On a late September afternoon, I hopped off the plane and took a breath of that Georgia air for the first time in thirteen years. Feelings of anxiousness and excitement settled in on the plane ride down as I attempted to keep my mind occupied with tabloid distractions, but they only became more intense with each moment passing. I was ready to begin this new journey, one that I knew would be life-changing based on previous experience, and I was ready to create new memories that would be different, but very much the same, from my last visit. Thirteen years ago to almost the exact day, I made this very trek down to Georgia. Well, to be more specific, I made this trek down to a farm in Alpharetta known as Canine Assistants, and it was there that I received my beloved (and first) service dog, Fred. "This was it," I thought as I boarded the Canine Assistants bus that was waiting for me at the airport. This was the beginning of a new journey to get my next service dog.
Nostalgia has a way of overpowering the rest of our emotions, you know? It forces us to remember the past and the feelings it brought all while yearning to relive those memories as if history could actually repeat itself. As I began the first day of second timers' camp, I couldn't help but feel this way. The smells, the dogs, the classroom, and all the familiar faces brought me back to my training days with Fred. However, unlike the emptiness that nostalgia ever so inconveniently leaves, this kind of feeling I was having was about to leave me more content than ever.
Training camp at Canine Assistants is a lot like school, except there are dogs involved which is obviously a huge advantage in comparison to your average school day. As we all picked our seat for the week and met fellow "classmates", we were welcomed by one of the trainers and Jennifer Arnold, the founder of this remarkable organization, who started our first lecture by telling us to "celebrate the bond". She reminded us that as much service as these dogs were going to provide to us, they were still dogs, not some robotic, immediately act-on-command creatures that we sometimes mistakenly make them out to be. In other words, before we can ask for their services, we must first form a special bond between one another because, at the end of the day, dogs want to give and receive love foremost.
Jennifer's words really set the tone for the week ahead as we worked to form bonds with our dogs and, also, unintentionally form bonds with our peers. However, bond-based training doesn't always go according to plan, and I had to learn this the hard way.
The more I had worked with my original service dog, the more something didn't feel right. At the same time, the dog I had been working with was sick, so I couldn't gage whether or not we weren't clicking because we weren't meant to be or because the dog wasn't feeling so hot. After much consideration and deliberation between my family and the trainers, I ultimately decided this wasn't the perfect match for me. It broke my heart, but just like the tried and true saying by the iconic Marilyn Monroe goes: "Sometimes things fall apart so that better things can fall together." So, through sadness and teary eyes, I decided I would meet another dog, and that's when my wish finally came true. Literally.
A short time after I said my goodbyes to the first dog, a pretty, long black-haired lady came my way and immediately jumped into my lap upon meeting me. In a split second, that special bond everyone else in the room was feeling suddenly overcame me. Service dogs quickly become an extension of ourselves, and I felt that instant connection when we first met. As I took a breath of relief, I remember Jennifer looked at me and said, "I promise you're going to love her. Her name is Wish, and she's an absolute sweetheart."
To say my "wish" came true during my time spent at Canine Assistants is quite the understatement. Spending seven days training and learning just how intelligent these dogs can be was truly an incredible experience, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with this organization. Canine Assistants changes people's lives one canine at a time, and the amount of happiness it brings to these people is something that I hope every deserving candidate can experience in their lifetime.
As we went to get on the bus back to the hotel for the very last time, Wish refused to leave. She plopped herself at the bottom of the stairs as if she knew she wouldn't be coming back. After some convincing and tugging at her leash, she reluctantly came on and went straight to my lap. I am eternally grateful to all of Wish's trainers and foster family for raising this girl into a well-mannered service dog and preparing her to go to her forever home with me, but I think if I could, I would have plopped myself at the bottom of the stairs, too.
Wish and I are now settling in to our new life together, but a part of us will always be on that ranch in Alpharetta, Georgia training, bonding, and spending our free time with the wonderful recipients and their families. We may have left our imprints in the Georgia clay, but the memory of some of the best days of our lives will be imprinted in our hearts forever.
For a daily, more detailed account of Alyssa's experience at Canine Assistants, visit her WordPress blog here.