My 16-year-old granddaughter, Hannah Claire Kelly, is working on a project that could earn her The Gold Award—the highest honor given to a Girl Scout. If successful, she will have spent a full year helping train a service dog, a dog that will eventually serve as a life-long companion for a blind person.
On March 3, 2012, Hannah and her mom, Amy, and grandmother, Dot, left from Houston, Texas on a flight to Tampa, Florida. The destination was the South Eastern Guide Dog School in Palmetto, the birthplace of a thirteen-week-old black Labrador retriever, Barb—the smallest of Sparky and Bailey’s eleven-pup litter.
Hannah remembers that it was love at first sight when she initially sighted Barb. An overwhelming moment, her baby, an eighteen-pound bundle of joy, a very mellow, petite puppy. She also fondly recalls the fancy four-course dinner on Saturday night hosted by the School. Three types of families attended the dinner along with their dog, each dog at one of three levels of training. There were those there to pick up a puppy like Hannah, Amy and Dot, families returning their dog after a year of training and a blind person there to take home a well-trained dog.
On Sunday morning, while walking Barb through the airport, Hannah realized that as smart as Barb was she had a mind of her own, a stubborn streak. She would take three steps and suddenly sprawl out on the floor. With a little coaxing, Hannah could get her up and going but it didn’t stop Barb from doing it several times. While Hannah found it frustrating, she said that Barb’s behavior attracted significant attention and lots of supportive comments.
Barb has been with Hannah’s family now for three months and weighs in at forty-two pounds. Barb has learned over twenty commands, one being to sit for her food. Before exiting a door, she sits on the left side of the door. On a command to “switch,” she will move to the right side. While walking, a command of “left left” or “right right” will get her to turn in that direction. Hannah reports that when she goes to a restaurant or store that she can no longer fly under the radar. Barb does not go unnoticed, particularly with kids. People want to talk and pet. But there is one exception. Whenever Hannah wears sunglasses, people leave her and Barb alone.
Because Hannah is a full-time high school student, training Barb would not be possible without help from Hannah’s mother, Amy. In fact, it’s difficult to tell who adores and diligently trains Barb more. Both Amy and Hannah describe Barb as calm, very smart, cute, adorable and strong-willed. And while Barb learns quickly, they both noted that it took much longer to potty train her than they expected. Perhaps it was due to Barb spending thirteen weeks in a kennel before she was introduced to a home environment.
Amy reports that Barb loves to eat. While on her walks, Barb will eat acorns and dried worms if Amy is not paying attention. When Amy says it’s time to eat, Barb perks up and goes immediately to her food dish and then sits. Barb knows the word “eat”. However, several weeks ago Amy underestimated Barb’s verbal comprehension skills. Thinking she could tell Hannah’s sister, Katrina, it was time to E-A-T by spelling the word, Barb knew what it meant and went to her food dish even though she was fed an hour earlier.
For those interested in hearing true-life stories from families training service dogs, Hannah and Amy recommend reading mcleanpup.blogspot.com.