped that he was going to be able to go all the way.”
However, after 15 months of training, the DiNatale family learned that Bradley had a rare disease and had to be dismissed from the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program.
“My mom and I were devastated,” Hope recalled.
Bradley now lives on a farm in Lockport, where, according to Hope, “He couldn’t be happier.”
Hope and her mother were unsure about raising another dog because it is an arduous task. But they took on the challenge and received their second dog, a black Labrador retriever named Blake. After more than a year of hard work, Blake is now in the training school for guide dogs located just outside of New York City.
“The process of training takes six months and now all I can do is hope and pray that he will make it all the way,” Hope said. “I really believe he will.”
If Blake becomes an official guide dog, both mother and daughter will drive to New York City to see what they have accomplished and meet the blind person that Blake will be serving.
Hope was rewarded for her service by receiving the President’s Volunteer Service Award during a Mass at her church last summer.
“It was such an amazing honor to receive an award, especially from the president,” Hope said.
She knew nothing of the award until she walked into her church and saw all of her family, friends, Guiding Eyes for the Blind regional coordinator Mary Ellen Pratt and even other raising families along with their dogs. After the Mass, Pratt presented the award to Hope.
“I was so surprised,” Hope said. “I also learned that my friends and family can keep a secret very well.”
Hope said that this isn’t just about having a puppy to play around with. “It’s a lot of hard work,” she added.
She admits that some days were harder than others, especially with school, sports and social life.
“There were many moments when I didn’t want to do it anymore,” she said, “but my mom was really the one who pushed me through and kept me going.”
She agreed that there are several complicated parts about an experience like this, but the most difficult part is letting go of the dogs once the duty is over.
“You form a different kind of connection with these dogs than you would with just a regular pet,” Hope said. “The realization that the dog is going to help someone else’s life helps me to let go more easily.”
She said the greatest reward for her was to give back to her community.
“It was a way to help someone out and not to focus on myself for once, which is tricky in today’s society,” Hope said.
The mother-daugther team is taking a break from raising guide dogs.
But, Hope said, “This organization has changed my life. It’s something I won’t ever forget.”
Nina Bracci is a junior at Iroquois High School.