I still remember the weeks leading up to the start of our journey together as if it was yesterday — even though it was almost five years ago.
Those particular weeks were part of the most challenging, chaotic, yet happiest moments of my life.
I still revisit them on a regular basis, because the joy I felt then is akin to anything else I experienced. And believe me, my life is overflowing with beautiful moments.
But nothing can compare with the season of life that I received my Denise.
In a previous post, I provided an overview of my decision to apply for a service dog and described the events leading up to the moment I received the email that shifted the course of my life. (add link)
This post is full of memories from exhausting days, sweet evenings, and sleepless nights — but in the end everything came together in such a beautiful and unpredictable way.
At the end of October 2015, just over a year after my fall in a train station’s washroom, I decided to accept an invitation to attend a three week in-person class with a service dog — a service dog that could potentially become my service dog.
There were so many different emotions rushing through my body when I replied to that email.
But there was one thing I was certain about.
I knew that I was headed where I needed to be, at exactly the right time.
And everything else would fall into place.
I had a month to prepare everything before I would leave to attend class. And for an anxious individual, such as myself, I did not think it was not nearly enough time to complete everything I had on my to-do lists.
I spent days in the library to finish all of my assignments prior to leaving since my return was scheduled for after the fall term was completed. All of my professors were very accommodating though, and went above and beyond to make sure my early departure would not interfere with my success in their course.
Most of my final exams were shifted into take-home essays. I still remember completing one essay mere hours before my train. Other deadlines were fixed for my return in January.
My study breaks were dedicated to learning everything I could on having a dog — or rather a service dog. I was raised alongside our family dog, but this time would be different.
I read every blog post that I could find describing this transition. And I posed a million questions to my friend who I owed this opportunity to (backstory is here).
This service dog would ultimately become my dog, and I needed to prepare myself for assuming such a responsibility.
A few days before my departure I ventured into a few stores to buy all the necessities for my service dog — basic grooming tools, bed, bowls, food, toys.
There was a chance I would come back home without a service dog, but I still wanted to be organized just in case (more on that later).
The day finally came. I was scheduled to leave in the afternoon and I departed for the train station from campus — this is how much I was dedicated to my studies.
And so began my journey to becoming Denise’s handler.
For the next three days I would be spending all my time in Oakville, right on the site where Denise was previously trained. And from the moment I entered that building, I felt an emotion that I was previously akin to.
I still struggle to accurately describe it.
I had my own bedroom and bathroom — where I would spend all my downtime. I ate meals with my classmates and everyone else who attended other classes simultaneously.
Everything was held in the same building — class included.
It was all very simple, and accessible, and conceived (as best as possible) for my needs.
We were located downtown, so we could explore the city after classes.
The holiday season was almost — the city looked so festive and was glimmering with lights.
The first few days consisted of familiarizing ourselves with caring and walking (or in my case, driving) alongside a dog. We practiced grooming, feeding, and a few simple commands. These days were honestly the easiest ones for me.
Surprisingly, we did not actually meet our service dog until a few days later — when our trainers believed we were ready to train with our actual dog.
I was introduced to Denise on the third or fourth day of class. I remember waiting in my room and talking to my parents on the phone to alleviate my anxiety.
Then, suddenly, I heard a knock on the door and a little head peering in the room once the door was opened.
My trainer guided this bundle of white fur close to me and handed me the leash. I admit that I was not certain what to do next, but I was advised to embrace the first few moments with my new service dog before returning to our class.
And so I did just that.
The next few days were quite full with various training sessions.
We did a few more sessions on basic training commands — busy busy, down, go, sit…
And then came the more complex commands in the following days — back, behind, nudge, open, push, off, stay, tug…
We also did some work in public spaces — grocery stores, malls, parks…
I was extremely exhausted after a day’s worth of classes and training sessions. My evenings honestly consisted of movies and snacks in bed — which, if you know me, is very unlike me.
Denise and I had some challenging days, and it was during these moments I began to question myself as being fit for being a service dog handler.
I am incredibly hard on myself in any instance, but especially when I am surrounded by others who are one step ahead of me.
I was terrified that Denise and I would not graduate together, because I had created this fear in my head even prior to meeting Denise.
My trainers did their best to reassure me, but still.
Communication was a struggle.
Denise was not yet used to my speech impediment, which ultimately created some confusion.
My trainers were, however, mindful of my reality and pushed me in the best of ways in moments of discouragement.
Denise would show me, in her own ways, that she was not giving up on me.
She would fall asleep on my lap during our scheduled one-on-one sessions.
Yes — you read that right. A full grown standard poodle laying on my lap.
It was in beautiful moments, such as these ones, that I found the determination to journey through the challenging times.
Slowly but surely Denise and I started to bond as a team and this ultimately strengthened our communication and commitment to one another.
We both began to understand our individual quirks, and with that came the patience we needed to persevere through the final stretch of our time in training.
Denise and I had our challenging moments, but they were all disintegrated by our blossoming partnership.
Struggles during training sessions were met with powerful triumphs and the best bonding periods.
For instance, Denise and I learned to play fetch together without much difficulty because she would place the ball on my leg so that I could throw it.
Little moments like that meant everything to me — and still do.
And in the end, we did succeed.
A celebration was held for graduating teams on the last evening of training. I did not anticipate the flood of emotion that overcame me — but then again, I did not believe Denise and I would be part of this graduating class.
But we were.
And to this day, it is one of my favourite achievements.
Did you know? I am an Accessibility and Disability Consultant
Through Chloée Catherine Consulting, I help business owners, corporations, private entities, and the travel industry foster inclusive spaces within their own environments. Visit thinkbeyondaccess.com for more information.