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Rhonda and Pippi

Thank you to our generous May Graduates Sponsor…

“The University of Rhode Island Puppy Raisers Club wishes the graduate teams good luck in their new partnerships!”

Meet Home Training Graduate Rhonda

Grad Rhonda and guide Pippi pose together at a wooden benchGraduate Team: Rhonda and Pippi
About the Team:  Pippi, a female yellow Lab, is Rhonda’s 1st guide dog
Hometown:  Missoula, Montana
Guide Dog Mobility Instructor:  Melissa Smith

Rhonda retired in October 2020 after working for 25 years at a local hospital. Initially a call station operator, she adapted the way she approached her duties as vision loss from RP progressed, eventually transitioning into the Patient Liaison position she held for her last 10 years there. Rhonda also found ways to continue running, her passion, having been in 10 marathons and 5 half-marathons. Nearly every day she runs 12-14 miles on familiar routes.  Since the loss of her beloved mother, she and wife Theresa found they had little keeping them in Montana, which set a plan in motion that began with her retirement. Obtaining her first guide Pippi is also part of that plan, as is trading homeownership for a large pickup truck, a 5th wheel RV and a new motto, “We’re breezy.” This represents their easy-going approach as they use this time to slow down, figure things out and prepare for a life of full-time travel, and all is falling into place.

How would you describe your guide dog? “She’s so relaxed and easy-going. Her harness work is just right on; she likes to work and does it well. We are so impressed that she’s such a professional. She’s so well trained; even with barking dogs, she just looks then ignores them.  When off harness she’s playful and loving, carrying her favorite squeak toy in her mouth and making me laugh. She enjoys grooming every day and when done, she’s off to show Theresa.  She has taken ahold of our hearts. You think it’s going to be gradual, but it was so fast. We just love her.”

What made you decide to apply for a guide dog from Guiding Eyes?  “Five years ago, my mobility instructor sent me an article on the new Running Guides program at Guiding Eyes. I knew if I ever decided on a guide dog,  Guiding Eyes is where I’d go. The more research I did, the more I became impressed with the school and the training. A good friend of my mother’s is a donor and quite an advocate for Guiding Eyes;  she’s over the moon to see me with Pippi.”

How has having a guide dog impacted your life? “My lifestyle will be changing and we’re in a transition. It’s huge for my independence, that when we land somewhere, I can go for a walk around the campground alone. Once Pippi knows a route, she knows it. When I go out, Theresa doesn’t have to worry because I’ve got Pippi with me. We’re still in a little bit of a learning curve, but every trip to the store gets a little bit better. I’m so excited to have her. She’s so well matched to me; she travels well, is easy-going and adapts to new areas.”

Were there any training highlights?  “I was so impressed with Pippi when my instructor Melissa used her car during training . That intelligent disobedience is something to see in action. Just yesterday a car pulled up as we were at the curb. The driver then saw us and said I could go ahead, but Pippi wouldn’t go. She is such a good dog, looking out for me. Melissa was awesome – so knowledgeable, easy going and really neat to work with. She is still in my head when I’m working Pippi. She gave me the confidence to know that I can do this.”

A Special Message from Rhonda:

When I was first diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa back in 1997, one of the first things my Mama said was that she would give me one of her eyes. And she meant it!  Knowing that there was nothing that could be done medically for my vision loss, I thanked her and consoled her. And of course, we had to laugh that her eyes were green, mine blue.  “They wouldn’t match!”

Years later, as Mom started to show signs of dementia, she would often forget that I couldn’t see.  When her Alzheimer’s got to the point where she needed 24 hour a day care, we moved her from our place into a nice memory care home. While cleaning out her apartment, Theresa came across a note my Mom had written:  I donate my eyes to my daughter, Rhonda. With her full signature at the bottom.  I guess that made it official in her mind. Of course, medically there was no operation that would enable me to receive my Mom’s eyes.  She passed away in May of 2019.

Now it is two years later, Mother’s Day 2021.  Just 12 days ago I got a gorgeous yellow Lab, Pippi from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.  I’ve been working with her, and she is beyond awesome.  I found out that the puppy raisers who raised my guide dog for about the first year or so, are in Virginia. And Virginia,  that just happens to be my mama’s name. As Theresa pointed out, my new eyes (Pippi) came from Virginia (my mom). Guess my Mama figured out a way to give me eyes after all!  Thanks Mom, you are the best, and I miss you so much!

Meet Guide Dog Pippi

From the first day, we knew Pippi was a very smart dog. She learned quickly and she was always so eager to please. Pippi was also a great companion to our daughter Maria who is blind. She really bonded with Maria, sleeping in her kennel in Maria’s bedroom every night. She would even lay down in front of Maria as she practiced her violin every afternoon. Pippi walked to the bus stop every morning with her and was able to keep her composure, despite all the elementary school students begging for her attention. Pippi did very well in restaurants, shopping and on nature trails. We think she was easy to train because she wanted to please us. Also, she loved to show her affection for members of the family.

To Pippi’s partner: We are so glad Pippi has been matched with you! We know you will love her! Please keep in touch–we would love to hear updates on what Pippi is doing.

Tim Zoerlein & Family, Puppy Raisers of  Pippi

Enjoy these photos of the team and Pippi as a pup on program…