The Service Dog

My husband and I have always kept two dogs at a time. For the dogs’ sake, and ours, the symmetry of a family of four always seemed to work best. When one of our dogs would pass, another one would somehow show up to take it’s place. There is never a shortage of good dogs needing good homes and they always find us. The most memorable of these was Otis, a true rogue and poet. He was a houndish mutt of such profound presence and personality that after he passed, his absence left a big hole in my life that no two normally wonderful dogs could fill. After our new second dog had found us, I still felt an aching loss. There just wasn’t enough dogness in the house. I toyed with the idea of adopting a third dog, but balked at the asymmetry and the extra responsibility. Instead, I decided to investigate being a puppy raiser for a service dog organization. Puppy raisers raise and train the dogs until they are mature enough to go to advanced training and then placement with their life partner. As a puppy raiser I could have a third dog, but just for a year or so. This appealed to my emotional need of the moment and gave me an out down the road if indeed three dogs turned out to be more than I cared to deal with. Plus, I would be nurturing a helpmate for someone who needed that dog much more than I did; a good cause combined with breathtaking reasoning and no small amount of selfish neediness. Danger, Danger.

Researching online, I found a Florida based organization that provides service dogs to people with mobility disabilities, mostly wheelchair users. I sent the group an email inquiry about puppy raising, and the director called me the next day. We had an hour long chat, which, unbeknownst to me, was an interview. At the end of the conversation she informed me that I could pick up my puppy in two weeks. I panicked. I had done lots of obedience training with my own dogs, but this was a whole different level of training responsibility. The director assured me I would do fine, and that I would be provided clear guidelines and support for raising my dog from an eight-week old butterball peepot to a mature and capable service dog.

Two weeks later we drove up to the middle of the state and picked up our puppy. Labrador and golden retrievers are the prominent breeds used for mobility disability service dogs. These dogs often act as hands and arms for their partners, so having a built-in passion for retrieving and carrying things in their mouths is a necessity. I had known several pet goldens in my life, and based on all of them, I disliked the breed. I thought they were a stupid and slobbery breed, so I was disappointed that we were given a golden puppy and not a lab. My husband pointed out that this should be seen not as a disappointment but an opportunity, that my prejudice was being tested. Love those tests.

He was right, of course. Raising that dog was a revelation. I would like to claim that I also trained him, but he seemed hard-wired from the beginning to know the list of thirty verbal commands I was to teach him, not to mention the various tasks he was to master. Every time I taught him something new, it was if he had been waiting for me to learn the command so he could then show me how it was done.

Retrieving dropped things and giving them back to their partners is a big part of what the mobility service dogs do. I quickly learned that whenever I dropped something in the house or the studio, which was often, I should not pick it up myself. When this dog heard the sound of anything hitting the floor, he would come running to retrieve it and hand it back to me. If I had already picked it up by the time he got there, he would look at me like I was the one who needed better training. He was the server, and I was the servee. That’s how it worked, otherwise I was interfering with his life’s mission and passion. I would have to drop the thing again so he could pick it up and give it to me, thus setting the matter straight. One day I had a guy repairing an upstairs window in my house, and he dropped his screwdriver down onto the patio below. Who knows where the dog had been until that moment, whether inside or out, but he obviously heard the sound, came and figured out that the screwdriver was the dropped object, and figured out who must have dropped it. By the time the guy had climbed back in the window and reached the top of the stairs to go down and look for his tool, the dog was coming up the stairs with the screwdriver in his mouth to return it.

The constant accompaniment to any kind of service performed by this dog was a wagging tail and a big golden retriever smile. The only time the dog looked put out was when you didn’t let him do something for you. He was always thinking, trying to anticipate your next need so he could meet it before you asked him. We often took him with us when we went out at night, much to our two personal dogs’ resentment. Socializing the dogs to know how to behave in public, in stores and in restaurants, is important. Whenever we were preparing to go out, he would stare expectantly at us, tail wagging, asking to go along. One night I was getting dressed to go out and he gave me that inquiring look. I told him yes, he could go with us this time. Elated, he dashed off down the stairs to wait for us by the door, or so I assumed. A few minutes later he reappeared with my car keys in his mouth. He had found my purse, wherever I had left it downstairs, and had gotten the keys out to bring to me, knowing I would need them next. This was not something I had taught him to do.

We ultimately raised and trained four service dogs, two goldens and two labs. Contrary to my previous prejudice, I loved the goldens. They were very serious about their work and therefore the easiest to train. But I loved the labs, too; they had a better sense of humor about the job. It was as if in the middle of learning a new task, they had to stop every so often to tell a joke. We would get to the same end result as the goldens, eventually, but only after much mutual cracking up along the way.

When you finally deliver your mature dog back to the organization for advanced training, it is best if you leave with a new puppy in your arms. This helps ease the wrenching separation you inevitably feel from the dog you have loved and nurtured for a year an a half. You can’t focus on feeling sorry for yourself when you have an un-housetrained eight week old puppy on your hands. Yes, turning the mature dogs in was heartbreaking, but the joy and excitement of starting over with a new puppy was huge. The challenge and fun of preparing them to serve their future partners was magical. All four dogs were placed with wonderful partners and I see them from time to time at reunions. When we meet again there are ear to ear smiles on everyone. Although the dogs remember me and we have a big noisy, slobbery love fest for a few minutes, they now have a meaningful mission in their lives and a partner that they are devoted to. Their partners have in the dog a best friend who assists them to be more independent, and who gives them unconditional love and chronically cheerful companionship. By puppy raising I got to make a profound difference, for possibly the only time in my life, in eight other lives, human and canine. It doesn’t get any better than that.

When I turned in my last service dog, I didn’t bring home a puppy. It nearly killed me. During the tenure of the last dog, my father had moved down into his own home around the corner from us. Seeing him everyday instead of only talking to him long distance, it became quickly apparent that what had seemed for years as simply the eccentricities of old age was something more serious. His now obvious dementia made him require more of my help than we had anticipated. When everyone asked why I hadn’t taken a new service dog puppy, I joked that I didn’t have the time and the energy to train a service dog and my father at the same time. Not a very funny joke, as it turned out.

I see now that all those years of training the dogs was just a set up. It’s like the service dogs truly anticipated what my future needs were going to be. It was really me who needed and received the appropriate training so that I could become a service dog for my father. This is what I tell people, but this is not a joke, either. I don’t have children, so I had no basic parenting skills like patience and effective communication with an uncooperative being. My father had taken care of me when I was young, but now the roles were reversing, quickly, and suddenly it was my job to anticipate his changing needs and to serve them. To call it a learning curve is ridiculous. This experience has been more like a monster rollercoaster ride where you are constantly in fear of being thrown to a horrible death, or of surviving only to throw up all over yourself and everyone around you.

What the service dogs taught me is how much better cut out for caretaking they are than I am. The dogs could not teach me how to be naturally happy in this job, but they did teach me how to do it well. Their secret is that, unlike me, they would never even think of trying to fix someone’s disability; that kind of effort only frustrates everyone involved and makes them all unhappy. Instead, the dog’s sole focus is to make their partner the most successful person with a disability they can. It took me a while, with much frustration, but I finally got this. I cannot fix my father’s aging or his dementia. Instead, I am trying to make him the most successful old man with dementia I can. This isn’t a job I love, but it is gratifying, at least. Success for my father means his being able to continue to live alone in his house. It means eating nutritiously, getting daily exercise, and being safe. Success is his not being made to feel dependent on someone else for all those things, although he is. Success means not having his lack of memory pointed out to him, or putting him in confusing, thus embarrassing, situations. Success is his being left alone to his own thoughts, no matter how scrambled they are. Everyday, as I repeat the same thing to my father or answer the same question for the umpteenth time, I think of the service dogs, tails wagging madly as they happily repeat the same task over and over and over. The dogs retrieve dropped objects; I do the same with bits of my father’s life. I retrieve lost words and moments of awareness. Unlike the dogs, I have to make an effort to smile as I’m serving, something they do automatically and sincerely. I have to admit, though, that when I do smile, the burden becomes much lighter.

Out of necessity for his well being, I guide my father through his daily life now, but I try to make it seem like I am no more than tail-wagging companionship. Ironically, I think I am like the golden retrievers I trained, taking it all a little too seriously. I need to be more like the labs; I should lighten up and learn a few jokes.

10/10/2009

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