On a recent morning, Lexie Dreyfuss, an 18-year-old senior at La Cañada High School, was sitting at the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club with Palani, her 20–month-old black Labrador obediently in tow. Palani is one of three guide dogs Dreyfuss has raised from puppyhood to serve the visually impaired — volunteer work that has been her passion since she was 14.
As happens with some of the puppies, Palani was unable to graduate from the program run by Guide Dogs of America (GDA) — in Palani’s case, because of severe skin allergies. Dreyfuss adopted Palani from GDA when the dog’s medical condition made her ineligible to serve the blind. However, Chloe, the first puppy Dreyfuss raised, is now the constant companion of a middle-aged woman who has been blind since birth. And Dreyfuss has taken on a new puppy, an 8-month-old yellow Lab named Winnie, whom she has raised from the age of 7 weeks.
Dreyfuss’ responsibilities for the young pups range from housebreaking to teaching them about a dozen basic commands, including “come,” “sit,” “down” and “heel.” “Winnie is with me 24/7,” she said of her newest dog. “She comes to school with me every day, and I’ll take her to museums, to the beach, even to Disneyland, so she’ll be able to work in any situation.”
Dreyfuss will raise Winnie until she is about 18 months old, when the dog will be tested to see if she qualifies to complete training with GDA professionals.
The GDA program “combines my love for community service with my love for animals,” Dreyfuss said.
Dreyfuss has been working with animals since she was 7, when she chanced upon five tiny kittens trapped in the country club’s attic. “We heard plaintive meows,” she recalled. She learned to bottle feed the felines through a local cat rescue and even awakened in the wee hours to feed them. Over the ensuing years, she went on to foster more than 400 kittens at home, with her parents’ blessing. She even made her work the subject of a mitzvah project for her bat mitzvah at Temple Sinai of Glendale.
Dreyfuss — who has now mostly given up kitten rescue to focus on puppy raising — also first learned about GDA when she was about 7. “After asking my mother every day for seven years if I could raise a guide dog, she finally agreed,” said Dreyfuss, who picked up Chloe in March 2013.
At first, the puppy was a handful. “She was stubborn, very driven and confident, which is what a guide dog needs to be,” Dreyfuss said. “But I just felt like a terrible puppy raiser. There were many calls to GDA asking, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ”
Yet the dog ultimately proved so competent that she became one of only about 45 percent of puppies accepted for additional training by GDA.
The day Dreyfuss had to turn in Chloe “was awful, heartbreaking,” she said. But watching Chloe work with her new, blind owner helped to soften the blow.
After graduating from high school, Dreyfuss plans to attend an as-yet undetermined local college so she can live at home and continue her work with GDA, which is based in Sylmar.
“Seeing the independence and the freedom that Chloe gives [this woman] — I can’t imagine not raising another puppy.”