Autumn leaves twirled on a chilled breeze, fluttering and dancing over the barren roadway. As the wind died down, a particularly red leaf settled on the pavement, only to be pressed under the wheel of a small silver sedan. Inside the car, a tall, freckled woman sat behind the wheel, scanning the horizon as she drove. Behind her in the backseat, a cat carrier was strapped in using the seatbelt, a quiet whining noise coming from the bars in the front.
"We're almost there, kiddo," the woman said, looking at the carrier through the rearview mirror. As she spoke, a little brick building with a bell on the roof came into view. In front of it was a sign: Ye Olde One-Room Schoolhouse. It was exactly as it had been described: quaint and charming, with a big fenced in field behind. Several cars were parked in the gravel parking lot out front, and soon the silver sedan joined them.
The woman got out of her car and opened the door to the backseat, reaching into the carrier and pulling out a tiny, orange Pomeranian puppy. Excited to be out of confinement, he wiggled in her arms and strained his neck trying to lick her face, while she strained her neck to avoid it. "Settle, settle," she cooed, then began walking to the front door.
Though the building looked like an old schoolhouse from the outside, there were no desks or bookshelves on the inside. Instead, it was just open floor with people walking their dogs aimlessly around, cooing and giving commands as they wandered. The floor was vinyl, recently put in from the looks of it, and the lights were bright and welcoming. In the back, where a chalkboard might have been in the old days, was a whiteboard with neatly written bullet points in the center, and names written in a column along the left side, beneath the words "Sign In!" written in bubble letters. Briefly, she scanned the list of names.
The format appeared to be 'Person Name/Dog Name', if she wasn't mistaken. Walking beside the wall to avoid getting in anyone's path, she made her way to the whiteboard and added her own line to the list: Robin/Russel. When she turned around from doing that, she noticed a stout woman with short hair approaching her, no dog by her side. Robin recognized her; They had met on three occasions: once when she had toured the facility, once when she had signed contracts, and once when they had gone to pick out her puppy from the breeder. Her name began with an H, Robin was sure, but she couldn't remember exactly what it was. Stupid ADHD never allowed her to remember people's names.
"Hey there!" the woman greeted. "Glad you could make it!"
"Hey," Robin returned with a polite smile. "Of course, I wanna get this process started as soon as possible."
"Well, great that you're enthusiastic. I hope you keep that up, because training a service dog is a lot of work."
Robin nodded dutifully at that. She had been warned of that more than once, but she was up for the challenge. With her mental health the way it was and her diabetes ever lingering over her, she and her doctor had determined a service dog to be the next step in her treatment plan. She had researched programs that provided fully trained dogs, but most of them costed over $10k and/or had waiting lists of over two years. So she had looked into owner training, but the service dog handlers she had talked to had warned her that it was difficult, and that she would likely still need a private trainer to work with her, which could be just as costly. So, she had found a happy medium: an owner training program. The lead trainer, Woman-Whose-Name-Begins-With-H, held training classes twice a week, and assigned homework for all the clients to complete on their own between classes. All clients were people training their own service dogs, but the nature of their disabilities varied. However, the trainer had assured her that many people had come through the program for diabetic alert dogs and psychiatric service dogs, so training one dog to do both sets of tasks would not be a problem.
"We won't start task training until your pup is around six months old," the woman explained. "But it's important that you come to every class until then anyways, because we'll be working on basic obedience and socialization."
Robin nodded again, and the woman turned towards the center of the room.
"Nancy!" she called out. A petite woman, about Robin's age, with wavy chestnut hair and wide blue eyes started walking their way, a golden retriever in perfect step with her. Robin couldn't help but notice just how pretty she was, but she shook the thought off. Dog training class might have seemed like a great place to pick up girls, but maybe not on her first day.
"Yeah, Hannah?" Right, Hannah. That was her name. Robin repeated it over and over in her head, hoping to commit it to memory.
"This is the newest member of the Independence Canines family!" Hannah said, motioning to Robin. "What's your name again, dear?"
Robin felt a little less guilty now that she realized that Hannah didn't know her name, either. "Robin," she reminded her.
"Right, Robin," Hannah agreed. "Robin, this is Nancy. She's been training with us for three years now, and her dog, Jackson, is a fully trained service dog."
Robin could tell that Jackson had done some pretty rigorous training. He walked in perfect step with Nancy, and sat immediately when she stopped moving, looking up at her face and ignoring the wiggling puppy in Robin's arms. She wondered if Russel would ever get to that point.
"Nice to meet you, Nancy," Robin said. Nancy smiled her greeting with tight lips.
"I'm going to have Nancy work with you on the basics," Hannah explained. "That way you get some one-on-one training while I'm working with the more experienced dogs. Don't worry, Nancy and Jackson are old pros at this point. You're in good hands."
Robin was a little disappointed. She had been hoping to work with the Bergin-educated trainer, not another client. But she told herself that it made sense, Hannah was probably stretched thin with all the different things the different dogs needed to do, and something easy like puppy manners probably wasn't worth her expertise at that point. She could make do with Nancy.
So, she smiled at the other woman, and Hannah walked away, calling something out as she approached a man in a wheelchair.
"Okay," Nancy said, sounding all business. She motioned to the puppy in Robin's arms. "Put him on the floor, please. What's his name?"
Robin obeyed, keeping a hold on the leash as she gently lowered Russel to the ground. "His name's Russel," she informed her.
"Cute," Nancy replied. "Does he know it?"
Demonstrating, Robin called to the pup in a high pitched voice. "Russel!" He looked up at her, wagging his little tail.
"Good. What else does he know already?"
"Not a lot," Robin replied sheepishly. That was to say, nothing. "We've mostly been focused on potty training."
"Okay, that's fair," Nancy said, and Robin relaxed a little, glad that she wasn't being judged for not having taught her twelve-week-old puppy how to do anything. "We'll work on his sit command first. Now, I can't bend down to show you, but basically, you're going to want to use your verbal command and your hand signal while putting him into the position."
Robin looked her over, confused. "Why can't you bend over?" she asked. She looked physically healthy, if a little on the thin side, and she had walked fine when she approached.
"Well, I mean, I can," Nancy corrected herself. "I'll just probably pass out if I do. I have a syndrome called POTS, if you've heard of that? It messes with my heart rate and blood pressure, so I get really dizzy when I change positions."
"Oh," Robin replied, feeling a little bad for having questioned her. "Yeah, don't bend over then. I wouldn't know what to do if you passed out."
Nancy chuckled a little bit, reaching down to pet her dog's ears. "Jackson would handle it," she assured her. "He's good at taking care of me and all my various symptoms. Just like Russel will be able to take care of you and whatever it is that brings you here someday."
Robin glanced at the golden retriever in admiration. "How does he handle it?" she asked, curious. She knew what she wanted to train her dog to do for her, but she had never even heard of Nancy's condition, so she didn't know what a dog could do about it.
Nancy shifted her weight, apparently settling in for a long list. "Well, for my POTS, he alerts to abnormalities in my heart rate and blood pressure so that I can sit down if I'm going to faint," she explained. "He also gets stuff off the floor for me so that I don't have to bend down, and helps me up whenever I need to sit or stand. If I do pass out, he licks my face to help me come around faster, then lays on my chest so that I don't try to get up while I'm still confused." Robin listened, mouth agape. She thought she was done talking, but then she just continued. "The item retrieval and helping me up also helps with my fibromyalgia, and he can open doors and stuff on days where I have to use my wheelchair. For my PTSD, he does DPT, blocking, grounding, and perimeter checks."
Robin was wide eyed. "Is there anything he doesn't do?" she asked, side eyeing the dog.
"I usually do all my own breathing," Nancy joked, then quickly moved on before giving Robin a chance to laugh. "But let's work on sitting before we start focusing on the big stuff. This is the hand signal I use." She demonstrated with Jackson, then had Robin work with Russel on it. Making good progress, they practiced the command for only about five minutes before Nancy cut in.
"Alright, now we give him a break," she instructed.
"But we've barely started?" Robin was surprised.
"He's just a baby," Nancy explained. "It's five minutes a day for every month of age, so we'll only do fifteen minutes of training total tonight. The rest we'll spend resting or playing. Do you mind if I pet him?"
"Oh, yeah," Robin started to bend over to pick Russel up and bring her to Nancy's eye level, but at the same time, Nancy started slowly lowering herself to the floor to get to his level. She sat cross legged on the ground, putting out a hand to let the pup sniff her. Wiggling wildly, he ignored the hand and went straight to her lap, causing her to giggle in a way that struck Robin straight in the chest. She had always been a sucker for pretty girls, apparently even ones that she had just met. Jackson laid down beside his handler, putting his chin on her knee and looking up at her pitifully.
"I didn't forget you," Nancy assured her dog before looking to Robin. "He gets so jealous every time I touch another dog."
Robin, too, lowered herself to the floor and watched as Nancy played with Russel with one hand while stroking Jackson with the other. "With you having so many medical problems, does he ever get to, like, not be on duty?" she asked.
"Jackson gets plenty of time to be a dog," Nancy assured her, looking up at her. "He plays fetch and runs with other dogs and all that fun stuff. And he loves to work, so even if I need him when he's off duty, it's not a huge hardship for him." Robin nodded, and Nancy paused for a second to roll Russel onto his back and scratch his belly. That important task taken care of, she looked back to Robin. "So, can I ask what tasks you're hoping to teach him when he's older?"
"I have diabetes," Robin started. "So Hannah said we can train him to smell highs and lows in my blood sugar so that I can adjust accordingly. He'll also remind me to take medications, because I forget everything." She started wracking her brain for other things to say, because she felt like Nancy's dog did so much, and she felt a little bit invalid for utilizing a service dog for only a few tasks. Nancy must have noticed this hesitation, because she nodded encouragingly.
"That sounds like it'll be helpful to you," she said. Robin relaxed a little; apparently that wasn't too few tasks. "Is there a reason you picked such a small breed? Because if he was gonna be larger I'd suggest teaching him to get juice out of the fridge for you, too."
"I wanted a small breed because I live in a small apartment," Robin explained. "And I wanna travel someday, so I wanted a dog who could easily fit on an airplane. And he'll be easier to put under tables at restaurants."
Nancy seemed to accept that. "Makes sense," she said. "I would probably have a smaller dog, too, if I didn't need mobility tasks."
They talked for a little while longer, then Jackson helped Nancy back to her feet as they started working on teaching the puppy to heel for their next five minutes of training. That was difficult, Robin had to bend down far to lure Russel with a treat, and she found her back hurting even in the short amount of time they worked. But it didn't last long, and soon they were taking another break. They talked through that one as they had the first, and Robin found herself allowing herself to be familiar with the other woman. Certainly, she was grateful for getting to utilize her time.
At the end of class, Nancy bid her farewell and walked towards a man with a German Shepherd, who turned to her and started talking almost immediately. Robin watched them for a second, then gathered her dog in her arms and began to walk out the door. Before she could make it outside however, Nancy's voice called out to her.
"Hey!" Robin turned to her and she continued. "A couple of us are going out for drinks. Any chance I could convince you to come?"