July third was a very special day or me and a very important furry friend. I wasn't able to write about it as I was in the process of clearing my house out, so I thought today would be a good day as any to celebrate my nine year anniversary with Miss Jetta.
It was on July third 2002 that my life changed forever. Fresh out of high school, I was looking forward to my upcoming move away from home to attend university. I wasn't worried or nervous really. I knew that I wouldn't be alone: I just didn't know who my companion/partner/friend would be. I don't remember what time I met Jetta exactly, it must have been between two and threeish, but my fate was sealed when a blur of black fur came bounding into my shared room.
The Leader Dogs for the Blind campus has since changed, with clients having their own private rooms, complete with television sets and exits that lead directly to the dogs' park areas, but back in 2002 I shared the double room with a very special person whom I still consider to be a fantastic person and friend. In fact, it's because of L^2 that I even started blogging. (You can find a link to her blog under "Very Impawtant Places"). She was the one who patiently walked me through a lot of Blogger's functions and taught me what it is like to write quality posts. It was funny because when I first met L^2, she had told e she wanted a black lab and I had said I wanted a yellow. We both had experience with those colours of dogs and I believe L^2 felt she would be able to see the darker coloured dog better. We spent the first couple of days at LDB talking about our lives thus far and what we thought of guide dog school in general. I was impressed with L^2 who was in the middle of going to university and was a part of the school's marching band. We bonded over loving the colour purple, dogs and Disney movies. I'm still not sure why to this day, but everyone thought we were twins or would get us confused-even the completely sighted trainers would mix us up. At one point we had a Lions group come through to see where their donations went to and people made comments on how nice it was that two sisters/twins were going through the program together. We had a lot of fun and I'm glad L^2 and I were able to experience getting our first guides together.
I don't remember who got their dog first-I think it was L^2 because I distinctly remember sitting on my bed while she was on the floor being covered in kisses by a little Liver Nosed Yellow Lab named Willow. It wasn't until my black fireball came charging into the room that I laughed at the irony. It turns out that Jetta was the only Black Lab in a class of 22 students and I got her. She was a little wild thing, dashing about on the end of the leash as her trainer Jeorge tried to tell me about her. I recall people telling me about meeting their first dogs and how touching it was. There was nothing touching about mine and Jetta's first interaction. She was so excited to be out in this strange place that she went skittering right past me and on her way back she completely ignored me to sniff about excitedly. L^2 and Willow's meeting went much more like what I had heard a guide dog handler and their dog's first meeting is supposed to be like. They sat on the floor getting to know each other and even though Willow became interested in either me, Jetta or noises out in the hall, she always returned to L^2's side. Jetta on the other hand, was having nothing to do with me.
After Jeorge left, I tried to sit on the floor with her so that we could bond. Jetta was having none of that. She went to the very end of her three foot leash and stood as still as a statue and stared intently at the closed door. When I petted her or talked to her, she did not respond. She planted all four paws, dropped her tail so that it pointed straight to the floor and would not turn her face away from the door. I sat beside her, talking to and petting her and yet she still refused to give me any attention. For at least an hour and a half we stayed in this position, Jetta stubbornly ignoring me and me stubbornly paying attention to her. I was determined to make this work and if it meant sitting on a cold floor for over an hour without response from my new set of eyes then I was going to do it.
I should have known then that our first meeting was an indication of the rest of our working relationship. We had a rocky start, with Jetta being hard headed and refusing to do anything I asked her to and me being just as strong willed convinced that we could make it work. I knew she did great work and she kept me safe, she just thought that when I said "right" she could go "left." At one point during training Jeorge and I talked about switching her because she was walking way too slow for me. We had just gotten back from a working session and I can remember going back into the down town training centre and crying my eyes out. Even though she had done back flips on the end of her leash the first morning we lined up for "park time" and had peed on the floor, we were making progress and I loved her enthusiasm for life. I also loved that little stubborn streak she had and I loved her little sassy trot she had going on when she knew she was doing a good job guiding. Here was a small 53 pound dog with 'tude big enough for a Great Dane. She was small, she was cute and she was feisty. I wanted to keep her.
That afternoon we went out to train on a bike trail to give the dogs some wildlife distraction, bike traffic and jogger work. It also gave the dog and handler the opportunity to just walk without having to worry about curb work or vehicles threatening to run you over. It was here that Jetta and I really clicked. She was practically running down the trail, expertly guiding me around people, other working teams and ignoring squirrels and birds. She was walking almost too fast and even though my shins hurt from trying to keep up, I did not want to slow her down. I wanted her to know that fast was good. It was after this trip that I knew the speed thing was fixed and that she would pick up the pace once she was confident and comfortable. It was from that point on that we never slowed down.
Upon getting home we struggled of course because we are both stubborn. I think it took us a year and a half before we actually bonded, whereas it usually takes six months to a year. I think part of it was me getting comfortable in my own skin. I was a nineteen year old kid who had just moved nine hours away from home to go to university. I grew up a lot that year and I think Jetta helped me along the way. That first year flew by and so did the next five.
As I said before, we never slowed down or looked back. Jetta travelled the world with me, attending training camps and swimming competitions in Denmark, Belgium, Greece and many other places. She successfully guided me at a weekend long Athletes' conference that I attended on my own. She accompanied me to swim practices sometimes twice a day, six days a week. Every once in a while when it was just my coach and I in the pool, we would take Jetta off of "tie down" and she would run up and down the pool side, waiting for me at each end. If I swam four kilometres, she ran four kilometres and then some. She never once tried to get in. I had a boy in Greece mutter something to me in Greek and try to take Jetta's leash right out of my hand. I've never been so close to fighting someone, but once I barked sharply at him in English swear words he backed off. Jetta's been whale watching; stuffed on to a peddle boat between Tenie and I; camping in the Rocky Mountains; snuck around in ancient Greek ruins where we weren't supposed to be; dressed up as my evil minion for Halloween when I was a vampire; and so much more.
In 2008, at the ripe old age of seven and a half, she told me in her own little way that she had enough. She was tired of being flown all over the place and the pool was hot and stuffy. She would walk faster to get home than when we left, which was the opposite to what she used to do. Once, on the way to swim practice, she made like she had to "park" and when I let her go, she just sat down. She also started crossing at angles, not dangerously so that I would wander out into traffic, but instead of cleanly stepping up on to the opposite curb she would take me into the grass and meander her way over to the sidewalk. I knew in about April that she was not interested anymore. I begged her to give me until August since that was when I would be heading off to Japan and then China for my third and final Paralympic Games. She held on for me. I tried not to work her if I didn't have to and the three week training camp we had in Victoria British Columbia, she spent most of her time hanging out with the team's massage therapist going for walks and playing in the nearby lake.
In August of 2008 my parents came to get a bunch of my stuff since I had just graduated from university and would be no longer living in the house that I shared with Carmen, Tenie, Jetta and our two cats. They also took Jetta with them. I think I may have gotten a bit misty, but I did not grieve our relationship. It had been everything and more than I could have asked for and I knew that Jetta had made her decision. I asked my parents about how she was settling in all of the time and although I missed the independence she brought me and her little trot, I knew she was much happier being retired. I had thought of keeping her, but knew that I couldn't give her the attention she was used to getting and that even though she retired herself, seeing me going out with another dog may be too hard for her. I knew it would have been hard for me.
Nine years later, she is still my little firecracker, doing what she wants when she wants. At the dog park she still outruns most dogs and goes off to sniff things by herself. She swims now, which she did not do when she was working and is quite happy to lie on her chair in front of my parents' front windows. If anyone sits in her chair, she will stare them down until they get off. She still does not like to be snuggled and would only hop up on my bed while I was home visiting if she thought I was asleep; very typical Jetta. The six years she worked for me went by so fast and sometimes I miss her trotting along, leading the way, but she's happy and I have been given the opportunity to work with another great dog.
So, here's to you Jetta the Jitter Bug: may you always be happy and do things your own way. :)