I have the distinct privilege of having two of my essays on raising Leader Dog puppies accepted for inclusion in the very first anthology about service dogs: Two Plus One Equals Four: Sharing the Partnership of People with Disabilities and Their Assistance Dogs. This book is the brainchild of Kathy Nimmer of West Lafayette, IN. The following are my two essays.
Loving and Letting Go
Dog lover that I am, I’m always on the alert for opportunities to increase my lap time with the canine community. One spring I found myself drawn to a “Leader Dogs for the Blind” booth at the Lion’s Club Home Show, an annual event in my community. Every year I would stop at this booth to admire the Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, and golden retrievers sporting blue bandannas and jackets declaring, “Future Leader Dog.”
I began entertaining the notion of becoming a puppy raiser and convinced my husband to join me in this venture. In June 2003, Grace Marie, an adorable, seven-week-old yellow lab, came to live with us.
“How on earth are you ever going to give Grace up?” everybody wanted to know. Even though I knew that Grace was the property of Leader Dogs for the Blind and I signed an agreement to bring her back when they recalled her litter, I loved her as my very own. I reminded myself daily that Grace had a destiny and that it was my role—a temporary role—to prepare her for her life of service.
It had been years since my husband and I had housebroken a puppy. We’d forgotten what it’s like to be rudely awakened in the middle of the night to the pathetic, heart-retching, irritatingly, high-pitched howls of a baby. Totally erased from our minds were the chilly treks outside to feign excitement over a few dribbles and plops, only to return to the house to clean up puddles and piles of “oops—didn’t-make-it-to-the-door-in-time!” messes, as an energized whirlwind of fur whipped around us, nipping at our frigid feet.
Like all puppies, Grace had a mischievous nature and a proclivity toward destruction. Gracie loved pushing our buttons and hearing us shriek, “No! I mean, ‘Leave it!’ (proper Leader Dog vernacular) Grace, I said, ‘Leave it!’ Good puppy! Good leave it!”
Grace was most endearing in her “undearingness.” It was hard not to laugh at her when she stole socks and unmentionables from the bedroom, and with a twinkle in her eye, engaged us in a lively game of keep-away. Panda, our family “goldendor” (half golden retriever/half Labrador retriever), would launch into retriever mode, tackling Grace so we could confiscate the illicit item.
Gracie’s most memorable heist occurred one morning when I was hurriedly preparing food and gathering up things I needed for a very busy day. I was running late and making numerous trips to the garage to load items into the van. For some unknown reason, the van alarm kept going off and the doors kept locking. I was growing increasingly more frustrated by the minute—until I happened upon Grace in the dining room, contentedly munching on my hubby’s remote van key that she had lifted from his nightstand. My frustration immediately evaporated and I chuckled out a less-than-convincing, “Leave it!”
As a first-timer Leader Dog puppy raiser, I was overly anxious about being a good foster parent. Unlike all the other Leader Dog puppies that I heard fellow puppy-raisers proudly bragging about, Grace was not content to lie quietly at my feet, walk obediently by my side, or keep her trap shut in church. One Sunday, she joined in on the anthem as the choir sang. On another occasion, she could not restrain from expressing her opinion regarding the pastor’s sermon.
“What am I doing wrong!” I wondered. “If I were a good mother, my baby would be better behaved.”
In time, I learned to accept Grace for who she was (active, verbal, stubborn, creative, sneaky…) and not worry about ironing out all her personality wrinkles. Just between you and the uptight, inhibited part of me, I take devious delight in Grace’s antics, wishing I, too, could occasionally let myself “bark” during the sermon, chew holes in someone’s favorite new sweater, and pig out on the dessert designated for company.
While I wanted Grace to become a model Leader Dog, I secretly hoped that her trainers would not be able to extinguish all of the quirks that make Grace so exasperating and yet so entertaining. In truth, I also wanted her future partner to realize just what we went through to raise this dog for him or her. (“Grace can be so ornery sometimes—her puppy raisers must have been absolute saints!”)
One Saturday evening, the night before the children at church were to celebrate Grace’s first birthday, the birthday girl helped herself to ten of the twenty-four cupcakes cooling on the kitchen counter—paper liners and all. Several remaining cupcakes bore nose smudges, but evidently did not pass the sniff test. I fully expected a puppy tummy ache to ensue, but Grace tolerated her sugar orgy extremely well.
That Sunday, as the children sang happy birthday to Grace, their cone-shaped, Sponge Bob hats askew atop their heads, I realized that this was also a good-bye party. That nagging question, “How on earth are you ever going to give Grace up?” caused butterflies in my stomach.
A few weeks later, several carloads of puppy raisers, with their gangly, one-year-old pups squeezed between legs and bags of puppy supplies, caravanned to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan. We were a solemn group, yet full of excitement and expectation. Tearful good-byes to pups were accompanied by mutually comforting hugs among the grieving puppy raisers, many of whom would journey back to Leader Dogs in a few weeks or months to collect another puppy.
Six months later, when I had the opportunity to see Grace again and meet her partner, I cried tears of joy. I was thrilled to learn her destination was Costa Rica. I had recently been on a mission trip with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity in Costa Rica.
Despite the language barrier, our mutual joy transcended all barriers. “How on earth would I ever give Grace up?” I now knew the answer: it is for this moment that I raised her and let her go.
Hope for the Holidays
June 2006 through September 2007 was a difficult and discouraging time for my family as we experienced a series of significant losses. My husband’s oldest brother, Mike, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in June 2006. Early in December he was admitted into a hospice care facility for his final days. That very same day, his other brother underwent emergency heart surgery. Within a day or two, I received the news that a friend had died of breast cancer after a courageous battle that began when she was only thirty-five.
During the midst of all of this, we were waiting on a much-anticipated call came from Leader Dogs for the Blind. Our Leader Dog puppy, Hope, was due to be assigned to a blind person and graduate from the program as a full-fledged guide dog. However, the call we received was to inform us that Hope was being released from the program, due to being too timid. We were shocked and dumbfounded. How could this be? How disappointing!
As her puppy raisers, we were given first dibs on adopting her, and on December 26, 2006 my husband and I made the five-hour drive to Rochester Hills, Michigan to retrieve our very own golden retriever. When Hope first saw us from a distance, we weren’t sure if she recognized us. But as soon as we were subjected to the sniff test, she immediately recognized us. Her re-entry into our home was as if she had never left. If she was miffed with us for subjecting her to the rigors of kennel life and Leader Dog training, she never let on. She was her affable self. Our newest Leader Dog puppy was delighted to have an energetic playmate.
Our Sunday school class had been praying us through one stressful situation after another. On the Sunday after Christmas when we shared that Hope did not graduate and become a Leader Dog, we received a brilliant beam of hope from a classmate. Following class, she wrapped her arm around my shoulders and said, almost prophetically, “God knew that you were the ones who needed HOPE this Christmas.”
Prior to this, we’d only thought of Hope’s dismissal as a failure on our part as puppy raisers. Our friend’s insightful words flipped this perceived failure into a gift of God’s grace for grief-filled days. Yes, we indeed needed an infusion of hope during a very dark time. And how ironic that “God,” spelled backwards, is “dog.”
Hope, the golden retriever, and God’s hope continued to be with us as learned that my brother-in-law had succumbed to cancer. This providential ray of hope shone into 2007, offering support when my mother died in April, when our next-door-neighbor died of cancer in May, and in September, when the home of our other next-door-neighbor was destroyed by fire.
Our beautiful, beguiling, Hope is a vivid and tangible reminder that we need never lose hope, no matter what losses befall us. Grief is inevitable, a side effect of love. And HOPE is the golden retriever that sticks close to our side, and gently and faithfully leads us on.
Hope is gift that God intends for us to share with others. Thus, Hope and I are preparing to become an animal assisted therapy team. I have completed a course on Animal Assisted Therapy, and once Hope and I pass the Delta Society Animal-Handler Evaluation, we plan to visit senior living communities and other facilities where interaction with canines is beneficial. Maybe we can be a reading buddy team in a classroom. I am a Marriage and Family Therapist and Hope can be a valuable co-therapist, especially when working with children.
The possibilities are endless—when infused with HOPE.