Pierce is Cathy Milone's 11th Guiding Eyes dog

Imogene the yellow Labrador retriever was Cathy Milone’s ninth guide dog, and she really stole her heart.

“I never thought I would be able to replace that kind of feeling,” she said. “But with Pierce, he’s so lovable and adorable and so willing to please. He’s just awesome. I think he’ll be right up there with Imogene.”

Pierce is also a yellow Lab, almost white. Milone has had a guide dog by her side since 1972 - Pierce is her 11th. They all come from nonprofit Guiding Eyes, the nation’s leading guide dog school, in Westchester County, New York.

Milone, 77, had congenital glaucoma as a child and has been blind since.

“I could see some shadows and stuff until I was about five,” she said. “Back then they didn’t have instruments small enough to do that kind of surgery. Of course, now they do.”

Despite blindness, Milone lives a happy and fulfilling life, partially thanks to guide dogs. She lived for many years in Bowie, Maryland, working for and retiring from the Department of Justice. She and her husband, Patrick, moved to Millsboro in 2009.

Guiding Eyes training starts before the dogs are born, with selective breeding for the best health and temperament.

“They have a fantastic breeding center where they actually use cryogenics,” Milone said.

Guiding Eyes dogs are primarily Labradors and occasionally German shepherds. At about eight weeks old, puppies go to volunteers across the country for training.

“The puppy-raisers, they’re just phenomenal people,” said Milone’s husband, Patrick. “They’re just not awarded or talked about enough, in my opinion.”

The dogs go to handlers at around two years old. For many years, when it was time for a new dog, Milone traveled to New York for a three-week training program. Her last three dogs have been trained through an at-home training program, which lasts about 10 days.

Pierce just finished the at-home program. Now, in the house, Pierce is off work. That’s considered his “playtime.” Most days, the two do several laps around a circle in a nearby neighborhood for exercise.

“We can take DART transportation into Millsboro to Food Lion. The dog knows how to get in and go to the customer service desk and then I can get someone to shop with me,” Milone said. “I can also take DART and go to the Tanger Outlets in Rehoboth, which I love doing. If you’re walking and you know you’re near where you’re going you’ll say ‘Pierce, go to the door,’ and he’ll go and put his nose on the door knob.”

Pierce accompanies the Milones to restaurants and lays under the table without begging.

“When I’m out with my husband we always take Pierce to stores and stuff. He heels right by my side. He doesn’t try to get into anything. He’s just exceptional,” Milone said.

Guide dogs are usual retired at around ten years old. Sometimes they stay with their handler, sometimes they go to different homes. As can be imagined, it’s sometimes not the easiest decision for a handler.

“Imogene, the one that took my heart, lived to almost 14. I did retire her and then I got Krueger. It broke my heart because when I wanted Krueger to work I’d pick up the harness and [Imogene] would come running and I just felt so bad. So at that point I said I will never have two dogs again.”

Milone started taking Imogene to the mailbox to make her feel useful.

“My husband said she just pranced like a horse and wagged her tail. She was so happy to do something,” she said.

Guiding Eyes provides guide dogs at no cost. Handlers like Milone have access to a fund that pays for a certain amount of veterinary care. For more, visit guidingeyes.org.