In 2018, Boston, Massachusetts native Isabella Scott decided she wanted to attend college to major in biology with a minor in music. But the enthusiastic freshman knew she couldn’t do it alone, so she took O’Hara along every step of the way.
O’Hara is Scott’s now 6-year-old Labrador Retriever and guide dog. Over the course of four years, the duo attended classes, studied together, and participated in lab sessions. In May, Scott graduated with her degree, with O’Hara, decorated in identical honors cords, faithfully by her side.
Scott documented much of their journey on TikTok, with some videos going viral, which the now 22-year-old Scott never expected.
@my.eyes.ohara You deserve all the apPAWS Goodest Girl in STEM! 🦮🎓 #boston #graduation #college #massachusetts #servicedog #guidedog #dogs ♬ Sentimental Music II (Duet) – Curtis Schweitzer
We spoke with Scott who told us all about her path to graduation with O’Hara.
The Quest for a Diagnosis
Isabella Scott was born with healthy eyesight. Her parents took both Scott and her brother for optometry appointments, which always revealed normal vision—until Scott turned six.
“My parents started noticing that when I would read books to them before bed, I would start to hold the book closer and closer to my face,” Scott recalls. “My father then began to observe that when I would look at something or speak to someone, I would look slightly off to the side of whatever or whoever I was looking at.”
The first optometrist concluded Scott had no problem with her vision. Instead, Scott says it was determined the she had “behavioral problems,” which she and her family knew wasn’t the case.
Her vision problems persisted, and Scott’s parents sought help from Boston Children’s Hospital.
“After testing, it was concluded I have a rare juvenile or early-onset form of macular degeneration, or Stargardt’s disease,” Scott remembers. “By the age of 11, I was declared blind.”
Scott’s family was heartbroken. Her mother felt her daughter might give up on life. Her father wished he could switch his healthy eyes for his daughter’s. Her big brother felt as if he let his sister down and didn’t do enough to protect her.
One Step at a Time
Scott’s family was determined she would experience life as any other child would. Scott played on a soccer team, rode horseback, took dance classes, and attended the same school as Helen Keller, the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts.
“My family realized over the years that losing my sight did not mean a loss for my love of life,” Scott shares.
At first, she was able to get around with limited vision. When she entered high school, Scott’s sight reached a point where relying on reduced vision was no longer an option. She worked with an Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist, who taught her to navigate her surroundings with a white cane, the traditional device used to assist the visually impaired while walking.
“I could not go anywhere outside my own backyard without needing the use of my white cane,” Scott recalls.
Time for a Guide Dog
Determined to make her college and life dreams a reality, Scott set her sights on a guide dog to make her life easier.
Scott soon learned to apply for a guide dog, a person must be considered blind, be financially able to take on a dog, be able to use a white cane, and have successfully completed O&M training. The tenacious Scott went through seven years of O&M lessons before a guide dog entered her life.
“Four of those seven years were specifically geared towards my goal of having a guide dog to assist me,” she remembers.
Although not every blind person wants or is guaranteed a guide dog, Scott and two ophthalmologists believed a guide dog would improve her quality of life. After talking to teachers at her high school about guide dogs and performing her own independent research, Scott moved forward and decided it was time for a guide dog.
Pairing O’Hara With Scott
Beginning a journey of her own, a puppy named O’Hara started her journey at the Canine Development Center at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. O’Hara was one of several puppies on their journeys to become guide dogs someday.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind trains exceptional guide dogs to help lead people affected with sight loss. Scott says each dog costs around $50,000 to breed, raise, train, and place with the right individual.
After going through the paces of becoming a guide dog, O’Hara was placed with a volunteer puppy raiser. She learned basic obedience and socialization skills and was on her journey to becoming a guide dog. At the tender age of 15 months, O’Hara was returned to Guiding Eyes for the Blind to enter formal harness training.
“After working with a guide dog mobility instructor, O’Hara and I were matched and began our training process,” Scott says.
The day she was matched with O’Hara, Scott recalls waiting to meet her new furry best friend. An instructor approached the room where she waited and came in with O’Hara. Scott felt the dog’s wet nose poke her leg.
The instructor unclipped O’Hara’s leash and switched the dog over to Scott’s leash. With nervous trepidation, Scott hoped O’Hara would bond with her.
“Once the trainer left the room, O’Hara stood at the door waiting for her to come back,” Scott shares. “I didn’t want to force her to love me, so I sat on the floor and waited for her to come to me on her own terms.”
Eventually, the dog walked over to her new caretaker, laid next to her, and put her chin on Scott’s lap—their first moment of genuine connection.
The initial training included an intensive three-week-long class at the Yorktown Heights campus of Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
O’Hara was named by Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The organization names each litter with a corresponding letter in the alphabet. This pup’s litter happened to be the “O” litter, and all of O’Hara littermates have names that begin with O, too.
Different Footsteps, Same Path
Scott attended Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, and took O’Hara along with her every step of the way. Part of her studies as a biology major included many lab sessions. To ensure O’Hara’s safety, Scott evaluated each lab before allowing the guide dog to enter. She made certain the animal would never be put in harm’s way.
Because Scott had to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, a lab coat, goggles, and boots, O’Hara donned her own canine PPE.
@my.eyes.ohara Reply to @jennyharrison09 Goodest Girl in STEM in the lab. 📖 &MERCH in profile. 🦮🧬🔬🥽#stem #science #scientist #lab #guidedog #dogs ♬ She Blinded Me With Science – Thomas Dolby
“She wore a raincoat for a lab coat to protect her body, doggles to keep her eyes safe, and she was already used to wearing boots before science classes,” Scott recalls. “So I decided to start a TikTok series of videos with O’Hara giving science reports on safe snacks for dogs.”
The sight of O’Hara waddling around in boots while wearing a lab coat and doggles really caught on. Her videos started going viral, earning O’Hara the nickname, “The Goodest Girl in STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
Eventually, Scott was inducted into TriBeta, the National Collegiate Honor Society for biology students. One of her biology professors, Dr. Jessica Fry, went above and beyond to present O’Hara with her own TriBeta honors cords at the induction ceremony. The dog wore those same cords over her gown during Scott’s graduation ceremony.
“Back in 2018, I set off on a mission to complete my Biology degree,” Scott shares in her viral graduation video. “But I didn’t do it alone…honestly, I don’t think I would have been able to do the walk without her by my side,” she continues.
The duo walked across the ceremonial stage together as Scott received her degree recently.
What to Know About Service Dogs and Guide Dogs
Scott wants people to know that all guide dogs are service dogs, but not all service dogs are guide dogs. A guide dog is specifically a service dog for people who are blind. However, there are other types of service dogs (i.e., seizure alert dogs, mobility assistance dogs, diabetic alert dogs, etc.)
“Many disabilities are invisible, and therefore, the individual may not appear as if they have a disability,” Scott shares. “In the United States, service dogs do not need to wear a vest, harness, sign, or anything that labels them as a service dog.”
She reminds everyone it’s not what a dog wears that makes them a legitimate service dog; rather, it’s their training and the fact they are “mitigating someone’s life-altering disability.”
Anything Is Possible
Through her website, Harnessing Sight, Scott hopes to make a difference in peoples’ lives. The newly-minted graduate offers speaking engagements based on service dog education, as well as disability awareness, diversity, and inclusion training.
So far, she’s addresses elementary-aged students, college students, and people in nursing homes. She’s booked in-person engagements as well as online.
She’s written a children’s book, “O’Hara (The Tail of a Good Pup),” and remains steadfast in creating content on TikTok and Instagram that spreads awareness of the importance of service dogs.
“Now that college is over, my hope is to spread service dog education,” Scott says, who plans to use her biology degree “to pursue a career in animal conservation.”