Kevin Riordan: Graduates will help a guide dog graduate, too

Jordan Ortiz (left), with her dog, Viola , and classmate Danielle Larsen, with guide dog in training Zara, enter Rowan's Student Center. Viola will accompany Ortiz at graduation, and Zara will continue her training in Morristown, N.J.
Jordan Ortiz (left), with her dog, Viola , and classmate Danielle Larsen, with guide dog in training Zara, enter Rowan's Student Center. Viola will accompany Ortiz at graduation, and Zara will continue her training in Morristown, N.J.
Posted: April 05, 2011

Thanks to Viola, Jordan Ortiz won't need to take anyone's arm when she walks across the Rowan University green to accept her diploma next month.

Ortiz, who as a child lost her vision to cancer, will let her golden retriever guide the way in style - as Viola has done since freshman year.

"She earned her degree, too," Ortiz says.

That's why her thoroughly adorable guide dog will walk up to the dais in her own cap and gown May 13. It's also why Ortiz and classmate Danielle Larsen have been helping train a golden retriever named Zara for the last five months.

By housebreaking the puppy and teaching her other "basic life skills," they will ultimately help another visually impaired person enjoy the freedom - and more - a guide dog provides.

"If there's a car coming I don't hear, Viola will pull me out of the way," says Ortiz, 22, who grew up at McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington County. "It's amazing to know she loves me that much."

Zara's got the love thing down pat, but it will be a while before she's ready to guide a permanent owner. Still considered a puppy at 16 months, she'll soon be returned to the Seeing Eye organization in Morristown, N.J.

There, Zara will undergo five intensive months of formal training. She will be taught to work in a harness with a guide handle, to follow directional commands, and to stop for traffic.

"Right now, she doesn't know anything, and I'm in love with watching her grow and learn," says Larsen, 21, legally blind because of ocular albinism, a congenital disorder.

"Zara has a destiny and a future," adds Larsen, who grew up in Shamong, Burlington County, and will graduate from Rowan with Ortiz next month.

The gregarious classmates and their canine companions share an apartment on Rowan's main campus in Glassboro. Both sociology majors, Larsen and Ortiz laugh easily and finish each other's sentences, the way siblings often do.

"We have a really unique situation for a puppy to grow up in," Larsen says.

Indeed. The majority of puppy-raisers are sighted, says Peggy Gibbon, director of canine development at Seeing Eye.

The organization has matched more than 15,000 blind people with guide dogs since it was founded in 1929. It currently has 1,700 guide dogs - mostly Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and German shepherds - working in the United States and Canada.

"Jordan and Danielle have been very devoted," Gibbon says, noting the two young women have a deeply personal understanding of how to prepare a puppy to guide someone through the obstacle course of everyday life.

Unlike a conventional pet, a guide dog is almost always at its owner's side.

Living with a guide dog "is like caring for a baby," Larsen says. "Do we have everything they need so we're ready to go? Do we have a backup plan? Parts of our backpacks are ours, and parts are the dogs'."

Guide dogs are matched to handlers primarily on personality and walking speed. "Lifestyle" also figures in; like people, some dogs prefer to be on the go, while others like to chill.

Take Viola, who has got a mix of traits and readily picks up on her owner's moods. "If I'm really happy, I notice she'll have the best day ever," Ortiz says. "If I'm anxious, I notice she'll start second-guessing me."

Ortiz plans to attend graduate school at Rutgers-Camden in the fall, and Larsen is looking at grad schools in Camden and Philadelphia as well. The two women enjoy city life and love to hop on the High-Speed Line to get to a concert, or to South Street.

"We do anything anyone else does," Ortiz notes.

Except react to guide dogs with fear, or feigned disinterest.

The latter folks are liable to try the surreptitious petting move that Ortiz and Larsen laughingly call "the sneaky swoop."

No subterfuge needed: All they have to do is ask. (I did, and it was worth it. Viola and Zara are eminently pet-worthy.)

Even in 2011, it seems, blindness still freaks some people out.

"We've gone entire semesters in classrooms with other people asking each other about us. And we can hear them," Ortiz says.

"So we tell people all the time: Ask questions. We're not going to bite your head off."

Viola and Zara won't either.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.

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