365 days ago, almost to the minute, I found myself walking into a Smitty’s restaurant in Westmount mall in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with my guide dog, Jenny. My heart was pounding and I remember steadying my breathing as not to give away my nervousness. We got to the Smitty’s, and I sat down at a table with my husband and two other people…
This sounds innocuous, this walking into a restaurant with your guide dog to meet family and friends for breakfast… but it was graduation day! On October 3, 2013, a BC/Alberta Guide Dogs trainer did one last supervised walk several hundred yards behind me, and, after terrific coffee and a yummy breakfast, Jenny’s harness was officially put in my hand for unsupervised guiding!
This all came on the heels of the most exhausting four weeks of my life. I had quit my job the previous December, and it took me five long months to find employment at a call centre for a chain of pizza restaurants. Most days after training with Jenny, we went straight to work, where Jenny conked out on a bed under my desk, and I used my cane while she heeled at my left side, wearing her stylish blue “In Training” jacket. I learned how Jenny moves when she is happy, focused, distracted, had to use the bathroom, and wanted to get my attention; she learned how I wanted her to pace herself, give me clearance around objects beside or above me, and what behaviors were permissible and which were not. We had good days – like the day of our first busy street-crossing when she pulled me out of the path of an oncoming bus – and bad days – like the first time she took the LRT and whined and shook the whole trip and tried to bolt off the train at every stop – and everything in between. Even when she was off-duty and I was using my cane, she would still find me doors to the 7-Eleven or bus stop poles, sit quietly on the bus, and behaved herself impeccably while I was at work. The last day of training ended at 2:30PM, and I remember being so drained that I sprawled out on the couch at 4:00 PM, and blearily got up long enough to go to the bathroom and climb the stairs to my bedroom where I slept until 5:00 the next morning.
It was an amazing rush, that morning of October 3, 2013. It had signified that I had done it – I had survived the rigeur of training with a new young dog, and I had many of the tools I would need over the next 8 years. It was also nerve-wracking; I couldn’t sit down with our trainer every morning and tell her the good, the bad and the ugly of the previous day. I couldn’t always ask why Jenny did XYZ; I was, more or less, completely on my own.. I remember picking up that harness on October 3, 2013, and having no idea what to expect, not really. I was full of knowledge from training, confidence in my dog, and thrilled for the journey to come.
The previous 365 days have not all come up roses. I have made big mistakes; Jenny has made big mistakes. Thankfully we have more good days than bad lately; I have been both encouraged by and encouraging to others who are in the complicated and wonderful trenches of guide dog travel. Even on a bad day (like, er, yesterday) I would not trade the past year for anything. I have been stretched, stressed, and blown away by the complicated canine that is Jenny. She has nailed complicated tasks and completely flubbed basic ones; kept calm in an endless parking lot when we were unintentionally lost, but once got us lost in our own neighborhood; laid calmly for hours on her bed while I’m working and yet been unable to stay still while I am working out at the gym for an hour.
Unbeknownst to me, October 3, 2013 was just the beginning of a journey; it’s been well worth the work, the tears, and the moments of wonder. As of this moment, Jenny is no longer a rookie guide dog!
Here’s to you, Jenny Pen, and to many more October 3s!