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Monday, June 2, 2008

An Unforgettable Student: The Stroke Victim

He drove up to Manning Dog Training in a sporty red convertible. A set of golf clubs lay in the back seat, with a golden retriever sitting next to them. The man got out--a tall, nice looking man wearing shorts and a clean polo shirt. He appeared to be in his early 50s, and he had a nice smile on his face.
"Hi, can I help you?" I offered from behind the counter.

"Well, I hope," he said, motioning to the dog in the car. "She's...I don't know...she needs....you know...she's young and...she won't...and then.....and..." he shrugged, with a chuckle. He was clearly frustrated!

"Got it," I said. "Are you interested in some lessons for her?"

"Sure, sure! Okay!"

"How old is she?" I asked.

"She's about...nine..."

I was beginning to sense a communication difficulty. He obviously meant nine months, but wasn't able to come up with the word "months." This was more than just frustration with his dog.

His name was Gary. He came in that day for a lesson with his puppy, named Molly, who was a sweet, submissive and patient golden retriever. Early in the lesson he revealed to me, somehow, that he'd had a stroke a couple years ago. He was still able to drive, to play golf, to ambulate normally...but he'd lost his ability to verbalize complete sentences, to read, to make phone calls in a conventional way, and to use a computer. He was obviously an active and physically healthy man, and I could only imagine the frustration I would feel if I'd been in a similar situation.

The dog had been given to him by his family. She was to be a companion, but she needed some training. Since she was a golden, she was easy to work with. But Gary was unable to enunciate commands to her in a timely way. So we taught her hand signals instead. Over the next three weeks, Gary and Molly progressed nicely together. She read his hand signals. And I read between his prepositions and conjunctions. It worked out pretty well.

The last time I saw Gary was when he and Molly left after their final lesson. He waved as he drove off.

Molly showed up at Manning Dog Training a few years later, with a new family who loved her dearly. They weren't sure what had happened to her former owner, but knew it was someone who had ended up in a convalescent home.

Gary helped teach me that training is about listening. Like dogs, we have to listen with our eyes and hearts. Molly and I both learned a lot from Gary. In fact, I bet I learned as much from him as he did from me.

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