It is a 12-hour drive from my house to San Diego—longer if you stop to eat. My friend, photographer, and driver Nathan De Hart elected to take it in one shot. He’s young. I packed some vegan sandwiches and fresh juices so we didn’t have to stop to eat. When Nathan and I arrived twelve hours later, we were tired, but Hedy, who had slept the whole way, was ready to go. The first days of this road trip for my new book, A Gift of Puppies are presented in this 4-part series.
Day One of our book events started at 8:00 a.m. at Lindbergh Schweitzer Elementary School where my cousin Elaine Grover teaches kindergarten. She gave me some background so I would know what to expect. She told me, “Originally there were two separate schools next to each other. Albert Schweitzer was a school for physically handicapped children. Charles Lindbergh Elementary was a general education school. There was a chain link fence that divided the two schools. Several years ago, the fence was taken down and the schools were combined under one principal and was renamed Lindbergh Schweitzer School. At that point Special Education and general education classrooms were relocated next to each other so the two classes could join together for a few activities (story time, recess, music, lunch, special projects). Now all of the students combine for many activities. The students just see each other as friends. They don’t see the disabilities.”
When I first told Elaine I’d be in her area, she asked me to speak to her class. By the time we arrived, the number of children had burgeoned to 150. At first, I had arranged to have just contributors to my book speak—local puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), Pat Salzarulo, and her dags Cabo (now a therapy dog after being career-changed by GDB) and Kirkland (her current puppy); my former classmate, Debbie Kraimer, and her German shepherd guide, Sheena; Hedy and me. That, too, changed.
Since there are Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) volunteers in the book, I asked Pat if she could find a CCI raiser to represent that kind of service dog at the event. Pat called some friends to help. Soon we had Brittany Fullen with therapy dog Brutus (a career change dog from CCI). Marilyn Fullen ( Brittany’s mom) with Ora (borrowed from CCI), along with Sharon Buetow, a member of Pat’s puppy group New Leash on Life with her first puppy Squire. As a special treat, Hibachi, the little red Lab that, through Pat Salzarulo’s ingenuity, tells her own story in A Gift of Puppies came with her new family, Marjorie Kelly and her three girls, Ashley, Brianna, and Cierra. Pat has a lot of friends!
All those people and dogs! How would Hedy react? Actually, because they were service dogs (or in training to be one), they were well-behaved, and Hedy was too.
Debbie suggested that we line up outside so we wouldn’t distract the children as each person presented her information. That’s how we came to be lined up against the wall when the children began to arrive. It was a thrill to watch all those little ones going by. The dogs stayed in order, and so did the children. The teachers had already instructed them in the proper way to behave around service dogs. To my surprise, the children did not point, giggle, chatter, shout, reach for the dogs or try to get their attention. In fact, they were as well-behaved as the service dogs, and that’s saying a lot.
How were we going to keep those children interested for an entire hour? How were we going to fit in so many presentations? Quickly we settled on various areas to share. Marilyn talked about what CCI dogs can do. Brittany talked about puppy raising for CCI. The Kellys talked about therapy dogs and Pat delighted the audience with tricks Cabo’s does in hospitals and nursing homes to cheer people up.
I love giving a child a chance to experience what a blind person feels when led by a guide dog. Lilly, a student in Elaine’s class, was willing to give it a try. I removed Hedy’s harness and Sharon took the leather chest strap to simulate the movement of the dog. Lilly, her hand on the harness handle and her eyes tightly shut, bravely followed her invisible guide dog around the obstacles we’d set up on the stage. Then Debbie and Sheena showed how a real guide dog does it, weaving around the obstacles without either of them running into any of them. Debbie, who has educated the entire Riverside police department in access laws, explained why they might see one of these dogs in a restaurant or grocery store. It’s the law. They are allowed to go wherever we go.
After all the presenters finished, the children asked questions. One asked, “What’s the handle for?” I explained that it’s not like walking your dog. The guide dog pulls the handler, and the handler follows the dog.
When there were no more questions, Elaine told me we were actually done early. She had an idea. The children could go out to the yard and sit in a big circle. They really wanted to pet the dogs, and this would be a good time to do that, but rather than having 150 kids descend on them, Elaine suggested that we walk our dogs past them. What a great idea! The presenters agreed. The word was passed to the teachers, and the children filed out in an orderly manner and sat in a large circle in a smooth, clean yard. I had been hesitant about letting so many little children pet Hedy, but they were so orderly that I removed Hedy’s harness and led her around the circle.
Some children were used to dogs. They touched Hedy with confidence and knew the places dogs like to be scratched. Some were timid around an animal that was almost as tall as they. I especially loved seeing the little hands reach slowly for Hedy as I brought her near the wheelchairs. She stood quietly as delicately reaching fingers touched her ever so gently on the snout. It brought tears to my eyes. The children smiled. Around the circle, there were many smiles. I was so proud of our wonderful ambassadogs.
At dinner that night, Elaine gave me a stack of letters from her students and students from other classrooms. The drawings showed dogs of various colors, and on the black dog, there was a handle. What did those children say? They mentioned various things such as the laws and the coloring books Pat had given them, but every one of them included one thing: “Thank you for letting me pet your dogs.”