Happy birthday to you. You are eleven today and even though I am sure you are unaware of the significance of this day, I celebrate for you. People speak of children being born as blessings, and I am sure they are, but your birth, my beautiful, little Black Lab, was one of the biggest blessings thus far in my life. So many factors played a role in whether or not you would become a fully certified guide dog and then another host of them determined our partnering. Somehow, we were matched and my life has been changed forever because of it. Even though you are far away this day, your birthday, I think of you fondly and miss you dearly. I know you are enjoying a happy retirement and that puts me at ease, but I wish I could be with you for your eleventh birthday. It is quite a mile stone you know?
So, have a very, happy birthday and know, that even if you appear to some as "just a dog," you are more than that to me.
Eleven Amazing Things Jetta Did While Working
1. On multiple occasions, people would move my bag in the changing room at the pool. The first time it happened, I completely panicked. The changing room was empty and I had no idea where my bag had gotten to. Preparing to search each locker and bench, I picked up Jetta's harness handle and even before the "forward" command was out of my mouth, she had picked a direction and stopped directly in front of my bag. Can this dog read minds?
2. Jetta's innovative spirit did not always lend itself well to a well behaved dog. Tenie had bought a chocolate bar and a few other treats for herself during an essay writing marathon. She pushed them up against the back of her dresser as close to the mirror as possible. She knew Jetta stole things from time to time and being the good friend and roommate she was, she was aware of where she put things. Later that evening she came into my room to use my printer and within five minutes we heard a weird scrambling sound. We both charged from the room and burst into Tenie's only to find Jetta crouched with all four paws on Tenie's dresser, candy in mouth. All we can figure is that she got on the bed, stepped on to the bed side table and then on to the dresser from there.
3. All of the dogs from Leader Dogs for the Blind, and many other schools, are taught to "traffic check." This is a concept that I've talked about before. Traffic checking means the dog will stop you if a moving vehicle crosses your path of travel; the car endangering you both. Jetta had many fantastic "traffic checks" in her time, but I clearly remember the first one. We were at LDB still in training and her instructor zoomed in front of us in a van. Jetta slammed on the brakes and I was amazed that such a small creature had so much force. I was caught completely off guard by the traffic check as I had only taken about five steps after tying one of my shoes. I dropped to my knees beside her and threw my arms around her. It was such an amazing feeling knowing that a dog cared enough about my safety, and hers too of course, to stop us from walking into danger.
4. Once, and I think I have told this story before, Jetta and I were in the airport bathroom. It was one of her last trips as my working dog and I remember trying to commit as much of it to memory as I could. We came out of the bathroom and my guide, who had said he would be waiting, had left. Slightly irritated, I moved away from the bathroom. I thought that perhaps he couldn't see that I had come out. We walked a bit and then Jetta stopped, so I stopped too. I had learned early on that nine times out of ten, Jetta was right and the times when she was wrong, she was only half wrong. My guide returned a few minutes later and said, "oh, you made it back." I was confused and he told me that Jetta was standing right next to my suitcase. Again, does this dog read minds or perhaps luggage tags?
5. There was one time, while I was on the university campus, when I think Jetta came close to saving my life. We were walking out of a parking lot we traversed on a regular basis and a semi-truck was backing up. I could hear the beeping that indicates that the truck was reversing, but I had no idea where to go. We were surrounded by pavement and other cars and there wasn't another living human being around to ask which direction was safe. Jetta slowed her pace to a few steps at a time, eyeing up the truck. Suddenly, she stepped sideways into the lawn and planted her paws. It was only then that the driver noticed me and a yelling match ensued. I've actually written about that incident and it's buried somewhere in this blog's archives. It was another time in my life when panic completely took over and Jetta stepped in and guided me to safety.
6. Jetta always had amazing curb work. The more I get to know other guide dogs, the more I realise she was a bit of an anomaly. If she jumped a curb ever in her working career, I can't remember it, which says to me she didn't. She also always crossed straight. I never had Jetta try to diagonally cross once. It was an every day thing, but it was an important every day thing and the simplicity of it is what makes it so amazing.
7. Jetta's "follow" cue was impeccable. Not all dogs have a good "follow" cue as it is difficult to teach. Roscoe is a great follower, but Glacier? Not so much. I could tell Jetta to "follow," point to the person I wanted her to follow and she would do it. It didn't matter where we were-a busy mall, crowded sports playing field, cramped pool deck-I always knew I would get to where I needed to be. Following can be a scary thing to do when you can't hear the person you are following due to a noisy crowd, but with Jetta, I never worried she would lead me astray.
8. There wasn't anything Jetta wouldn't try once. Sometimes she wouldn't do it a second time, but she would never shy away from something that was new. We were in Vancouver Canada for a swimming training camp and on one of our off days we went touring. Part of our tour was one of the largest suspension bridges spanning a small canyon. Jetta didn't even hesitate when I asked her to "forward" on to the swaying bridge. She could see through the slats of the bridge, but she still went. Some dogs don't even like open backed stairs, never mind a swinging, suspension bridge.
9. Jetta's brain was always working. Whenever her winter boots came out for the first time, she would sneak away on silent paws and hide in one of my roommates' rooms. When I would find her and finally get the boots on, she would let me know that she was not happy. She would walk me inches from a wall, just getting me close enough to be nervous, but never brushing it. She only ever did this the first couple of times she had to wear her boots, each winter. It's a good thing she doesn't have thumbs. She would probably take over the world and all winter booties would be thrown into a gigantic bonfire, or else she would rally all guide dogs everywhere to walk their unsuspecting handlers dangerously close to objects.
10. Jetta became a pro at guiding through wintery conditions. Each year she got better until it got to the point where even if there was a thin layer of ice on the sidewalk up ahead she would slow down and walk gingerly; indicating to me that it could be unsafe. There was one year that was particularly bad for snow and many times we attempted to go to class or swim practice while wading in snow up to my knees. Jetta was so short that she would have to hop over the snow to keep us moving, but it never stopped her. After one swim practice we came out to an extra foot of snow covering the already mid-shin deep snow that had not been removed yet. I was worried I wouldn't be able to get home because I had no idea where the sidewalk was anymore. With no other choice, I asked Jetta to "forward" and followed her home. She kept me on the sidewalk, despite the two and a half feet of snow we were wandering through, and stopped perfectly at every snow buried curb. That was a day when she truly amazed me. There wasn't a defined path and somehow she kept us right where we needed to be.
11. I think the most amazing thing Jetta did was that she worked for me for six years, never complaining even though I flew her around the world and asked her to do strange things. When she was getting close to retirement, I asked her to give me five more months and she did. I don't know if she actually understood my words, but I think she worked as long as I needed her to. Jetta worked more in six years than most working dogs do in nine. We traveled to many places together and she made me feel secure in my independence. One of my most memorable trips with her was to White Horse for an athletes' conference. I attended the weekend without a sighted human guide and at first was incredibly nervous. As the weekend progressed though, I became much more comfortable and realised what a great guide Jetta really was. She truly made a huge impact on my life and I am grateful for the six years she gave me.
So, here's to you Jetta: happy eleventh birthday. :)