Leigh Brill — Excerpt From A Dog Named Slugger

Circa 2011


My hands were trembling again. I needed to get M a quarter out of my purse, but my quivering fingers made the task feel as intricate as neurosurgery. It’s always been that way with cerebral palsy-sometimes I just shake. I can’t help it. Still, the tired store clerk waiting at the counter in front of me didn’t understand this. She sighed, clearly wishing I would hurry up and pay for my purchase. I would have liked to have been able to do that.

At last I grasped the quarter. I started to hand it to the clerk, and my fingers slipped. With a familiar flat plink, the coin hit the floor and rolled past the purple metal legs of my wheelchair. It was far beyond my reach now, but I knew what to do. I spoke softly to the companion who was standing attentively at my side, and he did what I could not. He retrieved the wayward quarter and put it carefully on the counter before taking his place beside me once more, I smiled when he did this. Now the tired clerk was smiling too. “How amazing!” she exclaimed. “I never knew a dog could do that!”

My labrador, Slugger, flicked his tongue across his jowls as if to remove the taste of the quarter. He was a highly trained service dog: for him, scooping a fallen coin into his mouth and then spitting it out on command-was routine. Slugger was accustomed to retrieving anything that slipped from my grasp. My canine partner also carried my belongings, fetched my telephone, and opened heavy doors for me. His unwavering devotion brought me confidence and joy. With Slugger by my side, I discovered the life-changing power of unconditional love. And I learned that even the most formidable challenges can offer something good.


Dog Day

It was four in the morning and I was too excited to sleep. Two weeks had passed since Sylvia’s wonderful news, and now it was here, dog day! In a few hours I’d be meeting Slugger for the very first time.

My thoughts drifted back to one of my earliest conversations with Sylvia. She’d explained that the process of matching a service dog and human partner is like an adoption, and even with careful screening and hard work, there’s no guarantee that every partnership will succeed. In fact, Sylvia told me, Slugger had progressed part way into the matching process with a woman named Diane when that potential partnership fell through. Diane used a wheelchair and had relished the idea of a canine assistant, but the busy mother of four eventually decided not to bring an 85 pound dog—even a well-trained one— into her lively household. Diane was, according to Sylvia, bothered by the big lab’s wagging tail.

“You’re kidding! Heck, I’d want the dog’s tail to wag!” I’d responded, incredulous. Secretly I was grateful for Diane’s change of heart.

In the dark and early morning-waiting to meet Slug ger-that gratitude came back to me. It expanded, then flowed out in a sudden fusion of laughter and tears. Many people wait years to get a service dog. Though my natural impatience made it feel as if I’d been waiting for decades, in truth, only nine months had passed.

If you could hang on all those months, surely you can make it a few more hours, the voice inside me said. Best try and get some rest now. Yes, rest would be rea sonable, wise. Still, I couldn’t stop wondering about Slugger. Would he be as beautiful as I’d imagined? Would he like me? Would he listen? Would the two of us be a match?

Hours later, those same questions circled around inside my mind as I drove over the winding road that connect ed my family’s mountain home to the town of Wood stock, Virginia. I would soon meet Slugger and his train er at the public library there. Beams of sunlight reached like long and sparkling fingers, touching asphalt, clustered buildings, and verdant lawns. The brightness matched my disposition. This day was perfect!

Though I didn’t realize it, my perfect day marked an end as well as a beginning. Two years before I’d heard of CCC, Sylvia had visited her friends Stuart and Terry Porter. Terry was instrumental in helping run the organization, and she and her husband also bred labrador retrievers. Sylvia had been in search of a star puppy; when she spotted a yellow male with a gleam in his eye and enough pizzazz to merit a name like Slugger, she knew she’d found what she was after.

Though only a few weeks old when Sylvia had met him, Slugger was happy and easy-going. He responded calmly to changes in his environment, other dogs, strangers, and even loud or unusual noises. The little lab loved being with people, yet he was neither too clingy nor too independent. His sturdy conformation, as well as a health screening on the dogs in his genetic lines, helped to ensure Slugger would be robust enough for service work. His playfulness and eagerness to please also helped Sylvia gauge his trainability. The puppy would happily retrieve sticks, toys, socks, anything he could get his mouth around! This hallmark of his labrador genes would prove vital to his future career. Recognizing Slugger’s potential, Sylvia made room for him in her home and in her heart. She built a strong relationship with the pup and socialized him with other people and dogs. All the while, Sylvia helped her special labrador understand that learning could be fun.

Sylvia used play to create the focus and attention that would serve as the basis for his training. Positive rewards also helped Slugger learn good manners. Motivated by treats, toys, praise, and pats, he was a quick study. The enthusiastic young dog learned to ask to be let out for toileting. He learned to settle in his dog crate at night, and to take food and toys that belonged to him while leaving what did not.

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Sylvia went on to help her canine student master basic obedience. She taught him to walk calmly on a loose leash without forging ahead or lagging behind. Since it didn’t come naturally for Slugger to wear the packs that would soon be part of his working uniform, Sylvia also had to introduce those. She began by putting them on him at mealtimes so that the dog would associate the packs with something he loved. Before long, all she had to say was, “Slugger, time to get dressed,” and the Lab would race up to her.

For a year Sylvia praised and corrected, played and loved. Then she passed her well-mannered puppy on to a CCC trainer Vickie Polk. That must have been the hard part—the tear-stained, awful, aching part. Yet Sylvia understood that some gifts must change hands in order to change a life.

Vickie guided the year-old labrador through the next steps of his journey. Armed with expertise and lots of patience, she taught her canine pupil many advanced service tasks. Like most students, Slugger learned progressively, so Vickie used positive rewards to build on the training Sylvia had begun.

Cheese and praise encouraged the lab to bump elevator buttons with his nose. Practice helped him learn to heel quietly alongside his partner when she walked or used a cane or wheelchair.

Once the puppy learned these and other skills, Vickie raised the criteria so that, gradually, more challenging tasks earned rewards. Then she added variables such as a change in environment, sounds and sights, slowly introducing Slugger to the pressures he would encounter as a service dog.

He had to learn to work calmly and enthusiastically in places where most dogs would never go: shopping malls, restaurants, banks, schools full of inquisitive, bouncy youngsters. Vickie knew such preparation was essential.

She also knew that once the young labrador mastered his task work and gained maturity and confidence, he would need to continue his journey. She loved Slugger, and like Sylvia before her, Vickie let him go.

Only through that sacrifice could Slugger’s path join with mine.

Now, as I hurried to the library, the thought of meeting this special dog made my heart race. My breath came warm and fast; it curled back at me from the heavy glass of the library’s front door. I pressed my face up to the pane for a moment, peering into the hallway on the other side. The usually teeming corridor was nearly empty; I imagined many of its patrons relished the chance to spend this beautiful day outdoors. But I was here to meet Vickie and Slugger, so I was thrilled.

I stepped inside. Suddenly I was too excited to move or even think clearly. I stood motionless in the doorway while a single realization filled my whole being: I was going to meet Slugger!

I couldn’t tell how much time passed before a noise, soft yet insistent, pulled me from my trance. A woman was standing outside, tapping lightly on the door. She was grinning, wearing a Caring Canine Companions Tshirt and loosely holding a leash in her left hand. The dog on the other end of the leash was beautiful and powerfully built.

His coat was yellow, sprinkled with white. It was the color of sunshine. A green pack was fastened across the dog’s back, yet he didn’t seem to be concerned with it. He stood calmly beside his trainer. Only his tail waved as he gazed at me with huge, brown eyes.

Looking back at him, I decided this was the most incredible animal I’d ever seen. I would have been happy simply watching him for hours. Then it struck me: For goodness sake, move out of the way so they can come in!

The pair stepped neatly into the room, and the woman turned to me. “Are you Leigh?”

“Yeah,” I answered through a grin that nearly reached my ears.

“Great! I’m Vickie, and this fellow here is Slugger.” She gave the dog’s head a quick pat.

Vickie and I filled our introductions with friendly questions and laughter. I tried to look her in the eye as we talked, but my gaze kept drifting downward. I couldn’t stop staring at Slugger. He seemed to share my curiosity; he eventually stretched toward me, plastered his wet nose against my knee, and inhaled. I giggled at his snuffled greeting.

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I longed to reach down and stroke Slugger’s head, to feel the softness of his fur. But Sylvia had told me that petting a service dog when it was dressed in its packs would disrupt its training, so I jammed my hands into my jeans pocket to resist the temptation.

When Vickie asked Slugger, “What do you say, boy? Are you ready to show Leigh what you can do?” I chimed in, as eager as a kid on Christmas morning.

“Please!” We headed to a vacant conference room at the far end of the library. I scampered to one of the puffy office chairs there and plopped down.

“We’ll show you some of the basics first,” Vickie said, smiling at me. “Just watch and listen for now.”

She had Slugger demonstrate obedience tasks. Then she told me that many service dogs are trained to bark on command. “Slugger can work a bit like a personal safety system for you,” she explained. “For example, if you fall and need another person’s help, the dog will bark to alert others that something is wrong. All you have to do is this.”

Vickie turned her attention to the labrador and commanded, “Slugger, bark.” Obediently, the dog let out a single hearty Woof! I was both startled and awed by the deep, booming sound, and Vickie was pleased. “Good boy!” she said, patting the top of the dog’s head.

Next she walked Slugger across the room to where a light switch was affixed to the wall. She tapped its metal plate, “Slugger, light!” Following her enthusiastic command, the lab stood up on his hind legs. He fit his mouth around the switch and nudged it downward until the light clicked off.

I could barely believe what I’d just seen. I sat in the darkened room, too stunned to speak. There was a gleam in the trainer’s eye when she said, “It’s important for service dogs to provide assistance in public and in the home. Slugger’s ability to turn lights on and off would be helpful if you were too tired or ill to get them yourself, or if you were ever seated in a wheelchair. Watch this.”

Now she repeated the “light” command and pointed to the fixture. Slugger dashed over to it, hopped up, and used his mouth to switch the light on before returning to Vickie’s side.

Now my speechless haze dissolved with a single word:


A cloth pouch was fastened around Vickie’s waist. She shoved the fingers of her right hand into it and extracted a small, bright orange cube-cheese.

“Slugger’s favorite reward,” she informed me as she offered it to him.

The labrador gulped the treat with such fervor that I pro claimed, “Supersonic gusto!”

Vickie laughed. “Oh yeah!”

Suddenly in awe of both the dog and his trainer, I asked, “How the heck did you teach him all these things?”

“Three Ps.” said Vickie. “Patience, practice, and positive rewards.” Then, she grinned. “You know, I think it’s time for you to give it a try.”

“Huh?” I blinked at her.

“How about taking a short walk with Slugger? Just down to the end of the hallway and back.”

I sprang out of my chair so fast I nearly took a nosedive. “Sure!

Vickie led us into the hall. She put a handful of cheese morsels in my right hand and slipped Slugger’s leash into my left. “Just walk the way you always do, at your normal pace,” she told me. “Try to hold the leash loosely without pulling on it. Tell Slugger to heel. If he starts walking faster than you, just stop. Stand still and say ‘heel’ again. When he walks nicely at your side, praise him and give him a treat. That’s all there is to it. This will help you see what it’s like to work together. I’ll wait right here for you. Got it?”

“Got it,” I said, though I wasn’t at all sure I did. I breathed deeply and looked down at the yellow labrador. “Slugger, heel,” I said. With that, we took our first steps together. The dog was accustomed to working with Vickie, and his claws sent a brisk tap-tap, tap-tap down the corridor. My own movements were slow and tedious. Before we’d traveled more than a few steps, Slugger had pulled ahead of me.

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Remembering Vickie’s instructions, I stopped. I stood still and re-stated the command, “Slugger, heel.” To my astonishment he backed up and positioned himself correctly beside me.

“Good boy!” I exclaimed. I offered him a piece of cheese, and we continued our walk. Each time the dog moved ahead of me, I stopped, repeated the heel command, and started once more. The process seemed painstakingly slow. By the time I’d uttered my fifth heel command, I was beginning to wonder if this powerful, brilliant dog would ever actually adjust to my wobbly-legged gait.

But then it happened. We resumed our walk, and this time, Slugger didn’t rush forward. He moved beside me, glancing up repeatedly as if trying to gauge my unfamiliar stride. His steps were cautious; his pace matched my own. I was amazed. For so long, keeping up with others had been my definition of grace.

When I was a child, that grace had often deserted me. vanishing like mist in sunlight. I recalled one particular afternoon in fourth grade. I was on the playground with my classmates, standing in a relay line. I stared down at my shoes. Their scuffed toes reminded me of things I wanted to forget: Not today. I’d vowed. I’m not going to fall this time.

The line moved forward steadily, as runners took off one after another. My classmates cheered. They jumped around, and thumped the shoulders of the fastest racers: “Good job! Good job, man!” Our team was ahead.

I yelled at the red-faced boy who suddenly charged toward me. “Way to go! Run!” Linhaled and held out my hand. He slapped it with a sweaty palm as he crossed the line. My turn.

Oh God! I willed my body into a frantic trot. My mind took up a chant: Left. Right. Keep going. Left. Right. Don’t fall. Left. Right. It’s easy. Then I heard the soft crunch of my opponent’s sneakers in the dirt. Her ponytail bobbed up and down as she ran past me. My teammates screamed, “No!”

The voice inside me screamed louder: Keep up, you stupid feet, for once in your life run fast!

I tried to pick up speed, and my left foot slammed against the uneven earth. My ankle gave in. I stumbled forward, fighting to regain some balance. Then I crashed. The rough ground tore my skin. I felt blood trickling down my right leg, and dripping from a gash on my cheek. Droplets splattered like scarlet paint in the dirt.

In fourth grade I knew the only thing worse than falling in front of my classmates was letting them see me cry, so I swallowed hard against the sobs that rose in my throat. The yelling that had filled the air was gone

replaced by whispering and pointing. One of the fastest runners on our team, Jimmy, snorted loudly and spat.

He shoved his fingers through his sweaty hair. “Why do we got to have a hop-along on our team? She’s nothing but a cripple. She can’t even run! She’s so weird, man!” Such taunts echoed through my childhood.

Today the sneers were silenced. With Slugger, there was no race to be won; there was only a path to be traveled together. Suddenly I was filled with the urge to interrupt our sojourn, to bend down and hug the labrador. Still, I imagined that wasn’t appropriate service dog protocol.

Instead I practically sang, “Good boy, Slugger! What great heeling, you smart, gorgeous animal!” I gave him an extra big piece of cheese. The dog’s body swayed lightly against my leg, following the rhythm of his wagging tail

When we turned and retraced our steps down the hall to where Vickie was waiting. Slugger and I moved slowly. awkwardly; but we moved together. After a lifetime of struggling to keep up with others. I found myself accompanied by an incredible dog, one willing to walk beside me at my pace.

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Inspired. I whispered to him. “I know I’ve got a funky hustle, boy. But I’ll bet we could find our own rhythm if you’re up for it.” For now there was simply the measured tread of foot and paw. And the hopeful pounding of my heart.

“Slugger’s the neatest dog in the world!” Forgetting good library manners, I broadcast my review loudly down the hall before we had even reached Vickie. By the time the labrador and I were at her side, I couldn’t stop talking. “He did a great job for me! Didn’t you, boy?”

Two morsels of cheese remained in my hand. They were squishy-soft around the edges now, but Slugger gobbled them happily. He wagged his tail and licked his jowls. Then he burped. “Is that his way of saying thanks?” I grinned at Vickie.

She didn’t return my smile. Tears made wet, serpentine tracks down her face. Suddenly I felt as if my heart had plunged into my stomach. “Oh! What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.” Vickie answered. “That’s just it: it’s right.” She brushed a tear from her cheek and continued. “I know this dog, and when I see how he responds to you, there’s no doubt in my mind. You two are destined to be a team. That’s more than my hunch. It’s something Slugger knows.”


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