March 1st, 2022
4 min read

The High School Experience with a Furry Friend in Lead

Ava and her guide dog, Cheddar, sitting on stairs. Ava's arm is around Cheddar's shoulders, and Cheddar is wearing a harness.

Ava Basso is a typical high school senior living in central Iowa. . . other than the fact that her furry friend accompanies her at school.

Ava has albinism, a condition that leads her to have no pigment in her skin, hair, and eyes, resulting in blindness and significant photophobia (eye discomfort in bright light). She adopted a cane early in high school after her vision progressively worsened, yet was never fully confident navigating safely outdoors and at school.

This all changed when Ava attended Camp GDB, a camp where youth who are blind or visually impaired experience the guide dog lifestyle. "Walking and learning to take care of a guide dog and working with amazing instructors convinced me to apply for a guide dog myself," she says. After being accepted into the program, she was finally paired with Cheddar in the summer of 2021 at GDB's California campus. At first, Cheddar walked at a slow pace, but the two quickly became a cohesive pair.

Cheddar resting on a dog bed under a desk during Ava's class.

Cheddar's navigation skills are extremely useful when Ava's at high school. With target practice and frequent repetition of the school schedules, he is able to guide Ava quickly and safely around the campus to locate doors and classrooms. He has also learned to quietly rest next to Ava during each class. Ava especially adores the quirky habits Cheddar has adopted, including greeting Ava's Government teacher, sleeping on a dog bed the Art teacher provides and only drinking water from fountains he exclusively finds.

Thankfully, Ava's school is accommodating to their needs. Through her Individual Education Program, they can leave class early so Cheddar can avoid crowds. In addition, they go to the counselor's office during free periods, where the faculty can provide treats to Cheddar. The students and teachers at the school are also respectful to Cheddar as central Iowa is well educated on service animal etiquette.

Ava standing next to Cheddar holding onto his harness handle. They are waiting at a bus stop.

Cheddar has also allowed Ava to travel more comfortably. They often visit their local mall with friends and family, and Cheddar has become an expert at reaching her favorite destinations such as the movie theater and Panera Bread. With his help, Ava has been able to navigate airports and new environments independently during her recent trips to Florida and Estes Park in Colorado, which would not have been possible with a cane. Overall, Cheddar has allowed Ava to be more confident: "Cheddar has genuinely made me more outgoing and adventurous, 100%. Being able to navigate the world properly and have conversations with others is amazing."

One of Ava's favorite aspects of GDB is its tight-knit community: "Everyone I've interacted with from GDB, whether it be Cheddar's puppy raisers to the instructors, have been extremely friendly, welcoming, and supportive" she says. But most importantly, GDB has opened countless opportunities for her. "Having a limited vision is physically and mentally demanding, and being able to navigate my whited out the world with Cheddar is so freeing."

Ava will be attending college this fall, where she will continue to strengthen her teamwork with Cheddar as they navigate campus, meet new friends, and experience dorm life. Follow @avandcheddar on Instagram and TikTok to learn more about their journey!

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