To Olivia Tzefronis, a sophomore at Orange High School in Pepper Pike, Ohio, Caras’ remark bears truth. Even as a seven-year-old, Olivia dreamed of a veterinary future where she could work with her favorite animals, dogs, while actualizing her eagerness to help others.
Unlike the threadbare plush toys that Olivia and her sister, Kate, toss around with their dog Ryder, Olivia’s passions have withstood the years and grown stronger. After talking with a neighbor who volunteered for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a national organization that connects guide dogs and people with vision loss, she knew she wanted to raise a puppy and change someone’s life in the process.
Since February 2017, Olivia has united with the organization and volunteered to lend her home to a second pup, Osaka, a rambunctious yellow Labrador retriever who loves to curl up in people’s laps, give slobbery ‘kisses,’ and frolic in the snow. As Olivia’s friend, I’ve seen Osaka sit by her side greeting enthusiastic middle schoolers before a service learning presentation, ‘dog’ her footsteps around our school’s hallways, and serve as her number-one supporter during cross-country meets. Without a sniff of doubt: Osaka and Olivia are a paw-fect pairing.
But beyond the physical wrestling of their daily tug-of-war, Olivia and Osaka have struggled on a level that most puppy raisers never have to experience. Although the organization’s dogs are bred for optimal health, Osaka suffered a urinary tract infection and intestinal obstruction in April, which induced vomiting, diarrhea, and life-threatening surgeries.
“When Osaka came back from treatment in June, she just sat there throwing up, ears back and shaking,” Olivia said. “She ended up having emergency surgery, and it took about six to seven weeks to recover, which meant we had a lot of catching up to do on her training. We didn’t know if she’d be allowed to continue in the program, and we were told that if we hadn’t gotten there on time, she probably would’ve died. It was a terrifying and challenging situation for us.”
In spite of their immeasurable bond, the two will eventually be separated, which Olivia has accepted as a responsibility of being Osaka’s primary puppy raiser since Osaka was just eight weeks old. On June 19, Osaka will take an In-for-Training test where she will complete tasks to assess her aptitude for being a guide dog, therapy animal, or loving pet.
“We all know going into it that the dog will be leaving, but other raisers have told me it’s very bittersweet when the dog goes in for testing,” said Olivia, who will give up Osaka after 16 months of puppy classes, cuddles, and games of fetch with her canine companion.
“All raisers want their dogs to do well, but at the same time, it’s like giving up a family member,” she added. “Since Osaka is my first, I haven’t experienced this yet, but I know I’ll be very emotional. It’s hard knowing that, even though you are doing a good thing, you will have to give up the dog that has become such a huge part of your life.”
In agreement, Thomas Panek, president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, believes that his organization enriches lives. Nonetheless, he said that the work isn’t easy.
“In addition to our incredible trainers and staff, we have a team of amazing volunteers who, like Olivia, offer up their time and energy to help shape a puppy into a guide dog, and then have the selflessness to give that dog back so it can change someone’s life for the better,” he said. “It’s acts of kindness like that that make everything we do possible.”
Olivia’s doesn’t plan to halt involvement with the organization in June. After completing junior year, she hopes to take in a new puppy and work with the organization into her college years.
“I would, without a doubt, do this again,” Olivia said. “It’s been such an amazing journey, and Guiding Eyes and Osaka have become such a big part of my life. It’s been a fantastic way to not only get involved in a great organization but to get involved in helping others in a way that’s unique and life-changing.”
She continued, “I’ve heard stories of blind people who are so much happier with their guide dogs. A lot of them say that they feel like they have more control over their lives, and to be a part of making someone feel confident about themselves is an amazing experience.”
No matter the outcome of her upcoming test, Osaka will lead a life dedicated to service, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Olivia does too. As Roger Caras would’ve expected, the duo has filled each other’s lives with love, empathy, and strength. Though saying goodbye will be hard, Olivia’s life has already been changed by Osaka – and it’s time for Osaka to change another.