Instructor Dave Ponce introduces graduating class #373.
With graduation season fast approaching, Guide Dogs of America kicked things off on Sunday with the formal graduation of Class 373.

Eleven of the 12 teams (one was unable to attend and was represented by a family member) took to the stage, confidently ascending the stairs and finding a seat with the assistance of their newly partnered guide dogs.

Each graduate was joined by the volunteer who raised their individual dog. Most of the dogs visibly remembered their puppy raisers, whom they hadn’t seen for six months, and burst into a fit of tail-wagging excitement. It was no doubt a bittersweet moment for the raisers, who had to refrain from reciprocating and remember the dogs are working and aren’t to be social with others when in-harness.

Tears of happiness were shed by many as the graduates and puppy raisers spoke. Class spokesperson Mark Davis of South Carolina, opened remarks with an impassioned thank you delivered in a soft-spoken, southern drawl.

“It means so much to be able to go down the road with the help of a dog and not have to hold onto a person,” he said. “When we first came here, we weren’t broken, but we were splintered, and now… A lot of people would have put us on the back shelf, but y’all didn’t.”

Fellow graduates’ comments were equally moving.

“I’ll be able to take my children to the park.”

“The gift you’ve given me and my family cannot be explained.”

“I can’t wait to go home and show (my dog) my life.”

And my favorite, when graduate Ari Hughes, a young man with myriad tattoos and gauge earrings, tearfully announced toward the crowd, “You can cry now, mom.  We did it!”

Students will remain on-campus for one more week of training in order to fine-tune any issues specific to their individual lifestyles.

The next incoming group of students will graduate on July 8.


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