It was puppy love at first sight.
While a third-grade student at Baldwin Elementary School in Danville, Rebecca Gilchrist and her class took a field trip to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael. Although she was only 8, the trip inspired her and she told her mom, Yvonne, she wanted to raise a Guide Dog puppy when she was old enough.
Rebecca never forgot, and when she was a junior, she and Yvonne took a seven-week training course, completed some final requirements and elatedly received their eight-week-old pup, Romeo.
So began the Gilchrist family's bonds with Guide Dog puppies, who are either black or yellow Labrador retrievers or golden retrievers. One pup has led to another, and the Gilchrist family has now raised four, including Harrison, or Harry, trained by Rebecca's brother, Mathew, when he was 16 and 17.
Harry is the eponymous star in a children's photo book written and photographed by Yvonne, published in December and available for sale at Amazon.com ("Harry: A Puppy with a Special Job to Do").
All proceeds from the book, which took Yvonne four years to complete, will go to Guide Dogs to support the local puppy-raising groups in the area, she said. The San Ramon Valley Unified School District has been given a copy of the book, and Yvonne is awaiting final approval before donating copies to elementary schools in the area, as well as other local districts, so the book is available for all kids studying the eye unit in third grade. She told me the book has already been read in some classrooms.
"Every day is a different adventure with the puppies," said Yvonne. "You don't know what they're going to get up to. We're responsible for their socialization, so when they go for final training they're not surprised by things like shopping carts or packages falling off shelves. We take them to farms, the zoo, shopping and school to expose them to as many situations as we can."
Two of the four puppies raised by the Gilchrists were eventually diverted to other jobs.
"Not every puppy makes it," Yvonne said. "It's important that people understand it's not the career for every dog. They're very easy to train in other job areas. Our last puppy wasn't happy back in the kennel, so she's now a therapy dog."
Yvonne said that retrievers are relaxed and mellow with great hearts. They can be trained to help diabetics, for search and rescue, for injured soldiers' programs, or some may just become pets. She said there's a five-year waiting list for guide dogs that have undergone a career change.
"Rebecca and Romeo had a really special bond," Yvonne told me. "Romeo would sit and wait when she left for San Ramon Valley High School and knew when she was coming home. Once or twice a week, she took him to school with her for the experience. All the kids knew Romeo. He'd kennel under her desk."
The family got to keep Romeo until he was 15 months old, when he went for his final training at Guide Dogs for the Blind to learn the special job that he would do and was then placed with a blind woman in Sacramento.
And the time came for Harry to receive his final training, too, to do the special job he'd been trained to do. There's a poignant picture in the book of Mathew giving Harry a farewell hug.
"Harry and Mathew were inseparable," Yvonne told me. "They knew when they needed each other for a hug. Harry was doing somersaults when he saw Mathew after their six-month separation. You try hard not to get too involved, but it's hard to let them go. Harry's been away from us for a year down in Anaheim."
For information about the San Ramon Valley Guide Dog Puppy Club, which meets Tuesdays from 7 to 8 p.m. in Danville, call Louise Pay at 925-803-4006, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at www.srvguidedogs.com.
Yvonne and her husband, Alan, are waiting for another puppy to be assigned to them. Mathew, now 19, attends college in Boulder, Colo., and Rebecca is a senior at UC Davis with an Animal Sciences major. She recently received an incredible gift: her first puppy love, Romeo, was retired, and got to come home to her.
Contact Georgia Lambert at email@example.com.