Here is one of the stories that will appear in the Walk in My Paws anthology. This is my story of meeting my Leader Dog Diva.
Meeting My Juno
By Ronda Del Boccio
This story tok first in the Memoir category at the Ozarks Writers League in 2018.
My three days of eternity began before God rolled over in bed at three a.m. on a Sunday morning. Other than the last few essentials, my bags had been packed since Thursday. I was more than ready to meet my Juno. Leader Dogs for the Blind uses that generic name to talk about dogs without distracting them by using an actual name. Since I didn’t know mine yet, he or she was Juno to me for now.
During the ninety minute drive to Springfield-Branson Airport, I wondered for the thousandth time who I would get. Male or female? Black lab, yellow lab, golden retriever, or a golden-lab cross? I was hoping for a hybrid dog just because I wanted to say, “My dog is a GOLDador.”
“I hope you get a blond girl,” Mom told me for the millionth time.
“Yes, I know you do.” I’d trained my first two guides, Thunder and Molly, both girls. Now instead of selecting my own dog, they would give me one. “I want a dog with a cool name, not something like Andy or Bob.” I had seen boring human names like that amongst the graduates.
Leader Dogs provides travel, room and board, dog, leash, harness, and grooming tools free of charge for every student, all without any government funding. My only expenses for this entire adventure were incidentals and bag-check fees.
As I navigated through security to my gate, I thought about how much easier and harder plane travel with a dog is. Easier because of help getting through the crowds and obstacles of the airport. Harder because of tight spaces on airplanes. There’s barely enough foot room for a human, and that’s where the dog sits. Yet after a couple dogless years and an ocean of tears, I was ready to have the added challenge of getting a large dog into a small foot space again.
At the end of a long layover in Atlanta, I met one of my fellow students, David. He lived in Atlanta, so he didn’t have to endure the almost four hour layover I did. We talked about how excited we were to get our dogs.
“Did you ask for a specific breed?” I asked.
“I told them anything but a German shepherd.” My friend is on her second, and no, I don’t want any part of that breed. A knot formed in my stomach as I thought of how her possessive, hyper, self-trained alpha service female who had given my poor cat PTSD would treat my sweet Juno.
My travel instructions said that someone from Leader Dogs would meet me at baggage claim. A couple of Lions Club volunteers rounded up four of us who had relatively similar arrival times. We had special tags, so our bags were easy to identify.
I learned how well Leader Dogs was going to take care of me right then and there. I didn’t have to stand at the carousel quasi-looking for (\mostly feeling for) my suitcase. Then in the van, our helpers handed out lunch sacks.
A couple more students from different areas waited in the van. A tech guy I’ll call Orie, an uptight Braille teacher I’ll call Fran, who had never been away from her hometown, David and I got acquainted along the ride. Fran’s twin sister would receive her second dog as a home delivery while first-timer Fran got hers at the training center. I wish I could have had a home delivery, which meant five days of personal instruction instead of twenty-three days in Michigan, but because I had never had a dog from their school, it wasn’t an option for me.
That ninety minute trip was the fourth conveyance on my thirteen hour journey, but at long last, we pulled into the Leader Dogs Residence and Training Center in Rochester Hills, Michigan. I was about to become an inmate, observed nearly every waking minute in a locked campus. We each had to sign in at the desk, get our room assignment and key card. Each key came on a neck strap so we could wear it at all times. If we ever left the grounds without it being part of the program, we had to sign out and back in again upon return.
My room, like any motel, featured a desk, flat screen TV, bathroom, closet, low dresser, chair, nightstand and bed. They must have thought all their students were giants, though, because I couldn’t reach the bed. Maybe it was to discourage the dogs from jumping up, since our Junos had never been allowed to go on any furniture their whole lives.
How awful. My Juno will be able to get on furniture at my house. Any dog can learn that some is ok for them to use and some is off limits.
The inside of the closet door had the daily schedule in large print and Braille. First dog relief time at too-early-o’clock. “I am not a morning person. Coming from the Central time zone to the Eastern for training meant everything happened an hour earlier for me.
My Juno won’t go out so early once we get back home.
The bathroom had shelves with a dog towel for rain, little Milk Bone dog treats, a one cup scoop, and a bucket of food. I could hardly wait to feed my Juno for the first time. I found a dog bowl on the dresser with a leash, a Nylabone, and grooming tools. The stiff leather leash would need lots of softening with the oil of my hands before it would be flexible enough for use. That would keep my hands busy while I awaited the guide. I fingered the clasp, wondering again about my Juno.
Will it be social like Molly, or more reserved like Thunder? Will it be a good tracker, able to help me find my way back through confusing areas, like Thunder? Will it be a comfort dog like Molly?
Ever since I found out I was getting a dog, I wondered what toys my Juno would love. Soft? Hard? Plush? Squeaks? Balls? Ropes? Will it have a soft mouth or be a toyminator? Thunder only liked a tennis ball, so she was easy to supply with hours of inexpensive fun. Molly loved all sorts of playthings until she turned two, then she had no use for them.
“I hope my dog loves toys,” I said aloud. Yes, I talk to myself.
What breed were they issuing me? Maybe the grooming tools might give me a clue. Golden retrievers have a longer coat with lots of fringe. They require a rake and a soft brush. Labs have shorter fur, which is much easier to keep pristine. My Juno’s bowl contained a comb with no space between the tines, definitely meant for short-haired dogs. My slicker brush bristles were so hard I was afraid of hurting the skin. I brushed along my palm and snatched my sore hand away. I would have to be super careful with the slicker no matter what breed they gave me.
“I guess I should have brought my own tools.”
My room had two doors. One led into the hallway, the other to the parking area. Not for cars but for dogs. Strange euphemism for what I called going “side.” I never used “out” or “potty” as that’s what everyone else says. I later learned that if you spell park with a c at the end and flip it, you get a crass name for the deed in question. This dog relief area had a long strip of pea gravel and a five-foot wall beyond. I explored with my white cane and longed for my Juno. How good it will feel to have that leash in my left hand with my Juno at the other end.
Explorations complete for now, I went into the break room to get a latte. I knew from the materials Leader Dogs sent that they had a lovely machine that dispensed hot beverages, and after over half a day of travel with short sleep, a latte was definitely in order.
“May I help you with anything?” The Residence Assistant asked.
“Yes. DO you have a pole vault pole?”
I gave her a big smile. “I’m too short for my bed. If I can’t vault into it, I’ll have to throw one leg up onto it and roll in every night.”
We both laughed and she helped me get the elixir of life. Now that I knew where to find cups and lids, I was set. Each button had Braille markings. I don’t use those little raised dots much, but I can read signs.
The dining room held special excitement that evening: a harness. Hand-made locally, it would empower my Juno to guide me safely through all life’s adventures. I studied every inch of it. Jessica, our lead trainer introduced herself to me.
She noticed me fingering the digits etched into the hard leather. “That’s your Juno’s ID number.”
“I want my Juno now,” I told her. “Tuesday is a long way off.”
She smiled. “I know you do. It will be here faster than you think.”
No, it won’t. This was day one of my three-day eternity after months of longing for my new guide dog. That soft fur under my hand couldn’t come soon enough.
Our first dinner of spaghetti with flavorless marinara left me hoping food would get better. Each of the giant round tables featured a spinning center on which the staff placed incidentals for that meal. This made it easier to pass items like salad dressing amongst blind and visually impaired people. Slick system.
Strangely, they had no welcome ceremony or opening remarks. Jessica announced that after dinner a volunteer would show us each around and make sure we knew where to find everything in our room. I’m an explorer, willing to wander around without fear, but not everyone is that way. The Lions Club volunteers loved meeting the clients. Lions founded the school over seventy-five years ago, so they have a keen interest. I enjoyed meeting my helper, and I got help finding a few things I hadn’t yet located, like the essential pick-up bags.
”Are we getting guide dogs or dinosaurs?” I quipped. This being my third guide dog, I was well familiar with cleaning up the loads. A year’s supply awaited my homecoming in Missouri. These doggy doo bags came on a gigantic roll and were as wide as a gallon zipper storage bag but longer. I came across the mega-roll earlier, but I didn’t know what it was.
“You’ll be glad they’re that big,” Jessica assured me.
Really? “If my Juno lays a pile the size of this bag, I’ll be calling the vet.” They wanted us to carry three at all times. I could barely fit them into a pocket without one slipping free.
We all had the same seats for every meal. My table mates included a blond-haired trainer, a couple of orientation and mobility interns and their cane travel clients, and Dawn, who I met online as we commented on Leader Dog’s posts. I was glad to have my new friend, but I really wish we had more dog students and less staff.
Ashley introduced herself and said to me and Dawn, “I trained both your Junos.”
“What breed did they give me,” Dawn asked.
“Can’t tell you that, but your Juno snores.” She told me, “and your Juno has an amazing work ethic.”
“I want my Juno now,” I announced, knowing I wouldn’t get him or her until Tuesday afternoon.
“You’ll have to wait.”
Ashley shared a few more tidbits. “Your Juno loves to watch everything and she wags a lot.”
Torture. Pure torture.
After the grand tour and such a long day, I might have fallen into bed if it weren’t so tall. I pulled back the covers, swung my left leg up, and rolled aboard. The deliciously comfy mattress welcomed me, but alas, the plastic protective barrier over the mattress made me waken in a sweat. So every night, I got about three hours of good sleep, got up, washed off, and clambered back in bed to finish off the night fitfully. Do so many clients wet their beds that they need to make us all miserable?
At breakfast the next day, we learned that we would go to the Downtown Center for our Juno training. Lions Club volunteers helped everyone get oriented to the new space, which had various kinds of seating. Booths in one corner. Rounded tables in the center. Bar stools in another corner. Restrooms, vintage airplane seats and waiting room couches near the exit.
Do I really have to wait a whole day and a half to get my dog? Can’t we cut to the chase and get through the harness 101 class? I want my Juno now!
Each trainer worked with three or four human-guide teams. One at a time they taught their charges the basics of walking with the dog, leash correction, and proper stance, called the “master position.” When my turn came, Ashley told me to take my harness by the handle.
“Are you going to wear it?”
“No. I’m going to hold the top piece in my hand.”
“Too bad. I thought maybe the harness was the latest fashion trend in Rochester.”
A number of aspects of the way they train struck me as odd, starting with that. I’ve trained two of my own guides and a dozen varying kinds of service dog, but I never imagined teaching people how to handle it this way. But it worked fine.
I couldn’t believe how she wanted me to walk to a corner and make a right turn. My previous dogs knew that if I said, right,” they should take the next possible turn unless stairs or doors were involved. I could tell by traffic sounds and other cues when I approached a cross street. Ashley told me to walk right up to the curb, praise my Juno (her, this time), then do this special footwork to back up past the grass and make the turn. Weird.
“Is this just for the first few days?”
“No,” she said, puzzlement evident in her tone.
Okay, so another thing that would change at home. My Juno will be able to get on the bed and couch, play with whatever toys she wants, and make sensible turns without going out of our way only to backtrack.
We returned to the residence for lunch then downtown to learn how to handle misbehavior and lefts. When not working with our trainer, they encouraged us to practice with our dogs on manners or other skills. I soon realized there would be a lot of down time with the one-on-one training style.
Since I would be giving mini Milk Bones, I decided I should bring food rewards for Ashley. The first time I praised my Juno Ashley for good work, I popped a piece of cookie in her mouth. She laughed.
Back on the sidewalks, I needed to blow my nose. I instructed my Juno Ashley, “Halt” and stopped.
“We don’t do that.”
“Then what’s the right word to ask my Juno to stop.”
“No command. Just slow your feet.”
Weird. “So we have ‘left,’ ‘right,’ ‘forward’ and ‘find,’ ‘follow,’ and that’s it?”
So my new car has wheels and steering, but no brakes or power windows. Great. My Juno is going to get a LOT of extra training on her. I hadn’t thought of it in years, but my friend Cait said her school- dog Paddle came with basics only. I met him with top shelf skills that she added onto him.
I bet my Juno will learn lots more new skills from me here at school than any others will from their humans.
The footwork-backtrack for a left turn made me think of a dance. All we needed was the music. My shoelace came undone, and this time, I slowed and stopped my feet then bent over to redo the lace.
“Your Juno would be licking your face right now.”
“I want to meet my Juno now.”
Just before arriving back at the training center, he said, “Your Juno has just seen a huge distraction. She adores kids.” She pulled toward them.
“God help me.” I corrected the behavior and rolled my eyes.
When Dog Issue Day finally arrived, I could think of nothing else but wanting my dog. People came from some office and talked about something. All I remember was “bla-bla-bla.”
I want my dog. I want my dog. I want my dog. I felt like the fictional Bob Wiley in What about Bob repeating “Baby step to three o’clock.” Have I mentioned I want my dog?
At one o’clock, we were to stay in our room and wait for the trainer’s knock. Ashley would first tell me my Juno’s name, then go get it from the kennel.
Door watch. I played soft music for my Juno and tried to stay calm. I wanted to be first, of course, but I waited, and waited, and waited…Baby step to get my dog. Baby step to get my dog.
Finally, at 2:25, the knock. I opened the door to Ashley.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“What’s your first guess?”
A wry chuckle. “Your dog’s name is Jemma.”
Clearly female. “What breed?”
“Don’t you want to be surprised?”
“Okay, surprise me.”
No matter what breed or color, I got a dog with a cool name.
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