When you've got multiple service dogs at a time on your training string its easy to get lost in the mundane training tidbits that you repeat over and over again with each dog as they grow and progress. Especially with three of my dogs all being puppies and just at the beginning of their quest - I sometimes forget what it's like to go on a big field trip with a dog that has long since earned their vest in public. But every once in awhile I experience an outing where my dog does such an amazing job that not only am I proud, BUT, I have to share it with everyone. Just a little bit. Well, this weekend was one of those times.
Saturday was my high school's annual Alumni Weekend - it's usually a big shindig. Friday hosts some type of fun event (such as golfing for those who wish to participate) while Saturday morning hosts a church service (being a christian school) and potluck afterwards where everyone can get together, chat and catch up. This particular school is quite involved with my family; currently my Mother is the 2nd grade teacher and a fellow graduate as well as my brother and myself. While I don't have the fondest memories of high school (I was totally the fat kid who was bullied a bit - but hey more on my insecurities in later posts) it's a fabulous training opportunity (if you have a dog at that stage of training) and one I'm loathe to miss. Last year Copper accompanied me as I was finishing up his training before placing him with his current family and this year Dodger was on the roster to attend with me.
Rule #1 as a Service Dog Trainer: Never Come Unprepared. Always. Carry. Treats.
My mother and I slipped into the church service just as it was starting and realized that we had arrived a bit too late to pick discrete seats in the back. We found a strip of empty chairs close to the front but on the side and Dodger easily settled in on the floor between my Mother's feet and my own. He was looking a bit wild-eyed so I grabbed some treats in my hand and popped a few in his mouth. After a few moments he looked like he was a bit more comfortable and he laid down (his side leaning against my Mother's foot) for a nap.
The organ sprang to life, much too loudly for the crowd, and all three of us jumped! Several more treats made their way into Dodger's mouth. He did startle at the noise, but recovered quickly and soon was back to his relaxed self. [Remember: for those of you out there self training your own service dog; having a dog that never startles at anything such as loud noises and such is unrealistic - they're just like us. If a gunshot went off near me, even though I know what it is, I WILL jump! However, you do want to shoot for a dog that is comfortable enough with your relationship that they can quickly check in with you, find out all is well, and recover from the fright where they can continue on working.]
The organ quit soon after (much to everyone's relief) and a couple current students got up on stage to perform a special music piece. The loudspeakers crackled a little and Dodger's head jerked up with interest. Pop, pop, pop went the jerky treats and soon his head was back down.
Rule #2 as a Service Dog Trainer: Human Spawn are Everywhere so Look Out!
"Ooooh, look doggie," without moving my head so as not to encourage interaction I shifted my eyes to see in the row in front of us off to the left a young girl was bumping her young friend next to her with her elbow and pointing down the aisle towards us. Both girls covered their huge smiles with their hands at the sight of Dodger. The woman sitting next to them, whom I assume was Mom to one of them, turned her head with a frown of disapproval at the girls (quiet) exclamation. Dodger didn't move; his eyes were still closed.
Two minutes later, both girls scooted down the aisle quietly (I'm talking like 10 chairs distance) and soon one was sitting directly in front of us; her body turned sideways and her arm sprawled over the back of the chair looking directly at me.
Don't make eye contact I thought to myself don't make eye contact. I have long learned that if someone shows interest in your dog, and you look at them, you've basically opened yourself up to telling them your life story. If you don't want to talk, you keep your eyes to yourself! I could tell this little girl was just itching to talk to me about Dodger. The sermon had started by this point and I kept my eyes forward. Soon, she gave up and slid back next to her guardian, her friend following behind her.
Of course, right in the middle of the sermon, I had to pee. Damn coffee. I scooted out of the aisle, Dodger following close behind, and slowly made my way around all the chairs and all the way to the opposite wall of the school gym to the ladies restroom. I felt like I was on display as countless eyes followed both of us as we made our way to the restroom door (there was standing room only so the bleachers attached to the back wall had been pulled out for the stragglers - well you have to walk in front of them to get to the bathroom.) Every time I'm in Fresno with a dog I get the feeling that service dogs aren't seen in the area often.
Lucky you Dodger I thought to myself as I pushed through the swinging bathroom door you're an enigma.
"Oh look!" another little girl exclaimed at us as she washed her hands in the sink, her Mom holding her back from springing across the floor at us. I immediately changed course and rather than walk through her to the preferable stalls (and the large handicapped stall mind you) on the other side, I opted to turn left and go into one of the crummy small stalls next to the door. Dodger didn't object until I had to hang off the back of the stall door [practically] to get both of us inside. Dodger immediately offered a sit and I hung his leash off the purse hook attached to the back of the stall (because leash on the bathroom floor - EW!)
"Momma, there's a dog in here!"
Where are they all coming from! I hadn't even gotten a chance to unbuckle my pants yet. Kids everywhere! Dodger didn't move out of his sit until a little hand from the adjoining stall stretched out and touched his flank. He jumped and scooted towards the middle of the stall. The hand retracted, along with a couple harsh words from the adult with the kiddo in the stall. Not two seconds later the hand outstretched again, faster this time, and I whipped out my phone trying to take a photo. Because, you know, you just can't make this stuff up. It happens to us all the time. All. The. Time!
Dodger was so amazing - he clearly was uncomfortable with being touched in this new context, but he dealt by moving as far away as the leash would allow and kept his gaze on me waiting for further instruction. So before I could take care of my needs Dodger got another couple jerky treats.
Rule #3 as a Service Dog Trainer: well actually just a general guideline for life: celebrate the good times.
After the service was over, Dodger and I wandered around campus a bit while my Mom helped with the potluck. We walked past the library where I remember I spent most of my free periods checking out books that I voraciously read during my down time. We passed the group of lockers that held mine (#67) for my junior and senior year - in fact I specifically wanted it because it didn't need the code to be unlocked, but instead, jiggled in just the right fashion and it would open. To the random guy, however, if you just attempted to pull the lock it was seemingly locked. And before you ask, yes I did open it, and no, it was unoccupied. Such a shame - a waste really...
We left later that day completely exhausted, but, I was strangely satisfied. Dodger had been impeccably behaved - he had dealt with so much! Countless people looking at him, reaching and bending over him and he wagged his tail kindly at every one without breaking his stance next to me. One woman walked over with this plate of food (that I was drooling over myself beacause it smelled AMAZING) and Dodger didn't budge towards her. He ignored the little kids in front of us (who scooted back and forth MANY times once we got back from the bathroom.) He even dealt with an attempted violation in the bathroom without blinking an eye.
I still can't believe this guy has been with me for only 9 months - he truly is a gem and one that I'm SO thankful I stumbled across that hot August day at the shelter on my way back from placing Copper in Ohio.