Working for Love: Guide Dog Training Part 1

On my first day as a student at Southeastern Guide Dogs, my trainer hands me a new leather leash: “Your invisible dog is attached to the end of this leash. Keep it with you whenever you leave the room.” She shows me how to drape the leash across my body so it won’t get in the way as I unpack my suitcases. It’s Monday afternoon, and I won’t meet my pup until tomorrow. I attempt to handle the waiting by meeting my classmates, learning my way around the building, eating some fabulous food, and getting used to the constant presence of my invisible dog.

Tuesday, I’m up at 6AM, steeling myself; the next four weeks will demand this early morning routine. I change clothes, put up my hair, apply sunscreen and bug spray, and head to the dining room for breakfast and a big coffee. We won’t find out our dog’s name, gender, and breed until after lunch. I would be obsessively checking my watch, but I forgot it at home.

My seven classmates and I pass the morning with various activities: walks with trainers, walks with dogs in training, lectures. Every time an employee strolls past the common area with a puppy, I tense up – willing to fall in love. I feel like a starving person gazing through the window of a famous bakery, my view of the croissants blocked by a forbidding sign: CLOSED UNTIL 2PM.

Just after lunch, we gather in the Day Room, a large living room where we’ll hold lectures and indoor obedience classes. I choose a seat in a deep leather couch, nervously twisting my fingers as I wait for my name to be called. Finally, after an eternity of 15 minutes, my trainer says, “Emily, you will be getting a black lab male named York.”

York, York, I try the name in my mind. It sounds promising. Kind of literary and not obnoxious. I was afraid I’d have a Princess or a Snuffles. I can handle York.

Once each student has been told about their dog, we go to our own rooms. The trainers tell us to turn on all the lights, since animals aren’t crazy about shadows. Sit in your desk chair facing the door. When your dog is brought in, call it and clip your leash onto its collar.

I walk down the hall and easily find my room – Room 3, last on the right. I flip on all the lights, even taking off my sunglasses. I want York to see my face unobscured. I take my position in the desk chair and wait, checking the time on my phone. 1:15. Deep breath. 1:22. Hands folded in lap, unclenching fingers. Another deep breath. 1.34. I can’t stand the silence – I send a text to Mom. I feel like I have a version of wedding jitters. Puppy jitters? I keep my breathing slow.

I hear a commotion in the hallway, a door opening and high-pitched voices. A few doors down, a classmate is meeting his dog. Everyone sounds happy, a trainer says, “Oh she’s wagging her tail, call her.” A joyful meeting. I’m on pins and needles.

Now I hear more introductions – opening doors, jingling dog collars. The sounds are coming closer. Finally, I hear the student across the hall meet his girl, and the neighbor on my left meets his. I know I’m next.

Someone knocks loudly at my door, and I can hear quiet voices and a jingling training collar. I call, “Come in!”

The door is opened and I hear an unfamiliar female voice, a handler I’ve never met. “Emily? I’ve got your main man.”

I fight to keep myself seated. She instructs me to call him in a happy voice, and I say, “York, come!”

He approaches hesitantly. The dark shape at the doorway resolves into a shiny black dog, much bigger than my 20-pound cairn terrier at home. With long legs and an inquisitive nose, he comes towards me. The handler holds him still so I can clip my leash to his collar and attempt to pet him. She leaves us alone for the anticipated moment: bonding time.

York curled into a ball, looking very puppy-like.
Whatever I imagined this moment would be, it defies my dreams. York wants nothing to do with me. He quickly runs to the end of his leash and whines, sniffing towards the door, where the familiar handler has left the room. After several minutes of pacing and sniffing, resisting my cheerful calls, he finally sinks to the floor, head and tail down – the picture of misery and disinterest. My heart is broken and my thoughts are racing. He doesn’t like me. He doesn’t want to come near me. How can I get him to love me?

I don’t push. I don’t intrude. If York wanders near me, I reach out a hand to touch him, to let him sniff me. He sniffs but does not lick. Pushing my hands away with his nose, he won’t let me pet him.

But his apathy won’t alter our schedule. A few minutes later, trainers come by to lead us outside to the relief area where the dogs can get water and “busy busy” (do their business). York drinks water but doesn’t busy. Then it’s into the Day Room for a lecture. The trainers have told us that we should concentrate on bonding with our dogs: give them lots of love and attention but try not to correct them as much in these early hours.

During the lecture, York rolls on the floor and whines, trying to get other dogs to play. At least he seems happy – however embarrassed I might be. Clearly he’s a class clown, and he manages to get other dogs riled up. Our side of the room quickly earns a reputation for rowdy boys.

The pups accompany us to dinner, where we try to keep them lying or sitting out of the way. This is a challenge, and our dinner conversation quickly degenerates into “No, sit! Stay! Down! Down! No, stay! STAY! Down, good boy, good girl. Down. Sit! Stay, stay. Good boy.”

Back in my room, I try one last attempt to get York’s attention. After my shower, I sit on the floor, braiding my wet hair. York is on a short leash, the end of his leash tucked under my leg. Without much room to roam, he walks slow investigatory circles around me. I pretend to ignore him. He sniffs my ear, my neck, my face. No licks yet. I hold my breath. He walks around me, and I feel something grabbing my hair. York has my braid in his mouth, and he gives it one gentle tug. When he circles back around, he allows me to pet him. Still no licks, but things are improving!

In the next days, York and I work in harness, traveling across nature trails, intersections, and obstacle courses. We do traffic checks, night walks, and long recalls. We work our way through obedience classes, completing routines of puppy push-ups and long-leash stays. In our room, he licks the back of my legs or lies under my desk, using my feet as a pillow.

He played hard to get at first, but his love is worth working for.

2 thoughts on “Working for Love: Guide Dog Training Part 1

  1. You forgot to mention that you let out a tremendous roar the moment my mans name was uttered!

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