It’s been 37 days since I began to experience the reality of a dream come true. Thirty-seven days ago Bailey came home with me after we finished team training. This was a dream that started without details—one of those times when you recognize that something is absolutely right, but don’t know much else. The moment of recognition occurred for me five years ago when I first met Hams, the golden retriever who is a team with my friend Hazel. At that meeting I got a strong impression of what a wonder a partnership can be.
Since that beginning the dream’s details have been filled in piece by piece: finding out the huge range of what assistance dogs do, searching web sites and talking to people to discover how and where to apply for a dog, filling out piles of forms, enlisting friends and caregivers in the process, and all the while gaining information and trying to explain to others what I thought these partnerships are all about. And then waiting and waiting and waiting, but things really began to deepen for me when I came for my assessment days and met the amazing people at Summit. Honestly I didn’t know how to explain what I thought was the most important task I wanted a dog to do for me, and I hadn’t heard anyone describe what sounded right for me. I knew that the biggest danger to my health was falling and I had a very vague idea that a dog could help with balance. When I mentioned that I had a balance problem, people tended to think I wanted to fall on a dog! Not at all true! But I didn’t know what I wanted until I walked with a very tall poodle called Eddie during a Summit assessment day. Then I realized that lightly holding a harness would help me retain my balance. Sue Meinzinger and Bailey’s trainer, Sarah Broderick, watched me walk with various harnesses during an assessment day and figured out that using a guide dog harness would give me enough feedback to keep balanced. What a wonderful experience—no cane, and the sense of walking ‘normally’ in harmony with another creature! You couldn’t convey that kind of joy on a list of tasks that assistance dogs do!
Then one day the wait was over! An unforgettable phone call came from Elizabeth Landrum, and the marvel that I was actually matched with Bailey. But that was only the beginning of marvels. The next wonder was the exhilarating and exhausting process called team training. It was clear to me from the first day that we humans were much harder to train than the dogs. Think about this process! The puppy raiser, Christy Durham had raised the dog for 1 ½ years. Sarah, the trainer has trained the dog for 6 months, and as team training begins she is faced with training a human who has little or no idea about communicating with the dog and is disabled to boot! At the same time she must make sure that the dog does not have his training eroded by the person’s inexperience, and that bonding is transferred from the trainer to the recipient—all this was done with the utmost grace and diplomacy. These folks are so loving and skillful it is almost unbelievable.
And a word here about the support of family and friends and acquaintances—for me at least it couldn’t have happened without their efforts and good wishes both now and in the waiting time. I think it is safe to say that my husband, Seth, who has never had a dog, is totally smitten with Bailey. (It has been pointed out that he is certainly starting at the top!) My daughter, Nadya, always has a clear sense of what is good for me, and fortunately for me she is married to Mathew, a dog whisperer in his own right! I think often of the generosity of Bailey’s puppy raiser and of Deb Hall’s gift of keeping hope alive!
Now the filling in of the dream continues. Team training, as transformative as it is, is only a good beginning of this profound relationship, and like any relationship worth having, it has challenges. The first week at home, having left the daily support of team training, reminded me of the first week of having a new baby. Did he eat? Did he poop? Is he getting enough exercise? Are my family and friends petting him too much? Am I doing this right? He’s so wonderful; does someone else deserve him more than me? But Summit has wisely added regular follow-ups to help with problems and questions.
It’s only been 37 days, but already I know, as others have said, that the tasks the dog performs are a great help and will evolve as my needs change, but the amazing gift is the presence of this angel. What a difference it makes!