Graduation Special For All

By Suzy Barile

I knew from the start Sandy wouldn't graduate.

Sitting in the classroom during orientation, listening as the instructor went over the goals of the course, the daily homework assignments and the different learning approaches to the material, I couldn't imagine how she'd make it successfully through the next eight weeks.

First there were the assignments: do them every day, build on what has been learned and don't be discouraged by setbacks, said the instructor.

Next, the class meetings. Seven o'clock on a Thursday night when everyone was cranky, ready for the day — and the week — to come to an end.

And finally, the instructor's prediction: only 80 percent of the students successfully complete the class. Well, there you have it, I thought, she'll be in that 20 percent that fails.

Sandy attended class unfailingly every week, though I watched as she often paid attention to everyone but the instructor. The slightest distraction was enough to bring her focus away from the exercises, and for other eyes — those of the other students, the instructor, and guests — to be upon her. She also had to contend with a broken leg at the start, something which also managed to get in the way of her concentration.

Each time she was distracted, I know I shuddered, wondering if the hour each week was being well-spent.

While Sandy's homework assignments weren't always completed — inevitably it was late in the day when she got started, and weariness already had set in — the intent was there. The instructor had said there would be setbacks, and she was right. There also were plateaus that were reached, and I wondered frequently if they could be overcome.

Midway into the eight weeks, I was heartened by the assistant instructor's remark that Sandy seemed to be showing some improvement. Although I couldn't see it as readily, others who saw her only once a week also were complimentary. I smiled my thanks.

As she came down to the wire, however, my original feelings crept back in. Going through the examination steps the sixth and seventh week, the instructor reminded everyone that repetition of the class wasn't unusual, and shouldn't be taken as failure.

"Failure," I thought. Would I consider Sandy a failure if she didn't pass?

The week before the final exam was crammed with everything but time for the homework assignment, and as we headed for the class that last night, I was resigned to Sandy being in the 20 percent unable to meet the requirements to move on.

That evening, two students failed to show up. Did they know, already, they were in that 20 percent? Were their families too embarrassed to attend the final class? Other students had family members there; I had brought my camera.

One by one the students went through the exercises they had practiced. Sandy was distracted frequently by the others, not used to the individual work being done — they had always practiced as a group. She wasn't good at sitting still, either, and that added to my nervousness.

I must say I was grateful when applause rang out as she finished the final assignment, the instructors and her colleagues letting her know they saw she had improved. As we shared refreshments and stories of the last eight weeks, I wondered what her certificate would say.

My curiosity was answered immediately; Sandy was first to receive her certificate.

Up to the front of the class she went, my daughter, Jennifer, in tow.

"We picked out something to say about each one of you," said the instructor. "Here is 'The Hardest Working Trainer."

Jennifer beamed. She had worked hard and earned that recognition. Sandy didn't seem to care. She was content to return to her seat — the spot on the floor beside Jennifer — and enjoy the crumbs left over from refreshment time.

As I looked over the certificate that acknowledged perfect attendance, I had to admit Sandy wasn't ready to be in that 80 percent of dogs that usually graduate from Puppy Training. In fact, the instructor had recommended she repeat the class.

But, there was pride as I watched the two of them — 13-year-old Jennifer and her young dog — for I knew the hard work that had gone into the last two months. It is Jennifer for whom Sandy sits, stays and lies down when prompted with a treat and praise. It is Jennifer who knows how to push her away with the "down" command and make it stick. And it was Jennifer who, on those hectic nights, worked to learn how to control a wild, wiry, eight-month-old puppy.

Now it's my turn. My turn to put away memories and long-standing fears from when I was 10-years-old and a dog ran up behind me and bit me. My turn to use the treats as enticements to sit, stay and lie down, so she knows she must learn to behave others, as well as Jennifer. My turn to work with this puppy that has eaten everything from Christmas elf salt and pepper shakers to a Graham Kerr cookbook, dinner candles, a bottle of Vitamin E and 12-inches of wall molding.

I didn't ever want a dog. My vote was a hesitant "OK" when the conversation about getting a dog came up. I'd never been around dogs and had found cats to be easy pets to care for. Alas, my husband is deathly allergic to cats. How convenient for him.

I laid down all the rules. Jennifer had to take the dog for a walk, feed her, clean up behind her. "I will, Mom," she promised.

The story is all too old. It is I who is first up, stooping down in the kitchen each morning to pet the dog, then let her outside and listening for when she is ready to come in.

I have cleaned up my share of messes, taken her for walks and tried to protect all of our belongings from this live wire who puts absolutely everything in her mouth. I bid her "night-night" as we turn out the lights, and give her that "quality" playtime in the evenings. She knows if I pull a chair out from the table and sit that it's time to play.

She knows the routine of going outside, of getting a treat, of a handful of cereal in her bowl each morning when I pour mine, of the hug she'll get once I hang up my coat.

Jennifer and my husband have their special times with her, as well, but for this fearful person who always cringed when any dog walked by or barked, I like to think our special times together are a tad more special.

In fact, with it being my turn to help with the homework assignments, the next time certificates are passed out, I hope they proclaim "Graduate."

(Copyright 1995)

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