Olivia spending her summer training Lancer to be a guide dog

CHRIS MORELLI/THE EXPRESS Lock Haven resident and Penn State student Olivia Bognanni poses with Lancer, a yellow Labrador puppy she is training to be a guide dog. Bognanni will be working with Lancer for the next 15 to 18 months.

LOCK HAVEN — It’s going to be a busy summer for Olivia Bognanni.

The Penn State student will be spending the next couple of months at home in Lock Haven training a yellow Labrador puppy to be a service dog… and she knows it will be a lot of work.

“It is, but I think it’s rewarding. It’s definitely going to help someone in need,” said Olivia, a 2018 graduate of Central Mountain High School. “I get to spend time with a dog — all day, every day. It benefits me. I’ll teach him to be a well-behaved dog. I think it’s awesome.”

For as long as she can remember, Olivia has had a love of animals. She’s a sophomore animal science major at University Park.

“Since I was young, I knew I wanted to work with animals. Growing up, I’ve had dogs, cats, horses, guinea pigs … everything. The whole nine yards,” she said.

Olivia said she always thought it would be interesting to train a guide dog. She found out about the program through a classmate, did some investigating and contacted the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. She signed on to be a Volunteer Puppy Raiser and wound up with Lancer.

“I just felt like it was the right fit. It’s no cost to the handler when they adopt the dog,” she said.

Olivia is charged with teaching Lancer basic commands — sit, down, come and stay. There are also more specific commands that are tailored to becoming a guide dog.

“It’s basic things, like teaching him how to walk correctly on a leash. That’s the most important since he’ll be a seeing-eye dog. They need to behave well on the leash and have good house behaviors as well. The handlers have to trust the dog with their lives,” she said.

If Lancer doesn’t make the cut as a seeing-eye dog, he could be used as a service dog for a veteran or he could help with law enforcement. No matter what, Lancer will serve some type of a purpose other than a cute, cuddly pet.

“They call it a ‘career change’ if he doesn’t make the cut,” she said with a laugh, “but it is very selective.”

She believes he is getting off to a good start on his way to being a guide dog.

“He’s been a great dog. It’s fun teaching him a new command and it’s so exciting when he learns it. I just can’t wait to see his progress over the year,” Olivia said.

This is truly a labor of love. Olivia isn’t paid for her work with Lancer.

“I am always with him and always training him. I make sure that he’s making good decisions. It is very time consuming,” she said.

Although she isn’t paid, her only expense is food for Lancer. Supplies and visits to the veterinarian are paid for by the foundation, she said.

She’s had him a little over a month and will have him a total of 15 to 18 months. Yes, that means she will have him at school.

“He will go to all my classes,” Olivia explained. “I’m excited to have a little companion throughout the day. It will be nice.”

In case you were wondering, Olivia has cleared Lancer with all of her professors in the fall. They’re all on board with him coming to class. At Penn State, she is a member of a new group called Lions Raising Pups.

Make no mistake about it — Lancer is an adorable puppy, which makes him a hit everywhere he goes. Simply put, he draws a crowd.

“At this age, it’s OK. Everyone sees him and is like, ‘oh, a puppy’ and everyone wants to see him. When he’s older, he’ll have a bigger vest and we’ll have to tell people that’s he in training,” she said.

In 2020, Olivia will have to give Lancer back to the Guide Dog Foundation. At that time, he will be placed with someone in need.

Saying goodbye won’t be easy, that’s for sure, she said.

“That’s going to be the hardest part. I tried to get in the mindset even before this started that I am doing this for someone else,” she said. “It’s not for me. I realize that he’s not my dog, but I’m going to get attached no matter what.”