After a long wait, the time came for me to meet my first service dog. Being paired with Ross at team training and learning to work with him and alongside him was very difficult those first few days. Many tears were shed. But then there was that moment when everything began to turn around; when the switch was flipped. I sat at team training and the trainer told me to position Ross in front of me and ask him to brace. I sat in the chair quaking with fear. What if I leaned on Ross to stand up and he decided to go greet another dog, or his trainer? What if he decided to sit down or give his attention to anything else? What if I fell? I told him to brace. I placed one hand on his shoulder and the other on his hip bones as I'd been taught. I pushed against him and began to stand up. He pushed back against me and there I was standing all by myself. My heart leaped and my eyes filled with tears. This was the beginning of life with a service dog. Those moments were just a few at first, but as time passed they began to multiply.
I caught my first glimpse of just how good life was going to be when on the way home from team training, Ross and I were able to walk onto the airplane without human assistance. I sat in my seat at the front of the plane and cried. My dog had already shown me a new world even though we had been a team for less than two weeks!
Ross and I grew as a team over the next years. We did everything together and shared every experience. He slept next to me every night. He lay at my feet while I played piano. In fact he often lay his head on my foot on the damper pedal. He listened to my students play the piano and greeted them when they arrived. He sang with me in choir concerts. He was there when I made a new friend or when I lost a friend. He became a cherished sibling to my children and a valued member of our family. He helped me carry shame. I've always felt as if I look ridiculous when I walk, but Ross was handsome and beautiful and he made me feel beautiful. He made me feel proud not only of who I was, but also of who we were as a team. I came to rely on him and to trust him implicitly. He was there every time I got up from a chair or got out of bed. Before Ross, I had always felt scared and insecure in public, as if I would fall down if anyone got too close. But Ross made me feel confident, and I knew that no matter what obstacle I faced, with Ross I could conquer it. I was never alone. Ross opened up a whole new world for me and he made my life rich, not only because of the tasks he performed for me, but because of the relationship we shared.
The years seemed to fly, Ross and I grew older, and I was basking in the security and sweetness of a mature relationship. Ross had my every move memorized. He braced for me automatically and knew exactly what to do. I no longer had to give him cues or tell him what I needed him to do. We had reached the peak of the mountain in our relationship. But I knew he was beginning to decline. I saw the pain in his eyes and in the way he moved. When the pain became too much for him he retired and the process of letting go began. Without my dog, I felt vulnerable, unsure and awkward. I missed Ross' calm presence and his steady, strong body supporting me. But Ross was still there when I came home at the end of the day. I could still cuddle up next to him and tell him about the day. I could still thank him for all the good work he had done and continued to do. Oh those moments were precious. But then Ross became ill and passed away. I know everyone is sad when they lose a pet, but when you lose a service dog you grieve two ways. First of all, there is the physical loss of the various tasks your service dog performs. Then there is the emotional loss of your best friend and all the sadness that comes with it. I was awash in grief. I missed my boy. I missed him every time I stood up and every time I took a shaky step. The grieving was deep and consuming and I became acutely aware of all that I'd lost.
Even the music I played at the piano seemed empty without a service dog lying at my feet. I longed to fill some of that emptiness with another service dog. I gave much thought to whether or not I wanted to get a successor service dog. Was I ready? Could I raise the money I needed? Did I have the strength and stamina to go through team training again? Could another dog even begin to fill that empty place in my heart? Would I somehow dishonor Ross and his memory by getting another service dog? I thought about how hard it had been at the beginning with Ross, but then I remembered all the sweetness and freedom he had brought into my life and I wanted to do it all again. I wanted to have another dog in my life. This time I better knew what to expect. I filled out the application and went through the process of fund-raising. This part of the process was daunting, but my neighbors, friends and family gathered around me in support. Some of them gave money toward my successor dog, and some of them helped me plan a piano recital as a fund-raising event. Some just sat and listened while I talked about Ross and how much I missed him.
A short time later all the necessary money was raised and I found myself waiting for what I thought would be a long time. I knew that the right dog would come at just the right time and that I needed to be patient. In the meantime, I waited, grieved, and worked through my loss. I looked up to heaven and talked with Ross. I told him that even though I loved him very much and wanted him back, I knew he couldn't come back. I told him I had to move on and get another service dog to help me walk through this life. I told him that he did such a good job that I was convinced I needed a successor dog to take on his responsibilities and work. A few months later, the phone call came from CST telling me that there was a possible match for me and that I would soon be scheduled for a week of team training. I was filled with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I wondered about my successor dog. Would it be a boy or a girl? What breed would he be? What color? What was my dog experiencing right now?
I counted the days, hours, minutes and seconds until team training. I wondered how it would be the same as last time, and how it would be different. Finally the day arrived. I drove to my hotel and discovered that it was the same hotel where I had stayed ten years ago for my first team training with Ross. I thought perhaps that would make me sad, but it did not. In fact, it was comforting to me to stay in the same hotel. It seemed like there was a strong, straight, unbroken seam between the past and the future. I wasn't doing anything new; I was simply taking the next step.
Team training began. I loved hearing familiar words and phrases. I loved talking about dogs and seeing them work for their trainers. I couldn't wait to meet my next canine partner. Then, out came Dolly. Deborah, Dolly's trainer, handed me the leash. I don't know how Dolly felt, but for me it was love at first sight. I was expecting her to be a little hesitant like Ross had been, but no, she was just the opposite. She greeted me excitedly and promptly emptied my pocket of every last one of my treats. I laughed hard. This dog loves her food!
We were given some instruction about entering and exiting a doorway and then Shara, one of our instructors, asked me to walk through the door and outside with Dolly. I was thinking hard and trying to remember how to make every move and issue every command correctly. I knew all the trainers were watching and especially that Dolly was watching. I was thinking so hard that it was difficult to move at all. Then Shara said, “Ruth, you've done this a million times with Ross. Same sequence, same cues, different dog. Just relax.” I smiled. She was right. I was trying too hard and thinking too much. I took a deep breath and walked out the door with my dog. It seemed effortless and natural. I cannot find words to describe how right that first walk felt. Dolly was perfect. She wore her service dog vest like a professional. She walked nicely at my side. She didn't pull or lunge. She walked at my pace, and the best part is that every so often she would look up at me.
I loved how she watched me even in those first few moments. I told her that she was doing a wonderful job. I said, “There's no way I can love you yet, but I sure like you a lot, and I can grow to love you.” I swear she smiled. Soon I was able to take her “home” to my hotel room. I lay down on the bed and invited Dolly to lie next to me. I thought she'd be a little standoffish. But no, she jumped right up and nestled next to me. I lay there next to her, weeping for joy. I told her that she was perfect and that we would be a great team. I told her that I was looking forward to having many experiences together that would enrich both her world and mine. I knew that since I was a bit stressed from team training, she must be too, and I told her to take a well-deserved rest, but I don't think she heard me because she was already sound asleep.
I don't want to give the impression that there aren't problems to work through. Dolly and I continue to work on bracing, learning new skills, and learning how to work smoothly together, but these are all things that will improve and strengthen over time.
One night during team training before bed time I was walking Dolly around the hotel thinking about how nice it was to be with a dog again, how good it was to hear the language of service dogs, and how sweet it was to put my hands on her coat and feel her breathing when I looked toward heaven and said to Ross, “So, what do you think?” I'm pretty sure he said back to me, “She is perfect for you. You are doing a better job with her than you did with me. I taught you well. Go be a great team.” That's precisely what Dolly and I are going to do. We are going to go through this life together and be the best team yet. I am filled with thankfulness for everyone at CST, from breeders to puppy raisers, volunteers, staff, and trainers, and the work they do to match service dogs to people in order to open up a new world to those for whom the world has been a small and limiting place. I used to call Ross my miracle, and now that miracle continues and enters a new phase with Dolly.
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