by Sue Wiygul Martin
Sitting obediently, Beverly nonetheless lets it be known that she objects to showing such monumental restraint. Holding the door open I nod my head and tell her it's okay to break the sit. With a little bark of joy she dashes outside and looks desperately for the stick she dropped the last time she came in. Finding it, she grabs it, tosses her head in the air, and bounds out into the yard. She dashes in a circle and screeches to a halt, dropping the stick at my feet.
Beverly is my third dog guide. Thus, I've gone through making the decision to retire two dogs. The circumstances of making that choice couldn't have been more different with each dog.
Sadie was a yellow Lab. She had a nice hard pull and seemed so very focused on her work that I thought she'd work forever. She could get me in and out of places where the faint of heart dare not tread. That's why I spent so long trying to make it work with her.
For a while Sadie was great. After a period of time though she began growling at certain people. Looking back on it I realize that once Sadie began thinking of an environment as hers she would start this growling behavior. Then her nice strong pull turned into a nightmare. My husband and I do a lot of hiking and it became downright dangerous to do rough trails with Sadie. I couldn't get my foot firmly set before she was pulling me off of it.
Eventually I asked the school to send a trainer to help me. The trainer gave me several suggestions. In the office I was to set up a barricade of sorts beyond which Sadie could not see. This isolation was supposed to give her fewer opportunities to bark as she wouldn't be able to see people coming and going. It worked okay for the visual things at which she was barking but she still barked at every little "out of the ordinary" sound. To help with her pull in harness the trainer had me tape some marbles on the inside of the breast strap of an old harness. I honestly don't remember if this really helped or not.
The barking and growling were getting so out of control that other issues ceased to have the importance that they once had. Sadie's agressiveness had no boundaries. She'd growl at me just as readily as she'd growl at a stranger. Finally, Sadie growled at a child who entered a waiting room in which I sat. I corrected her and she retaliated by growling at me. That was it. I stood, took her out into the hall, and removed her harness. Although it took me a month to find a home for her she was retired as of that moment.
I recall feeling angry and hurt. The anger didn't leave a lot of room for the feelings of failure and regret that eventually surfaced. I was so utterly relieved when I no longer had to worry every minute about what my dog was going to do that I went through the next couple of months in a kind of blissful oblivion.
Then I returned to train with my second dog. It was only then that the feelings of, "What if," and, "If only," began to rear their ugly heads. I tormented myself with the "What if's" until I finally had to talk to someone about it. I asked my instructor if I could talk with him. I don't remember the exact content of our discussion but I do remember the feelings I had at the end of the conversation. I had this new young dog named Quoddy on the end of my brand new leash and it was on her that I needed to focus my attention. What had happened with Sadie wasn't necessarily good or bad…it just was.
The grueling pace of dog guide school contributed a great deal towards helping me focus on the future and this new dog with whom I was going to share a part of my life.
Quoddy was such a gentle being. She knew her job and did it well. She was very cautious and that was something entirely new to me. I was used to going practically "where no man, or woman for that matter had gone before" with Sadie that Quoddy's style of work took some getting used to. She was exactly the dog I needed though after the three years of stress with Sadie.
Once I was able to focus my attention on the future I began to appreciate the qualities which Quoddy brought into our partnership. With Sadie I had had to be the calm one in the relationship. On the contrary, with Quoddy I, at times, had to be a cheerleader. Quoddy was not a decision maker. She looked to me for direction if she had the slightest doubt about a route or a turn. It took a while to accustom myself to this deliberate style but once I did, what fun we had together! Hiking became the joy that I knew it could be. Even on the roughest of trails Quoddy's gentle pull and quiet work allowed me to appreciate aspects of the hike that I had missed with Sadie. Work in town was a different matter. After getting a face full of automobile exhaust Quoddy refused to walk behind an idling car at a street crossing. While this made for some tense moments during street crossings I always felt safe with her.
Quoddy worked well and faithfully for 7 years. During the winter of 1996 she began limping. Although the limp disappeared with treatment my school encouraged me to go ahead and get my application in for retraining. As Quoddy's limp seemed to have been cured and she was only eight and a half years old I didn't think it was really necessary. Nonetheless I went ahead and started the application process. I was certainly in no hurry though. I had my physical and still the application sat on my desk. Eventually I received a postcard from the school. They mentioned that they had received the physical from my doctor and assumed that my application would be forthcoming. I had to laugh at this and wonder about how firmly tongue was planted in cheek when the postcard was written. Eventually I did get the application in and was duly scheduled for a class the following autumn.
As the spring and summer passed Quoddy seemed to be back to her old self. Towards the end of the summer I called the school, explained the situation, and asked if I could be scheduled for a later class. Turns out this was no problem at all. They encouraged me to keep in close touch with them and they would schedule me for a class in the winter. The time drew near for that class and, again, I felt that Quoddy was working fine so I postponed. All the while I talked with and E-mailed other dog guide handlers who had made the retirement decision. I was looking for some kind of objective means for determining that the time for retirement had come. Invariably I was told that I would just know. But just how I would know remained a mystery. Then came the summer of 1997. Quoddy seemed lethargic and somewhat indifferent to her work. She still worked but there seemed to be little excitement about it. On a hike up Cadillac Mountain I found myself doing more cheerleading than I had done since our first year together. In more ordinary situations I had to actually go over to wherever Quoddy was lying and snap a leash on her collar to get her up. When I had to go somewhere in my office building I began to just grab a cane rather than go to the trouble of waking her up and making sure she was alert enough to actually guide me. This happened kind of gradually but it finally dawned on me that the old girl was really slowing down.
By this time the school had scheduled me for the third class in this odyssey. And I was finally sure that it was time. I can't say enough in praise of Seeing Eye's flexibility in this retirement process. It made the whole experience as comfortable and as smoothe as it could possibly have been. Having the ability to go ahead and be scheduled for a class knowing that I could postpone it if necessary allowed me to get used to the idea before it was thrust upon me as a necessity. The other factor which made the decision easier was knowing that I could keep Quoddy after her retirement.
I took Quoddy's harness off for the last time on a Friday afternoon and went back to The Seeing Eye the next day. It was not too great of a mental leap to see this as the beginning of a new phase of life for the Quoddy dog. She ended up living almost 5 years after her retirement and I, honestly, think she really enjoyed it.
Making the very major decision about retiring a dog guide is probably never easy. Even with all of the stress I experienced with my first dog the decision was still a difficult one. In some ways it was more difficult to make the decision to retire a dog early than after a full and long working life. As I learned when I retired Sadie, there is no right or wrong decision in this retirement business. Through both of these experiences I've learned to trust in myself and my instincts.
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