One of Our Own Goes Through Guide Dog Team Training – Week 4

Suzy Wilburn offers a first-hand glimpse into guide dog team training as she learns to work with her first guide dog, Carson.

Day 22:

We are nearing the end of our training. Everyone is a bit homesick and ready to see their loved ones. Most of what we do this week is finishing work. We worked at Sarasota Square Mall today and we did awesome! Nothing can stand in our way now, or at least if it does, Carson will know to “forward around” and I’ll know to trust him.

I think all of the students are starting to get packed up and prepare for Graduation. There is a bit of excitement in the air, we can make it to the end. I had no idea at the beginning of this just how exhausting it would be. I think I’m more mentally exhausted than anything. Everything seems to be a blur now. Night walks, no problem, it’s hard to remember how unsure I was about myself and Carson back then.

Day 23:

We head back to the Discovery Center this morning for our final time. A lot of the comments shared are about how this is the last time we’ll go to Sarasota together and the last time we’ll see the Discovery Center staff. It all starts to become somewhat bittersweet.

I’m not talking much about our routes anymore because we have this down. We do encounter one small distraction in Sarasota today. Someone walking smack in the middle of the road with a toy dog of some sort thinks it would be a good idea to let our two dogs meet nose to nose, and actually asks if it’s okay. Really? Carson takes a quick look and goes about his business. I don’t even think about it: he’s just a part of me now. Tomorrow morning we’ll be doing early morning walks before the sun comes up.

Day 24:

Morning walks start at 5:45 a.m. We are staying on campus and travelling the Nature Walk and Freedom Trail. Carson does just perfectly. He even walked through a puddle without hesitation. He has been known to avoid this type of obstacle, mostly because he doesn’t like to get his feet wet. It’s all good though.

We head out to Emerson Point later in the morning to get some exposure to trails and “beachy” areas. It’s pretty quiet out and Carson and his best buddy, Rickey, hang out atop the small hill at Emerson Point. Some of the other students take a longer walk, but we are content with a small walk and some rest time. There are some great distractions here though. Mullet are constantly jumping and other people are around, but no one encroaches on our time together. As we load the class bus, we realize that this will be the last ride on the bus together. Tomorrow is Graduation.

Day 25, Graduation Day:

I have written a small speech to say at Graduation today. Things are very busy. I have a lot of “work” stuff to do, as well as “student” stuff. As we all start to gather in the student day room, it dawns on me that I have opened a whole new chapter in my life. This one will be filled with new friends, new adventures, and I’m sure, some new challenges.

Families are starting to arrive and I cannot wait to introduce Carson to some of my family. He knows most of them, but he’ll meet some new ones today. I know that I’m nervous as hell, but Graduation has to start.

We sit in the front of the cafeteria all lined up with our Graduate shirts on and our dogs in harness. This is a proud moment for each of us. For me, I’m grateful to have met each student and am honored to have been able to train alongside them.

It is standing room only. I’m not sure how many people can fit in the cafeteria, but it was definitely at full occupancy. Our CEO says a few words and introduces some very special guests. He introduces Sponsors and Board members and some wonderful people that volunteer for us. Please don’t ask me to name them, I was entirely too nervous and excited to remember. Each trainer’s bio is read and each student is handed a diploma. After each student receives their diploma, we have a chance to say a few words. Everyone is very grateful and appreciative of what every single person at Southeastern does. Everyone maintains their composure until a few students before me. This student begins to cry. We all get choked up, and by all, I mean the entire room. I thought I would make it through my little speech without incident, now I’m not so sure.

I am the last to get my diploma. I start to open the pages that my speech is written on, and my hands start to shake. I make the announcement to get the Kleenex out and I start to cry. Not sobbing tears, but the kind of tears that you just can’t hold back. I have copied my speech to the end of this article, as I think it will explain everything:

First I would like to address my fellow graduates. I want each of you to know that it has been an honor to be in training with you. Each of you has a special place in my heart. Gwen with your enthusiastic praise for Orbie, Mike for your wealth of technical knowledge, Jean with your kind heart, and Jeanne with your quick wit. Steve with your sense of adventure and Charlie with your warm and wonderful outlook. Last but not least, Nora for letting Rickey and Carson become best buddies and for Lisa and the “goodies.” I will never forget any of you.

Thank you to my co-workers. Each of you plays such an important part in this process. You have no idea the difference you make and neither did I until right now. Without your dedication and love for these dogs, my world would not be as bright.

To my trainer, Mersereau. I cannot say enough about you, and I mean that in a good way. You gave me the confidence and the guidance that I needed to succeed and I will be grateful to you forever. No amount of chocolate could be payment enough for what you’ve given me.

To my family, thank you for your support through this time in my life. I know it wasn’t easy, but we made it. I love each of you, and so does Carson.

Lastly, Carson. With your special eating habits and “the look” you sometimes give me, you are all I could have hoped for. Through all of my ups and downs, you stayed right by my side, unconditionally. Even as I fell apart, you let me know that I would be okay, even if I didn’t believe it. You are my life. You are my heart. I love you.

Thank you for letting me share my experience with you. Look out world, here we come!

Next week’s Weekly Tails from Southeastern Guide Dogs will introduce you to the interesting group of students Suzy mentioned in her speech and who shared the training experience with her.

Gail Morrissey Gagliardi October 07, 2011 at 03:50 PM
Suzy, I am a first time puppy raiser for Southerneastern Guide Dog. Your acticle does my heart good to hear how you and Carson are doing. Best of luck to both of you. Gail Gagliardi


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