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BYU student balances life and training her furry bone-afide follower

Published: Friday, July 6 2012 2:43 p.m. MDT

Liz Montgomery works in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU with her guide dog in training, Jacinda, in 2011. (Luke Hansen) Liz Montgomery works in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU with her guide dog in training, Jacinda, in 2011. (Luke Hansen)

PROVO — Liz Montgomery by herself doesn’t attract a lot of attention. She’s quiet and calm, maybe a little standoffish at first meeting.

But when Montgomery walks across the Brigham Young University campus, everyone notices. Not because of her quick stride or determined gaze, but because of who’s walking by her side — Jacinda, a curious 11-month old dog covered in short black fur.

Her little furry friend, naturally, garners a lot of questions.

"In my creative writing class (recently), of course, the teacher asked me about the dog," Montgomery said. "She wanted me to tell everybody and I said there’s probably not a single question you can ask that I haven’t been asked before. I mean, I could list off the top seven questions I get asked and my rote memorized answer."

Montgomery is what they call a "puppy trainer," someone who takes in a future guide-dog at 8 weeks old and teaches them the basics: house training, commands and public manners, among other things.

It’s something she started doing in middle school, and going to college while balancing a part-time job hasn’t deterred her from continuing.

"I guess our main rule is to socialize them and to have them so they’re not distracted or scared or anything like that," Montgomery said.

That is why the dogs come with their trainers everywhere — to learn how to handle every situation.

"Different dogs have different problems and for some dogs its fear and anxiety going places, so you have to work that out," Montgomery said. "With Jacinda, she’s a not very anxious dog — she’s very dominant and so for her, her big problem is distractions — dog distractions and people who are excited about her and that sort of thing."

Jacinda is the fourth dog Montgomery has worked with since she became a trainer of guide dogs for the blind.

"I’ve always loved animals, loved dogs. I wish I had a more noble reason for starting, but basically I wanted a dog," said Montgomery, laughing a little ruefully as she began to talk about her history.

In seventh grade, Montgomery met a family in her Mormon ward who were puppy trainers.

Once she learned more about guide dog training from them, Montgomery saw it as a path to getting around her mother’s no pet rule.

Her mother refused to allow her children to own pets because she felt she would be the one taking care of them all the time, not her children.

"So I kind of snuck my way into it," Montgomery said. "It was for selfish reasons of wanting a dog and it was funny because it ended up being mostly (my mom’s) responsibility, because that’s what happens with moms."

Her family started attending puppy meetings, a regularly scheduled gathering with other local puppy raisers. Soon, Montgomery became a puppy sitter, someone who would take dogs when their trainers were out of town or needed a break. After a year of sitting, the family decided to train a dog of their own.

Her mother, Christine Montgomery, initial objector to animals in the house, said she feels what they are doing is more than just raising a dog. To her, it’s an act of service.

"With our first dog, I felt it was really important for Liz to see the end result of raising a guide dog," she said. "So I sent her out to California so she could meet the blind person and go to the graduation of the dog and see the importance of all the hard work she did. She got to see the end result of the dog working with the blind person."

Going to the graduation of her first dog changed Montgomery’s perspective on being a puppy raiser.

"I started out for the reasons of wanting a dog, but once I trained my first dog and he graduated and he guided and I was able to go to California and see him again and meet the person he would be guiding, it was just an incredible experience. Since then it hasn’t been about me, it’s been about the people," Liz Montgomery said.

It’s a passion Montgomery decided to take with her when she left her family in Colorado and came to BYU.

"There were some reservations," her mother said. "There was a lot of work even between the two of us. I did lots of the work at home while she was at school."

Montgomery, however, says she feels she is perfectly capable of balancing school, a job, and puppy training, even if it occasionally creates a few problems. Doggy bathroom breaks may make her late to class, and finding housing isn’t as simple as it may be for other students.

"I assumed that landlords knew that it was law that they have to let me in, but I came across someone that was a jerk about it," Montgomery said.

Bringing a puppy to work has not proved any problems for her employer, however.

"We've had other librarians from different floors come down to meet the dog," said Brian Wages, Montgomery's boss in the Harold B. Lee Law Library. He says Jacinda has never interfered in the work they do.

"None of the patrons have ever commented," Wages said.

Erin Evans, Montgomery’s roommate, said sometimes people forget to see Montgomery at the other end of the leash.

"They come up and ask her how the dog is," Evans said. "If she doesn’t bring the dog to an activity, they ask her where she is."

Despite setbacks, questions from fellow students and unwanted attention from others, Montgomery loves what she does. Her eyes grow soft as she describes Jacinda’s personality and the time they’ve spent together on campus.

She sighs sadly when she explains that puppy training ends at 15 months.

"She’ll probably go back in May or June, but I’d rather not think about that," Montgomery said of the Jacinda who she was training at the beginning of 2011. "I mean, you spend basically 24/7 with these dogs. You’re with them all the time and when you’re with a dog that much, she becomes a 'someone' to you."

Heather Daley is a freelance writer from Provo. Her email is daleyhc@gmail.com.

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