By Janell Groskreutz
October 14th seemed eons away, but the day finally arrived. I was perched on the front porch as if I was five years old again waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. When the trainer, Ellie, pulled in the driveway, I am sure I had a smile on my face so huge I looked like the cat that ate the canary. Sully bounded out of the car, ran right into my arms, and I fell completely and totally in love with my new traveling companion. As soon as I touched, smelled, kissed and hugged him my anxieties quickly diminished.
I will admit, those next two weeks of training were the most stressful and intense two weeks of my life. I was vigorously trying to learn every command, hand gesture, what to do, what to say, when to walk, when to stop and most importantly how to listen to Sully. It was literally 16 hours a day with Ellie, and let’s just say, she is very intense, understandably so, yet she was very patient and supportive. I remember my first trip walking in town, we were practicing sidewalks and curbs. All of a sudden two loose dogs came barreling towards us. Ellie took off after them like she had completely lost her mind. She was screaming, jumping around, waving her arms in the air, all while I am standing with Sully not quite sure if I should be running from the dogs, or running from Ellie. The dogs took one look at her and did an about face, and high-tailed it home with their tails between their legs. If I was at all unclear of the value of my dog, it quickly became apparent.
There was so much to learn. Commands like “forward,” “halt,” “focus,” “leave it,” “hop up,” “free,” “heel,” working on puppy push-ups and remembering to say “okay” after filling his food bowl. Honestly, there were several occasions I forgot to do this and my poor drooling dog would sit staring at his bowl just waiting for the command. I had never thought there was an art to picking up dog poop, but with poop bags in hand, I tackled that too.
During those two weeks, the three of us trained around my neighborhood, the mall, church, the grocery store, hotels and restaurants. We practiced curbs and steps. The reoccurring thought I had was, “Boy, I sure hope I don’t screw this dog up; he is so highly trained and I am an amateur at best.” Plus, I was fully aware of the inordinate cost that was incurred for socializing, training and delivering this pup to my front door.
Subsequently, there was a lot to learn at home as well. Feeding schedule, crate training, brushing teeth, cleaning ears, and bathing. I also worked on introducing him to my family, including our other lab, developing potty schedules and basic grooming. Sully spent the initial few days tethered to my side so we could develop our bond together. Much to my delight, forming such a strong and intense bond was the easiest piece to this puzzle. I have had labs throughout the duration of my life, but the bond between Sully and me was like no other. He literally became my black shadow. He would peak at me in the shower, be underfoot while I was cooking or doing laundry, next to my side by the couch, and he was with me in the bathroom–even though frankly there are some things I would rather have done alone–but he didn’t leave me much choice.
Having this new-found independence was also accompanied with new responsibilities, being very diligent with a schedule, being consistent with obedience, training, socializing and maintaining a happy and healthy pup. OCCUPAWS, as well as Ellie, emphasized that Sully was not a pet, but a highly-trained dog matched with me for a very specific reason.
Finally, it was the end of my two weeks and the culmination of my training. It was time for a party–my graduation. I invited my family, neighbors, Gary and Reuben, my good friend who is hopeful to be matched with a guide dog soon, and of course the OCCUPAWS family. The day of graduation, I was exhausted, overwhelmed and in such a place of extreme gratitude. Finally, this black angel was mine. This also meant that it was time for Ellie to head west and return home to Denver. As she left I sat on the same front porch with Sully and told him it was our time to blossom together, for me to learn to completely and totally trust him and most importantly for him to be patient with me as we learn to work together as a team.