DENVER - Magic is happening this week – did you know that?
At all five campuses of Canine Companions Team Training began last week. This is when the dogs are matched to their human partners, when the trainers walk over to each person in the Team Training class and hand over a leash. “Here is YOUR dog,” they say and the room erupts in cheers, smiles and tears. (Marianne reminds me that it would make her and John inordinately happy if some distant day I am the dog a trainer hands over. Hmmm. Kibble for thought.) Those teams will graduate this Friday, Valentine's Day. How appropriate!
I realized that I am incredibly blessed because I know many graduate dogs and their humans and I’ve heard some wonderful stories about Team Training that should be shared with my Dear Readers. So, here are thoughts about Team Training from three graduates, Randi, Amber and Joy. Randi is matched with her second (successor) Service Dog, Hughy. Amber is a detective with the Aurora Police Department and is matched with Facility Dog Pella. Joy is the Director and Licensed Professional Counselor for the Juvenile Diversion Counseling Program in the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and is matched with JT.
And…um…you might need a tissue as you read this. You’ve been warned.
JEB: When did you got to Team Training (TT)?
AMBER: I am so honored to be talking about Pella and this experience. We went to TT in May of 2012.
RANDI: November of 2012.
JOY: October 2013
JEB: Tell me about your partner and what s/he does.
AMBER: I was matched with a sweet, gentle and beautiful golden retriever/lab mix - Pella. Pella is the ambassador for the Paws Assisting the Legal System (PALS) program at the Aurora Police Department. PALS is a hybrid program of Courthouse Dogs - who employs lots of CCI and ADI dogs. Pella is the first of her kind in the State of Colorado. Her job is to help people, especially kids and adults with disabilities, navigate the legal process in a softer way. She helps make things calmer, less intimidating, stressful and traumatizing. She also makes talking to official people in the legal process like police and lawyers a little easier. She does this by participating in forensic interviews and criminal court proceedings.
RANDI: I am matched with Donahue II, aka Hughy, Successor Service Dog. He picks up stuff that I drop, opens doors, opens the fridge, pushes doors and drawers shut, gives money and credit cards to store clerks, eats tennis balls, bras, money, and whatever else strikes his fancy. Raids dishtowels from the counter. He’s my Marine when on duty and a frat boy when he’s off duty!
JOY: JT is a Facility Dog. We work at the DA’s office Juvenile Diversion Counseling Program, providing family counseling to at-risk youth.
JEB: Who was in your Team Training class? I know it’s usually a combination of types of teams.
AMBER: Our class had all of the different types of teams. We had one Skilled Companion (SC), four Facility Dogs (FD) and three Service Dog (SD) teams. Of those, there were three successor teams – one Service Dog and two Facility Dogs. It was the coolest experience. Especially since we got to see firsthand the different types of teams and the perspective of those coming through as a successor team. The weirdest thing was one of the other FD teams actually went to work at a Police Department in California as a sort of good will ambassador for the department. We didn’t expect that for sure.
RANDI: There were nine of us, four Service Dog teams, two Skilled Companion teams and three Facility Dog teams.
JOY: Seven teams: two FD, one SC, four SD.
JEB: Did you enjoy staying on campus in the dorms?
AMBER: The campus and the dorms are amazing. The staff there is so supportive and helpful and the whole environment is so welcoming and functional. I actually can say I slept better there every night than I did at home. Fell asleep - slept through the night and woke up without a struggle to get out of bed. It could have been that I was getting up every day knowing I was getting a partner and would be working with him or her every single day!
RANDI: I did! CCI campus is one of my favorite places on earth. The atmosphere is so fun and positive, it is all accessible, so it‘s very easy for me to be there. All the wonderful volunteers, the trainers, the staff, and of course, all the dogs! So much love and mutual respect, I wish the whole world could be like the CCI campus.
JOY: We LOVED staying on campus!! It was like living in a perfect world of amazing people and amazing dogs 24/7. I never wanted to leave!
JEB: Did you have any expectations going into Team Training? Did it meet your expectations?
AMBER: I don’t know that I had any expectations of Team Training. I didn’t have a frame of reference at all, since I didn’t have to go to campus for my application interviews. I knew it would be nothing like any kind of training I had ever been to before, but I had no idea what to expect. It was amazing though, that is for sure.
RANDI: Team Training was tough since I was there because I’d lost my first dog Lucky. It was so very bittersweet, I would have rather had Lucky than be at Team Training, but at the same time I was so grateful that I had the opportunity to be matched with another amazing dog. Many emotions, that is for sure! I think because I knew the process I knew what to expect, but as usual, all my expectations were blown out of the water. Each Team Training is its own unique experience, and expectations simply go out the window.
JOY: I expected to learn a ton and meet fantastic people, both of which came true. I expected to have my life changed forever! Also very true :-) TT surpassed my expectations. I knew I would have a wonderful time but I didn’t expect to become so close to my graduating class. We became instant family and are still very close. We will probably be in touch for life.
JEB: What surprised you the most about the experience?
AMBER: I think what really surprised me the most was how accurate the matches were. I should have known that since it was an environment where the people actually ‘listen’ to the dogs that it would be incredibly accurate but I guess I’m one of those born-to-doubt kind of people. Speculative of everything - it’s part of what is a good asset in my job.
RANDI: I was surprised how tough it was for me, so emotional, I felt almost disloyal to Lucky being there for another dog, but at the same time I knew it was the best way to honor him, to get another partner who could take up the baton for Lucky. It’s very hard to explain, maybe like losing your battle buddy, one who fought with you on the front lines, and then meeting a new partner, getting to know and trust each other. The bond that is forged with a service dog is like none other, incredibly strong, so it can be tough to move on.
JOY: What surprised me most was the amount of LOVE that goes in to this organization. CCI runs on love. I’ve encountered a lot of non-profits in my life, but never have I seen an organization that is comprised of so many incredibly giving volunteers! And the staff is incredible, too. There is so much love poured in to this experience, from the day a dog is born until s/he graduates…..the graduate can feel all of that love. We feel it deeply and want to carry on, spreading that love in to the world!
JEB: Tell me about Match Day, the day you found out which dog would be your partner.
AMBER: Match day was such a blur. It is a whirlwind of emotions - excited, happy, uncertain, nervous, and disbelieving that I was even there and it was happening. Since I don’t function in an emotional place on a day to day basis it threw me off, I guess you could say. I remembered working with my beautiful girl, Pella, during the days before but only vaguely because I worked with so many dogs. I really went into the experience with the first thought being that I would take every single one of them home with me and be fine with it - so I didn’t have a favorite. I had no particular wish list of color or sex or fur length or anything. I knew that one way or the other I would have to change the balance of my wardrobe to either more black pants and less tan pants or vice versa!
RANDI: We met all of the dogs over the first couple days of Team Training. I will always remember when Hughy and I first met: he came at me like a freight train of love, big paws on my wheelchair footplate, exuberantly licking my face. He was so big we were eye to eye, and he almost licked the earring right out of my ear. When I learned we were a match, I chuckled, because I know Lucky had a paw in picking Hughy, and Lucky picked this boy who overfills the space he occupies!
JOY: Phew. I can’t talk about Match Day without crying my eyes out. I’m crying as I type this response, even! The best way to describe match day is one word: magical. I was very nervous walking in to the classroom that day, knowing I was about to meet my partner. I knew in my heart who my partner would be, but I was still nervous. I hoped my partner would be happy with me and that I would be a good handler for him! As I watched my classmates be matched up with their dogs I cried the whole time. It was perfect. It was magical. Each dog was meant to be with each team. I couldn’t have dreamed of better matches for everyone. Then when my partner was brought to me it was instant love. I couldn’t believe I was so lucky to be the one to love JT for the rest of his life.
JEB: Ah, jeez, now I’m all choked up. What is it like working with the CCI trainers?
AMBER: CCI trainers are so much fun and good at their jobs. They each have different personalities and as I watched them over the two weeks I could see some of their traits in each of the dogs they trained. It was easy for me to see who trained each dog based on some of their little ‘tells’. They are supportive and they want so much for everyone to succeed and it shows, or it did to me anyway. They are also pretty different from one another in personality and it’s so cool to know that each one of them are equally effective at working with so many different dogs and people everyday. Amazing group of people!
RANDI: They are unparalleled in their skill with both dogs and people, and their hearts are bigger than any other. It was an honor and privilege to spend two weeks with them; they are a shining example of what is the best in us.
JOY: So much fun!!! The trainers want us to succeed. They are so patient, hard-working, and dedicated. We became close with our trainers and miss them every day. They are extremely talented and make US look good by the end of two weeks. Now that’s talent! :-)
JEB: Other than being matched with your fabulous dog, what was the best part of Team Training?
AMBER: The best part of the experience was seeing the transformation of each of the teams over the two weeks. The transformation from individual to team and group is fantastic to witness and experience. I don’t even really know how to explain that more without talking about specific teams individually which I don’t want to do because of their privacy but - it was one of the best things I have ever had the privilege to be a part of.
RANDI: Best part: being around such amazing people and surrounded by lots of animals for two weeks!
JOY: The best part of TT was hanging out with my class in the play yard with all of the other graduate dogs (during our breaks). The California sunshine, the amazing people, and the beautiful dogs. How does it get any better? I wish we could do that every day.
JEB: What was the hardest part?
AMBER: The hardest part for me was knowing there were some of the dogs who didn’t get to graduate that time. They weren’t matched with our group - which is a normal part of TT. It just made me sad and the staff was very cryptic about what the future held for those dogs. I know that they were to be cherished by someone somewhere but it was sad to be with them in the beginning and then we didn’t get to see them ever again and it made me sad to know they were ‘alone’ each night without their partner yet.
RANDI: The hardest part for me was that the experience was so very bittersweet because I missed Lucky so dearly.
JOY: The hardest part of TT was the first few days. Getting used to the rhythm of commands was difficult! We all felt awkward and clunky. It was also VERY tough saying goodbye. Our class jokes that we all just want to live together forever :-)
JEB: Did you get to meet your dog’s puppy raiser(s)? How was that experience?
AMBER: I did get to meet my puppy raiser. We talk regularly still and it is one of the relationships I cherish in my life. It’s hard to explain but it’s like the puppy raiser is my ‘partner’ or CCI spouse - like having a work wife or husband for those who are familiar with that term. That’s really the only way I can describe it. When exciting things, scary things, new things or even things I know that we share the knowledge of because of our unique relationship through Pella - the puppy raiser is the first person I want to share it with and I know she will just totally understand from the closest perspective to mine, why it is so exciting, scary or cool. Plenty of other people understand it, but the puppy raiser feels it.
RANDI: I haven't met them. They live in New York and weren’t able to come to Oceanside for Graduation, so it was a bit of a bummer not having them at the special graduates and puppy raisers’ breakfast on graduation day. We have Facebooked and sent emails, and exchanged pictures. Hughy’s puppy raisers are getting married this year, so Hughy and I are hoping we can crash the wedding. They love him so much, I know they would love to have him at their wedding.
JOY: Yes!! Our puppy raiser came to graduation. I cried a lot (I cry a lot in general…hee hee). They gave me a puppy book with adorable pictures from when JT was a baby. I couldn’t stop crying! They are the sweetest family and we keep in close touch now. I send them pictures all the time and know that JT misses them dearly.
JEB: What was the Graduation ceremony like?
AMBER: Graduation is another blur. It was cool and overwhelming and just so exciting. I was impressed with the video that CCI put together of our interviews and experiences. It was just so exciting to be actually walking into to this amazing new family and to be ‘official’ with Pella. :-) Because up to that point the trainers and staff make sure to remind you that it could change at almost any point up to graduation. So it was a bit of a relief, too. LOL.
RANDI: I will never be able to fully describe the feeling of being handed a leash attached to an angel, and knowing how many people put their hearts and souls into raising and training this dog, just for me. My heart was so full of gratitude, and amazement that I was so incredibly blessed to be given such a gift.
JOY: Graduation was unreal! I felt like the luckiest girl in the world being chosen for this experience and to be representing facility dogs at the event. I felt a huge responsibility to carry on with my work and do the best possible job I can do with JT, because there are a lot of people who dedicate their lives to this organization. I felt the honor tremendously at graduation.
JEB: Is there anything you’d like to tell my readers?
AMBER: Team Training is a life changing experience - much like getting married or having a child. It changes you. It makes you better and changes your focus in life. It makes things better in some ways and more challenging in other ways. However there is no way that I would change it or trade it for any other experience. Anyone who is considering Team Training or waiting to go or even doubting it is something that would work for them or is ‘right’ for them - just be open to the experience and what it will bring to you and it will bring you just what you need - trust in their expertise (and by ‘them’ I mean the dogs!)
JOY: If ever there was a place where true love can be seen, felt, and heard….it’s at Team Training. My heart is forever full because of that experience. It changed my life.
RANDI: Because of CCI, Lucky and Hughy, my life is blessed beyond measure, and I would not trade a minute out of my wheelchair if it meant I could not have had Lucky or Hughy. I am truly one of the lucky ones!
JEB: (Sniffling) WOW. Thank you all for talking to me and sharing your experiences. I hope this gives my readers an even better idea of how special the Canine Companions organization is.
Chow for now!
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