October 19, 2012 — Thanks be to God (and to our Southwest Airlines miles), I was able to get a last-minute flight to California for next to nothing, so I could see Jethro before he made his trip to train with his new partner, in his new home in the Pacific Northwest.
It was the most amazing day. In fact, I dare say it was better than a public graduation in many respects. Don’t get me wrong; it’s terrific to be able to invite friends and family to the ceremony, to meet your pup’s new partner, to take in the whole thing. But this was an indescribably special experience. So indescribable, I’ll just have to…you know…try to describe it. (Bear with me, here. It’s what I do.)
Since my husband was out of town on unrelated business that weekend and couldn’t join us, I grabbed my best friend Amy (my former roommate, Jethro’s first babysitter, and known to all my dogs as “Your Amy”) and headed up to Sylmar to meet my other friends, who finished Jethro’s training when I moved. Sitting at the Denny’s restaurant and having mostly normal conversation, I think we all remarked at some point that this was so weird, and yet so easy. Absent was the gut-gurgling anxiety that usually accompanies a graduation. Absent were the questions about who your dog was matched with, whether or not the meeting will be awkward, whether or not they’re experienced handlers, whether they will love him like you love him. We had those answers. We know her. (Well, my friends know her. I had spoken with her on the phone at this point. We have yet to meet in person, though there is a plan in the works for that.)
So all that was left was the excitement of seeing Jethro.
We arrived at the school and met with the trainer who was working with Jethro and assigned to transport him for his in-home training. He had no idea that Jethro’s new partner had just retired my friends’ first dog, and when they told him, well…let’s just say I thought the pregnant woman was going to be the first one to get emotional, but I was wrong! Seriously, though, that’s one amazing thing about this kind of work: people invest themselves in it. Not just the puppy raisers. One silver lining in the cloud that is walking away from your dog on turn-in day? You know that these people — the trainers, the kennel techs, the medical team, the puppy department staff — they love your dog, too. They know what his purpose is. They get it…and they don’t seem to get jaded about it, no matter how long they’ve been there. I think it’s because every miracle is different.
Anyway, we piled into a car and followed the training van to a local shopping mall where the trainers usually take their students to practice during class. Jethro hadn’t seen us yet. We made our way down to an outdoor bench outside the parking structure and waited for Trainer 1 — working in blindfold — to walk through a set of doors with Jethro in harness, followed closely by Trainer 2.
We were a few minutes ahead of the trainers, who had stopped to relieve Jethro and work him through the building before getting to us. So we spent the time with our cameras out, looking expectantly at the doors, making sure my four-year-old goddaughter understood that we were NOT to call out Jethro’s name or go say hi to him when we saw him, and laughing about what passersby must have thought was going on. Finally, there they were!
He. Looked. Fantastic. My little man grew up and got himself a job!
I could hardly contain my awe as I watched him guide the blindfolded trainer, stop at the top of the stairs, guide him downstairs, stop at the curb, and do just what he was born to do. He was focused, and he was wagging happily along.
We followed at a safe distance — further away than necessary, actually, but long-legged Jethro apparently guides at a pretty good pace — and attempted to get photos as he worked his way through the mall. That resulted in a lot of dog butt pictures, like this one:
We saw him deal with escalators, people, another dog (huh?), all sorts of distractions and sights, sounds and smells. He looked confident and capable. Little man was totally a pro.
After Jethro had his showoff time– er, workout, we stopped near a restaurant and snapped more photos before enjoying lunch with the trainers.
What a terrific opportunity that was! It was a real treat to get to know the trainers a little better, talk with them about puppy raising and training a dog for guide work, and find out what it’s like to do their job. It was also great to hear them talk about why Jethro was matched with his partner, and what makes him such a good guide. He is, apparently, just a really solid dog. And one interesting thing they said was that he can handle “down time” really well. It’s true that most guides aren’t working/guiding/walking all day long. Jethro’s partner has a job, which means in addition to being comfortable with public transportation, he will be spending a significant amount of time chillin’ in the office. I know from experience that some dogs (*cough*TRUMAN*cough*) just don’t know how to relax, and I’m glad to know that it’s a valuable trait in a guide, and something Jethro does well. (As a side note, I’m also glad to hear that snuggling is a valuable guide dog trait, according to Jethro’s partner. I KNOW he’s good at that!)
After lunch, we walked back toward the parking structure and over to a patch of grass so we could spend a little time with Jethro out of harness, getting our own snuggle time with him before we headed back home. He greeted each of us with his typical tongue-out, wiggling-rhino-charge enthusiasm. I was happy to see he still considers himself a lap dog when he’s not otherwise engaged in his important career pursuits.
Incredible day, incredible dog. Incredible joy.