LINCOLN — Matthew Pettit dreamed about Diezel long before the 67 pounds of jet-black fur came into his life, back when Pettit was a third-grader at Prescott Elementary and first heard the term “guide dog.”
“I wanted it so bad I used to pretend like I had one,” said Pettit, a 20-year-old senior at Southwest High School who has been blind and deaf since birth.
He had to wait until he was older, though. Until he'd gotten through Irving Middle School and spent seven years at Southwest High School. Until he'd become an accomplished braillist who saw graduation on the horizon and dreams of college in his future.
He applied for a guide dog about a year ago and his application was approved in February. The 18-month-old black Labrador made his entrance July 14 at 1:30 p.m., as Pettit waited inside his home with a handful of treats.
“It was almost like I won the lottery,” he said.
The process takes awhile because trainers look for a good match — and right off the bat, Pettit was pretty sure they had done a good job of that.
They're both energetic, both curious. One is a talker, the other a good listener.
“When he first came in the house, he was energetic,” Pettit said. “I like energetic dogs because I'm energetic, too.”
In fact, Diezel helps Pettit slow down in the crowded school hallways.
“I used to go 100 mph in the hallway,” he said. “I will admit that.”
Before Diezel, Pettit used a cane to get around the school, plus assistance from a lot of others. He has an interpreter who helps him in class, and he also works with Jill Bohlen, a teacher for the visually impaired and a mobility specialist; a speech and language pathologist; and teachers for the hearing impaired and assistive technology.
Now he has exchanged the cane for Diezel.
Lincoln Public Schools has had therapy dogs for several years, but this is the first guide dog in at least 15 years, Pettit said.
When they knew Pettit would be bringing Diezel this year, LPS administrators talked to teachers and made sure his classmates didn't have allergies. And they have educated other students about Diezel's purpose: He's there to work, not to play, said Bohlen, who has worked with Pettit since he was young.
Diezel is a great source of conversation with his fellow classmates, Pettit said.
But they've had to learn that despite the friendly, dark eyes and wagging tail, the dog can't be petted because it will interfere with his work — and his relationship with Pettit.
That's still developing.
“It will be six months to a year before we are a seasoned team,” he said.
Diezel sleeps next to Pettit's bed and eats his Purina Dog Chow while Pettit finishes his Cheerios. They ride to school together, and Diezel curls up near Pettit's desk during class and relaxes under the table while Pettit eats lunch.
After graduation, Pettit hopes to go to college and plans to attend the Helen Keller National Center in New York, where he'll learn independent living skills.
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