PCHS graduate trains dog for success
January 20, 2015
For many high school students, the only goals they harbor for their senior years are to graduate, get accepted into their colleges of choice and make a few final memories before adolescence fades to adulthood.
But Julie Steppan had a different dream: All she wanted during her senior year was to raise a guide dog.
She got her wish. For years, Steppan had volunteered with Friends of Animals, which led her to the local chapter of Guide Dogs for the Blind, an organization that trains puppies to be guide dogs, then pairs them with human partners. In June of 2013, she began taking care of Veronique, a three-month old black lab in training to be a guide dog.
"I love animals so much, but it’s amazing that this is really impacting and helping someone’s life," Steppan said.
Throughout Steppan’s time with Veronique, the pair became a common sight around Park City. But her journey with the pup recently came to an end. After spending about a year with Steppan, Veronique completed the final three months of her training at Guide Dog for the Blind’s California headquarters and graduated the program in November.
She was then placed with the human she’ll serve, Jan Robitscher, a blind woman in Berkeley, Calif. Steppan attended the graduation and said it was gratifying to see Veronique having such a big effect on someone’s life.
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"She helps her go everywhere," Steppan said. "The nice thing about guide dogs — and what Jan was telling me — is these people can do it all on their own, but having a guide dog, first of all, is a way to connect with other people, and it helps make her life a lot easier and quicker. The companionship is great."
Steppan put in a lot of work with Veronique to ready her for her service. The dog accompanied her nearly everywhere she went. At school — Steppan was then a senior at Park City High School — Veronique quickly became a favorite of the student body.
"I always say she was the most well-liked one of our senior class," said Steppan, who currently attends Colorado State University. "Sometimes if I didn’t bring her one day, it was like I was invisible. It was like, ‘No one cares about me, just the dog.’ There were some funny experiences but it was great."
But the attention Veronique received whenever she went out with Steppan served a purpose. It taught her how to focus through distractions — one of the most crucial lessons a guide dog can learn.
"We do these outings so these dogs will ideally not be fazed by anything when they’re out with their owner," Steppan said. "So they’re exposed to all sorts of smells and distractions and craziness. And going to school was a great one because she was very excited about people, and it was good for her to have to deal with it."
The path wasn’t always easy. To take Veronique to school, Steppan had to convince the Park City School Board to update its policy on guide dogs in training to reflect state law that allows them entry to any public place with their trainer. And the reality that her time with Veronique was limited always gnawed in the back of her mind.
But in the end, the sacrifices were worth it.
"It was one of those things where I always had to remind myself that she was never mine to keep," Steppan said. "It’s kind of a hard thing to do, and I was incredibly sad, but I just had to keep telling myself that it was for a greater cause. And when I got to go out to her graduation and hand her off officially to Jan, it just made it all worthwhile. It was amazing."
Steppan hopes her story will motivate others to become involved in Guide Dogs for the Blind’s local chapter, Summit Guide Dog Puppy Raisers. For more information on Guide Dogs for the Blind, visit its website at guidedogs.com. The local chapter can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/summitguidedogs.