Two years ago, I received my eighth Seeing Eye dog, a 50-lb Lab/Golden Retriever mix named Abby. I’ve traveled with dogs at my side for over 30 years, so I was not prepared for how much I still had to gain from the experience.
I met my first pup, a Golden Retriever named Matt, when I was a clueless college student. I didn’t realize what it meant to take responsibility for a furry creature. You have to feed, walk, and pick up after them, even when you are sick, hungover or just don’t want to be bothered.
Each subsequent dog taught me life lessons.
- A tiny Yellow Lab named Rainbow bounced into my world with a personality befitting her name. Her sudden and untimely death was a stark reminder of the heartbreak that is the price we pay for loving another being.
- My Shepherd mix, Maggie, could work traffic like a dream and find all my favorite restaurants. The day she dropped a friend’s deceased bird at my feet taught me she was first and foremost a dog, and the poor dead bird was my responsibility. Maggie redeemed herself when she got me to a safe place after we were mugged while walking home.
- My sweet Kallie lived with me till the age of 15, and it was an honor to care for her as her health declined. I held her paw as she left us. She was my “Diva Princess,” and memories of her cause me to smile.
Abby’s predecessor, Layla, is tough and spirited, and working with her was like having the perfect dance partner. She had a confident stride as we walked down the street. Her spunky personality along with just the right touch of attitude made her one of my favorites. When illness caused me to have difficulty with balance, Layla slowed her pace, and I could lean on her strength literally and figuratively.
She was the dog whose strength of spirit made me just a little braver when I wanted to stay home under the covers. She was named by me for Laila Ali (daughter of the former heavyweight champion of the world and herself a professional boxer) and she lived up to her name. Layla was my warrior princess.
Sadly, Layla experienced a form of post traumatic reaction after being attacked by off-leash dogs in our neighborhood. Her fear of dogs became so severe that it put us both at risk. The school, along with a behavior specialist, gave me tools to help Layla recover. This meant I had to be prepared to manage Layla’s stress reactions whenever she saw or heard another dog.
To her credit, Layla worked despite intense anxiety. I know in retrospect this came at a high cost to her, my warrior princess so named because of her strength of spirit.
The only thing left I had to give was a home with a loving family. I took immense comfort in the assurance that her “forever family” would give her all the love and support she deserved as a retiree. She now has four children to play with and look after.
Saying goodbye was wrenching. When I traveled to meet my next dog, I did so with a grieving heart.
Years of doing life with a dog – one that I am reliant on for my independence and so many times, safety – taught me my relationships with these dogs aren’t sappy Disney gigs. It takes hard work, patience, trust and lots of love.
It isn’t a walk in the park for the pups, either. They must say goodbye to the family who raises them and a trainer with whom they have bonded over a period of months. Then they meet the person they will hopefully guide for many years. They leave the comfort of everything they know to travel to a place where their new handler is now their world.
Each of my pups has been trained at The Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J.; the staff knows my environment and preferences.
Abby was chosen because of her easy nature and the fact she was not distracted by other dogs. Also, she was selected for training on my right side because of an injury to my left arm. (Typically, dogs work on a person’s left side)
I am a blind chick with more than a touch of snark. However, Abby – described by her trainer as a “cuddle bug” – seemed poorly matched with my edgy temperament. I wanted to run – not walk – back to the airport and go home with no dog.
But there was no back-up dog waiting in the wings. I knew my particular circumstance meant I had two choices: Suck it up and do my best, or run like hell back to Ohio.
I chose the former, took Abby’s leash, and a new chapter began.
The next two weeks in New Jersey were a whirlwind of activity. Our days began at 5:30 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m. after our dog’s last constitutional. Every moment is about working and bonding with a new guide.
Abby’s trainer called her the “perfect pup,” because her work was slow and deliberate. Her “paycheck” was all the snuggles and hugs I could manage.
However, what I did not share was how my aversion to touch and Abby’s need for physical contact was pushing me way beyond my typical level of comfort. I considered working to curb Abby’s cuddling behavior. I tried to teach her there is a time and place, but I knew in my soul her desire for physical contact is an integral part of who she is.
When we arrived home, Abby’s work was excellent. She accompanied me to my job, to the food pantry where we volunteer, and to several concerts and festivals. As long as I rocked her to sleep before bed and gave her lots of cuddly toys, we were all good.
She is my “pack and go” pup because I can take her anywhere as long as she is back home and in bed by 9 p.m. Definitely not a party animal!
I think God has a twisted sense of humor and is laughing uproariously at snarky me being matched with “cuddle bug” Abby.
Months passed, and one day I realized the warmth of a dog on my shoulder no longer caused anxiety. In fact, I was beginning to find comfort through connection with a pup that possesses a gentle spirit and loving heart.
As I look back on a journey I would not have taken if I was asked, I know that sometimes we get what we need rather than what we want.
There is no “fixing” Abby, or me either. We aren’t broken. She is still a cuddle-bug, and I’m still the snarky blind chick who is perhaps a little softer these days. There is the diligent worker in harness and the Abby whose hugs bring comfort to someone who is having a difficult time.
I now have eight sets of paw prints on my heart. If I drew them, each would be unique.
Abby’s exudes love, acceptance and the healing power of connection.