You know how some days can just fly by, to the point where you can’t even figure out what you did? And then there are those other days, those 24-hour periods that are so thick with events that it seems several months have passed overnight. I’ve experienced this during a weekend of silence at a Trappist monastery, and on several short-term mission trips over the years, and today, at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA, during my first day of training.
It seems like ages ago that United Airlines lost my luggage, though it was just yesterday. And the classmates whom I sit in a circle chatting with on the back patio after dinner, laughing hysterically, feel like old friends. How could we already have numerous inside jokes? Sure, three of us had collided in the hallway the day we arrived, an awkward slew en route to our rooms, canes battling like hockey sticks. And some of us had already driven across the Golden Gate bridge together as our tour guide, Siri, explained it was 1.7 miles long, a fact Dale couldn’t stop repeating in various forms. But besides the basic family and career fact introductions, we didn’t know each other all that well. Yet after our one day of training together, it feels like we do.
And these labs resting peacefully at our feet in a lopsided circle of their own, feel like permanent fixtures in our lives, friendly shadows we’ve always had beside us. Though just this morning we trained with fake Juno dogs, which were no more than rolled up dog rugs, and Wheeler dogs, which were basically stuffed animals on skateboards, learning halt commands and right pivot turns inside meeting rooms and then around campus. But these faux fur rugs in harnesses couldn’t nearly prepare nor demonstrate the real thrill of being led by my guide dog for the first time.
We were given the name, gender, breed and color of our dogs shortly after lunch, following our morning training sessions with Juno and Wheeler. We sat in a conference room, giddy with anticipation, as one of the trainers read through the list of dogs. Dale would be receiving Helm, and we all murmured how neat it was that a helm is the steering mechanism of a ship. Dawn would be receiving Ava, and James would be receiving Ariana. And Joy . . .
. . . “You will be getting a female yellow lab named Roja.”
“Cool name!” I heard a couple classmates say, and then I zoned out, vaguely aware that Julie would be receiving Coraline and Jazelle a dog named Muesli.
Roja was the only name on my mind. Roja . . . I thought about how many times that name would roll off my tongue in the years to come, how that name would become as familiar to me as that of my children and husband. How that name would become an integral part of our family. How that name would weave me through the airport on the way home. How that name would lead me across streets safely and to places I can’t yet imagine. And I couldn’t wait to meet her.
We were told to go wait in our rooms for the trainer to bring each of our dogs to us. We were to sit in the leather armchair, kibble pouch and leash in hand. I sat in the chair, texting my daughters and husband the info. Since my aunt’s last name is Rojas, I texted her the name, and she reminded me that it means red or colored in Spanish. “Is she red?” she texted. “No! She’s a yellow lab!” I wrote back.
Then I just sat in the armchair, staring out the window, rubbing the leash strap between my fingers methodically, wondering what Roja would be like. Never having had a pet, much less a guide, before, my excitement was littered with anxieties.
Sure, I could walk, instruct, and praise Juno the rug and Wheeler the skateboard, but how would I do with a real, live dog? The last time I had tried to give a friend’s dog a treat, I flinched and yanked my hand away, dropping it. What if I couldn’t even reward Roja properly? What if she set off my allergies? What if she slobbered? What if she chewed my slippers? What if I gagged picking up her poop? What if this didn’t work out?
When the knock came at my door, Roja walked calmly into my life, matter-of-fact and very anti-climatic. She didn’t jump or lick me, which was exactly the type of dog I had requested. Her coat was silky soft, and my trainer said that she has a beautiful red coloring with darker red ears. She described her as calm yet affectionate, a relational dog who works hard to please. I couldn’t believe I had been given such a unique and beautiful creature.
The trainer left, saying she’d be back for our first walk in 10 minutes. I sat there, petting Roja, not knowing what to say to her or how to interact. When I reached to pet her head, she turned away from me. She didn’t put her chin on my lap, as I had hoped, or wag her tail wildly as I thought a happy dog should do. Again, I reached to pet her ears, and she moved away from me. “She doesn’t like me,” I thought, “I will be the one person in the world whose labrador retriever, the friendliest family dog on the planet, does not like”.
I picked up her leash and walked her to my dormitory-style room door and stuck my head into the hallway.
“What’s up Joy?” my trainer asked, “Do you need something?”
“Um, no. I just want to know what to do while I wait.” I replied.
“Just enjoy her company. We’ll go out on a walk in a few minutes.”
Ok. Enjoy her? I did have a bone she could play with. I handed it to her, and she chewed on it a minute and then dropped it. She laid down. I rubbed her belly, and she continued laying on the floor. She enjoys that, maybe?
When I told my trainers about her moving away from me when I attempted to pet her head and how she might not like me, they laughed. “You’re just getting to know each other! Would you want someone you just met touching your face? And isn’t this the exact dog you described you wanted?”
She was. Calm and non-mouthy.
And as soon as that harness was on, boy could she guide like a pro. I trusted her instantly, following her fluidly. Her pace was perfect, steady but moderately fast, accelerating into a light trot. I felt like I was gliding along, for the first time not having to think about my every step.
When we got back from our first walk with her “working,” I heeled her beside me and she laid down on the hallway floor, enjoying the cool hardwood against her furry body after trotting in the hot sun. One of the trainers showed me how to scratch near her ears and cheeks, and she rolled onto her back, thoroughly enjoying it, nuzzling against me. The trainers standing nearby laughed. “See, she likes you!”
We ran into a couple classmates, who told me how playful but wild their dogs were. One of them had already nicknamed his dog “Tyson” after it nipped at his ear. I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t have Tyson. A dog I just met nipping at my ear to play? No thank you.
When we got back to our room, and I clipped her leash to the tie-down near her dog rug, she placed her paw on my arm and licked me, just once, and no slobber.
Roja is already the perfect dog for me.