The Zeego Tales: Earning the Trust of My Service Dog
“The Zeego Tales” track the wonders of my new life with my service dog, Zeego.
It has never been my style to ask for help. Call me “strong-willed,” if you want to put a positive spin on it, or “stubborn,” to be more accurate.
Zeego just yawns on his bed near my feet. He’s not only oblivious to my natural tendencies, he doesn’t care. He has been trained since birth to serve a human. The shame of asking for help is totally foreign to him.
Zeego gnaws for a bit at the chew toy I bought him, then breathes a loud sigh and closes his eyes again.
I’m trying to react to my neediness the way he does. I’ve written before about how vulnerability is a strength rather than a weakness, but it is a lesson I still struggle to internalize. I told you: I’m stubborn.
Friedreich’s ataxia brings with it increased dependency. That simple fact isn’t easy to bear. I wish that, like Zeego, I could brush it off with a yawn and drift off to sleep, but I cannot. I think, however, that he will enable me to accept help and feel OK about it.
He yawns again, and I notice a number of stray, white dog hairs on the seat of my wheelchair.
“I guess I’ll have to get used to that now,” I tell myself.
Zeego sighs again, and I smile.
“Matt has been prematched with a Labrador and golden retriever mix, Zeego!”
It was the third day of Team Training on the campus for the Southeast Region of Canine Companions for Independence. We’d spent the first two days interacting with a number of dogs there, and today we were assigned a specific dog to see how well we worked together. If our working team was successful throughout the week, our prematch would become our final match.
Zeego was led to the small table beside me. He hopped up, his mostly white fur with a few subtle patches of gold, shining. I reached out hand and petted his back, appreciating the softness of his coat. Zeego allowed my touch, but he isn’t much for touching as show of affection. He tends to show love through his eyes; “googly eyes,” as they are aptly called. Zeego’s eyes were ignoring me and locked onto Shelley, his trainer — and mine — for these two weeks.
I understood why Zeego was so enthralled by her. Not only did Shelley spend hour after hour with him, but she had an endearing, bubbly enthusiasm. She tried to mask it under the stoic professionalism of a trainer-teacher, but it was obvious, much like the extra sprinkles she always orders on her ice cream.
The night after our prematches, we students were able to take our dogs to the dorm rooms with us to begin bonding. For the remainder of our training, we worked only with that dog, taking them to the toilet, out to play, or on walks to practice commands, plus feeding and grooming them.
Throughout it all, Zeego still seemed standoffish when it came to physical contact. I’d like to say I didn’t take it to heart, but regular readers of this column will know that’s not true. Seeing the other dogs showing affection toward their new masters made me aggravatingly jealous. The added fact that Zeego googly-eyed Shelley whenever she walked by made me question whether I would ever bond with my dog.
Back in my dorm room, with Zeego at my feet, I am trying to wrap up this article before I go to my next class. Even though my dog doesn’t care much for a touch from me at this point, I’ve learned that he’s eager to jump onto my bed with me for some cuddle time. He permits me to pet him while in my bed.
His slow and steady nature fits the nickname he was given during training: “Zeeyore.” (Coincidentally, I was nicknamed “Eeyore” in college.) I’ve given him the nickname “Zeegy Stardust.” A depressingly small number of people will understand that reference.
It’s almost time for class. “You ready, buddy?” I ask.
Zeego takes a few seconds, then stands up next to me, waiting for his leash. As he waits, he locks his droopy brown eyes onto mine.
Well, it’s a start.
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