Lexie Dreyfuss took Chloe, a black Labrador retriever, everywhere for 18 months. The 17-year-old junior had the dog lay by her side in class at La Cañada High School, walk through the aisles at Ralphs and resist other furry friends while volunteering at Petco.
And on Saturday, months of sniffing through La Cañada paid off when Chloe graduated from Guide Dogs of America with her new handler, Giselle Hartman, by her side.
"(Chloe) whirls me around poles, takes me down streets and weaves me in and out of pedestrians — and I don't touch a thing," said Hartman, who is blind from glaucoma.
For Dreyfuss and her family, the graduation was a bittersweet goodbye. The teenager took on Chloe when the puppy was just 7 weeks old and raised her until she was 18 months, focusing on basic obedience and socialization before handing her back to Guide Dogs of America.
"It's hard to see her go, but seeing her and Giselle together makes it all worth it," Dreyfuss said.
The process of training a guide dog and companion requires $42,000 and lots of trial and error. Many guide dogs do not make it through the program and are "career-changed" to family pets because of behavioral or health issues.
The Sharon D. Lund Foundation fully funded Chloe and Hartman's union. Guide Dogs of America provides the dogs to their companions at no cost, relying solely on donations.
Dreyfuss has envisioned raising a guide dog ever since volunteering for GDA as a 7-year-old Girl Scout. She already has her second trainee, another Labrador retriever named Palani.
After the Dreyfuss family handed her over to GDA, Chloe learned formal training to guide her human through the world. If Hartman tells the dog to proceed but Chloe sees something harmful to the pair, she must be able to "intelligently disobey," as GDA calls it, and refuse the command.
The last 28 days before graduation were the true test for Chloe. Hartman lived in GDA's on-site dormitories as she and her companion learned to navigate buses, escalators and night-time crowds together.
Hartman has had some vision since birth, but the world has gotten cloudier as time wears on. She broke several canes in the last few years, as things like poles and road blocks became less apparent.
"My family encouraged me to come here for years," Hartman said. "The stars just came into alignment when I really needed her."
Natalie Wheeler is a freelance writer.