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Learning to let go of a guide dog in training
Guiding Miss Ellie

It was a few years into my post-corporate, stay-at-home freelance life that I had the brainstorm. Feeling lonely and useless, I had been driving my husband, Andy, nuts. My life felt small. And the smaller it felt, the more impossible I became. Disgusted by my self-loathing, and sick of taking it out on the one guy I loved, I realized that it was time to pull myself together and focus my energy on doing something positive and worthwhile.

I decided that the perfect solution would be to raise a guide dog puppy. Andy couldn’t object. Though our loyalty to our now deceased old mutt, Lucy, had made it difficult for him to commit to another dog, this would be different, I pointed out. It was only temporary — just a one-year stint. It would be fun. And think of the good we’d be doing!

“Go for it,” he said without hesitation, much to my surprise. I made the call the very next day.

I was excited. So what if I was a basket case at the Guide Dog Foundation’s orientation meeting, the thought of giving up a pup I hadn’t even met driving me to tears? I would be fine. I’d be doing good!

During those first few sleep-deprived weeks, I’d slap on Cathy’s little yellow “Future Guide Dog” vest and head out into the world, looking for some acknowledgment. This was no mere pet, that vest would scream. This was a dog with a purpose. She had a goal. We both had a goal!

There were plenty of times when I’d be rewarded with a “Good for you!” or a “Thank you for doing that,” from a total stranger. But more often than not, I’d be faced with the same reaction — one that made me feel like a low-life, or a criminal. Instead of being lauded for my selflessness, I found myself being lambasted for my heartlessness.

“You mean you’ll have to give her up? How can you do that? I know I couldn’t,” people would snort. My own sister questioned the whole setup. “It’s like giving up your adopted daughter!” she claimed, as she covered the phone’s mouthpiece to reprimand her adopted daughter.

At first I’d nod in agreement, eager for approval. “I know,” I’d say. “I don’t know how I’m going to handle it.” Sometimes I’d even point to the puppies’ 50 percent failure rate as a twisted sign of hope. But it didn’t take long for that to wear off. “Don’t say that to me,” I began to snap when people would ask the question. “I really don’t want to think about it.” And if I really wanted to end the conversation I’d add, “Besides, think of all the good she’ll be doing.”

The truth was, the thought of giving her up was starting to loom over our relationship with Cathy like a wobbly construction crane over a busy Manhattan street. In the privacy of our own home, Andy and I would often compare notes about how we felt about her. “She’s so bossy,” I’d say, stroking her velvety black ears. “And did you ever notice how clumsy she is?” sounding an awful lot like the me of the early stages in our relationship. “He’s too blond,” I’d try to convince myself, a wary child of five divorces. “And he wears white socks!”

“Stop being so critical of her,” he’d say. “She’s just a puppy! And speaking of puppies, have you seen my socks anywhere?”

One day, as I watched him endlessly lobbing a contraband Squeaky Monkey to a tirelessly leaping Cathy, I barked out a warning. “Be careful,” I cautioned. “I think you’re falling in love.”

He continued to toss. “You know?” he said. “I really do enjoy her. But I just don’t feel like I’m anything special to her.” “You mean you don’t think she’s special?” I asked, assuming he was referring to her rather generic Lab-like personality. “No,” he corrected me. “I mean I’m not anything special to her. I just don’t feel like we’ve bonded.”

I did wonder, and not for the first time, if this notion of feeling special might have been the missing link for Andy in his past relationships, specifically his first two marriages. But then again, I suspected that this might simply be his own way of keeping his heart a safe distance away from disaster. I wasn’t sure. Nevertheless, that night Cathy and I went out to sit on the front stoop, waiting to greet Andy when he came home. “There he is,” I whispered in her ear, as soon as I recognized his lopsided gait a half a block away. “It’s your pal!” I repeated, as her tail became a blur of motion. “Go get him!” I urged, letting go of the leash as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “Hi, honey. I’m so happy you’re home. Did you have a good day?” I asked, brushing his cheek with my lips as I took the grocery bags from his hand.

As the months passed, we both struggled with our growing affection for Cathy and with the increasing frequency of the dreaded question about giving her up. One day, as I caught up with the two of them after a run in the park, I heard Andy responding to a couple dressed in matching “I Love NY” sweatshirts. “You know,” he said, as he bent down to pat Cathy’s head, “we’re just enjoying every day with her.”

At first I had to laugh, recalling his reaction as she jumped on the bed at 5:15 that very morning. Barking. Loudly. But later I thought about how much truth there was in what he said. We were enjoying every day. And the longer she had been with us, the more in the moment we had become. There was no more judgment — she could do no wrong. And if she did? What was the big deal? It was only temporary, right? (Though I do offer apologies in advance to the blind person who may someday find themselves being dragged on their belly in pursuit of a squirrel. We did our best — honest.)

I tried out Andy’s line the next day at the dog run. “We’re just enjoying every day with her,” I claimed to the curious huddle of dog people. “And besides,” I added with a flourish of my own, “aren’t all relationships temporary?” Heads nodded, and voices mumbled, “True, true.”

And, of course, it was true. Didn’t my friend Judy’s husband literally get hit by a bus two summers ago? And what about my other friend, Amy, whose husband walked out on her, with no warning, after 24 years, leaving her sitting at the kitchen table, stunned, over her morning cup of coffee? Then there was Beth, who had married a guy who, 15 years later, decided he wanted to be a girl.

I took the lessons learned from Cathy to heart. But while I focused my efforts on a more mindful marriage, my little canine polygamist remained loyal to no one. Or everyone. It didn’t matter if you were a mail carrier, a garbage collector, a veterinarian or a homeless drunk resting on our sidewalk. All you’d have to do is smile at her, or utter the words “cute” or “puppy,” and she’d burst into her own little St. Vitus dance. It became clear that she’d just as soon go home with the super next door as with me. I couldn’t help but think of my niece as a toddler, when she first came over from Romania — constantly wrapping her arms around strangers’ knees in the mall. “Attachment disorder,” my sister had explained. “It’s a common bonding issue with adopted kids.”

In Cathy, however, I was reluctant to label it as a disorder. She was just a happy dog. As a hard-core pessimist, I admired her ability to remain ever hopeful that a forbidden chicken leg might fall off the counter, or that the neighbor’s cat might suddenly admit that he actually liked her. Whereas I couldn’t speak before my morning coffee (which Andy, in self-defense, faithfully brought to me in bed), Cathy always woke up happy.

After she had been with us for about six months, I noticed Andy singing in the shower, a spectacle I hadn’t been subjected to in a really long time. And that stupid trick he used to do before bed, where he’d kick his underpants up into the air and catch them on his head? It was back. Despite her alleged failing at making him feel special, it was clear that Cathy was making him happy, just by being happy. The next morning I watched, through one open eye, as she wiggled her butt and licked his ears. I struggled to sit up and speak. “Good morning,” I croaked, forcing a smile. Andy eyed me warily. “You okay?” he asked.

Cathy is gone now, in training. True to her nature, the day we brought her in she yanked mercilessly on the leash, eager to join her pals in the kennel, and never looked back. It was a tearful parting, for some of us. “Stay happy,” I sobbed, as I bent down to kiss her nose. Andy’s tears didn’t start until we got to the parking lot, just as they had after the first time we dropped his daughter off at college. The difference was, we knew the daughter would be back.

But honestly? Cathy could be back too. Exuberant extroverts don’t exactly make the best guide dogs. I have my doubts. In the meantime, I keep her picture smack in the middle of our living room, the way some people do with inspirational icons like John F. Kennedy or Jesus. I’ll never forget those deep brown eyes or those chubby jowls, but I know there will be days when I just may need a gentle reminder of a different sort.

And in the meantime, there’s Tiffany. A five month-old counter-surfing, toilet paper-pulling, knee-nipping, garbage-stealing future guide dog. But that’s a whole other story.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 62: Nov/Dec 2010
Ellen Kaye is a freelance writer and co-author of The Wine Guy: Everything You Want to Know about Buying and Enjoying Wine from Someone Who Sells It. She lives in New York City.
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