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Dogs and the Women Who Love Them
Extraordinary True Stories of Loyalty, Healing, and Inspiration
By Allen Anderson, Linda Anderson
New World LibraryCopyright © 2010 Allen and Linda Anderson
All rights reserved.
We have our spot.
Each night she waits for my
"Say-up," flying weightless
Into a clump of soft hair
Warming my feet up on the couch.
Slipping into the comfort of
Old marrieds, content with
Nearness and routine.
I reach down and squeeze her foot
In our secret shake. She eyes me,
flops over, sighs.
God is nigh.
— JANICE A. FARRINGER, "Comfort Zone"
More Than a Guide Dog
* * *
Sally Rosenthal, PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA
As a guide dog handler, I have found that most people know what these working dogs provide for those of us who are blind. We rely on the special training and highly developed intelligence of our canine partners to help us travel safely and independently, and we appreciate the way guide dogs serve as icebreakers in social situations.
Boise, my first guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, retired unexpectedly due to liver disease and went to live with her beloved puppy raisers, Judy and Skip, just a few hours away. For several months after Boise retired, I was without a guide dog. I had often joked that Boise, a very smart black Labrador with a decidedly independent and humorous nature, would be a hard act for any dog to follow. Yet I wasn't apprehensive about welcoming a new guide dog into my life and heart. I knew that the staff at Guiding Eyes were selecting a dog from the school's kennel of top-notch Labradors to match my lifestyle and physical needs, and training the dog to work specifically with me. I realized that, because of these things, I would easily make the transition from Boise to her successor.
I missed the independence a guide dog gave me. I looked forward to, before long, having a harness handle in my hand again and a trusted canine companion to guide me confidently. Together we would shop for groceries, take part in church activities, and do our part to keep a local coffee shop in business with frequent stops for coffee for me and a few ice cubes for the dog who lay quietly under the table.
When I was matched with Greta, I knew that having another dog by my side would assure me all the safety, mobility, and social interaction I had enjoyed with Boise. What I didn't know when this new, almost three-year-old petite yellow Labrador retriever entered my life was that Greta was more than just an ordinary guide dog. She was, as I came to learn, a dog with many missions.
I was not the first woman Greta had loved and helped. Like all potential guide dogs born in the kennel maintained by Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Greta spent the first year or so of her life with a puppy raiser. This is an individual who teaches the dog basic obedience commands, perfects house manners, and begins the socialization process. Most puppies go to a network of puppy-raiser volunteers for training, but Greta was among a small number who were loaned to Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), an organization that places puppies for various assistance dog programs with prison inmates.
Based in New York City, Puppies Behind Bars works with a number of prisons whose male or female inmates are specifically selected to take part in this program. I don't know how Greta was chosen to become a PBB pup, so I can only imagine. As a gregarious puppy with a willingness to please, she no doubt responded to the love and commitment the program ensured for all its puppies and inmates. Having passed a rigorous screening process, inmates in this program participate in structured training with their puppies on weekdays. Community volunteers provide the puppies with additional training and exposure to the world outside prison walls on weekends.
Although I have had no direct contact with Greta's puppy raiser, I do know that these inmates value their work with the puppies for a number of reasons. For many, the loving bond they form with the puppies is the first unconditional love they have experienced. Raising a potential assistance dog builds their self-esteem, often causing them to feel as though they have made a positive contribution to society. When Greta left the PBB program to return to Guiding Eyes for the Blind and embark on her formal guide dog training, she no doubt left behind a woman who was changed for the better.
All of Guiding Eyes' working guide dogs are among the best in the field because of an excellent breeding program and dedicated trainers. I believe Greta benefited from her involvement in the PBB program. Her exposure to many new experiences and people — her prison experiences and weekend activities with a variety of volunteers — no doubt helped shape her personality and abilities.
After completing her formal guide dog training at Guiding Eyes, Greta arrived at my home with her Guiding Eyes trainer for ten days of intensive training with me. From the moment I opened my front door and bent down to touch Greta's head and give her a kiss, which she exuberantly returned in Labrador fashion, I felt a special bond with her. It strengthened as we trained. Our instructor commented on how quickly we became attached to each other and began our partnership.
Greta's Mission Expands
Greta's puppy raiser and I were not the only women whose lives were changed by the intervention of this sweet and loving dog. Shortly after Greta and I became a guide dog team in 2007, my elderly mother entered hospice care in a nursing home. Because my father had died peacefully under hospice care several years earlier, I knew my mother would also experience the end of life with the same dignity. On our first visit to the nursing home together, I told Greta we were going to visit her grandmother.
Upon entering the room my mother shared with three other patients, Greta immediately guided me to her even though they had never met. My mother was sitting in a chair when we arrived. Greta placed her front paws on my mother and kissed her as if the two of them had been lifelong friends. Although this sort of greeting wasn't one I would have encouraged in a working guide dog, in this instance I felt entirely comfortable with Greta's gently enthusiastic greeting. It marked the beginning of a special connection she and my mother, a true dog lover, would share.
As my mother's fragile health declined, visits from Greta were among her few remaining joys. The dog always seemed to know if my mother needed a gentle Labrador head on her lap or a visit filled with more interaction, such as when my mother gave Greta tummy rubs.
Because mothers worry about their children until their dying day, my own mother remained concerned about me and how I would cope with blindness in middle age. She often worried about my physical safety as I walked and traveled and, like me, was concerned about how blindness made many daily tasks more difficult and time-consuming. I knew she was letting go of worry and life when, at the end of one visit, she leaned over and told Greta, "You take good care of my Sally." Seeing how well Greta and I worked together enabled my mother to die more peacefully.
My mother's assessment of Greta's skills was absolutely correct. While all guide dog teams undergo strenuous training together, Greta had been given even more specialized training to work with me. Due to a stroke in infancy, I have some physical disabilities in addition to the blindness I have experienced for the past decade. Greta was one of a selective group of guide dogs at Guiding Eyes for the Blind who had advanced training in that organization's special needs program. This meant she was able to work with a visually impaired handler who also has other disabilities.
During our first two years together, Greta learned to guide on my right side to compensate for my left-sided weakness, walk at a slower pace than most guide dogs, and help keep me walking in a straight line. She did all these things in addition to the usual and often stressful guide work, proving what an excellent dog she is. With Greta's guidance, I was able to continue my daily routine of errands, leisure activities, and church involvement.
As I had done with Boise, I was able to walk confidently and with more physical ease because of Greta's understanding of both my visual and special mobility needs. Greta, with her guide dog training and her sensitivity, quickly assessed our teamwork and made any needed adjustments in her guiding. I told her often that she was the world's best guide dog, and I feel certain she agreed.
Therapy Dog Greta
Seeing how well Greta interacted with my mother in the nursing home made me think that she would be, as Boise had been, a good pet therapy dog. Soon after my mother died, Greta and I became pet therapy volunteers in two local nursing homes with Pals For Life, a pet therapy organization located in suburban Philadelphia. Just as she had with my mother, Greta charmed ill and lonely residents. She was always ready to greet depressed elderly residents with a wagging tail and a head just waiting to be patted. Her Labrador cheerfulness brightened everyone's day.
As we celebrated the second anniversary of our partnership, I thought there would be few challenges left for Greta to undertake. However, life proved me wrong. I was diagnosed with lymphedema resulting from lifelong physical problems associated with many orthopedic surgeries. I spent a number of months going for outpatient treatment at a nearby rehabilitation hospital. During my treatments Greta slept peacefully, and when we had lunch in the hospital cafeteria, she garnered legions of admirers. I have been told that Greta is an especially pretty dog, with her dark yellow coat and brown ears and tail. People at the hospital were quick to comment on her beauty and excellent guide work in a crowded cafeteria. Greta, lying calmly under the table as I ate my lunch, was a model guide dog in repose.
Because lymphedema is a permanent condition that, in my case, has caused some gait changes, Greta has continued to adapt her guide skills to my needs. She refines them as necessary in order to keep us involved in all our customary activities. Lymphedema wrappings can be bulky. Sensing my difficulty with the wrappings, and recognizing that tiredness sometimes slows down my walking, Greta adjusts her pace as she guides me. She is, according to my husband, taking extra care while guiding me around obstacles such as grates and speed bumps on our early-morning walks at our condominium complex. I am impressed that she is so attuned to my needs.
Greta and I will soon train as hospice volunteers. While visiting my father in an in-patient hospice several years ago, I learned that the facility welcomed weekly visits from a therapy dog. I thought about how much I would like to someday offer the solace of a dog of my own, not knowing at the time that the dog in question would be a guide dog. Given her penchant for seeking out those in need, Greta, I am certain, will be on yet another mission.
Dogs, like people, can have several missions in life. What multiple talents in dogs and yourself could you make use of and expand on to find more joy and purpose?
K-9 Major — from Chains to Heroism
* * *
Marilyn Walton, NEW ALBANY, OHIO
One bitter Wisconsin day in a blinding snowstorm, a young German shepherd was born in a snowbank. The only puppy to survive his litter, he nuzzled against his mother for warmth and protection from the cruel wind.
As he grew old enough to leave his mother, a rural Wisconsin family adopted him for the sole purpose of protecting their farm. They named the young dog Major. Clearly, they wanted a demonstrative warrior and chose the name accordingly. Major's job was to scare strangers off the property, so the family fostered aggression in the dog by giving him very little human contact. The training worked only too well, and the family eventually came to fear the dog. When he became more aggressive than they had anticipated, family members didn't know how to deal with the threatening creature they had created.
Major was chained to a stake on the run-down premises, where no family member cared about him or dared to stop by to break the monotony of his long days. The family did not want the dog running away, so he remained tethered. Loss of a property protector was their only concern, not loss of a cherished animal. Constantly chained and never properly socialized, Major became even more aggressive as the weeks and months passed by.
While biting winter wind howled across the plain, lonely Major survived each day without the warmth or protection of a doghouse. A snowy lump of fur, he hunkered down against the cold. For two years, Major had no one to play with and trusted no one. He suffered through the hard winters with ragged, frostbitten ears. Children with sticks teased the thin and sickly dog, even when he tried to eat his meager dinner. He always remembered their cruelty and would never feel close to children.
Janet Ballard (née Koch) had recently been honorably discharged from the army. Despite the fact that she was awarded an Army Commendation Medal upon her discharge, she left the military with some sadness. She had been forced to leave behind her bomb detection-patrol dog, Duke, a German shepherd she had grown to love so much and still missed. Duke had been trained by the Military Working Dog Foundation. For three and a half years, Janet had handled MWD Duke in Washington, D.C. During her time of service with Duke, she had been promoted to kennel master and sergeant in charge of her unit. Her slight frame and easy smile belied her expertise in training and handling the toughest dogs. She was young but self-assured, and her sense of humor was an asset that eased her way among fellow soldiers, just as her gentle but firm approach won over the dogs in her charge.
After returning to civilian life, Janet wanted to continue working with dogs. She took a job with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department in Wisconsin and convinced the sheriff to let her train a dog on her own time to perform K-9 duties. He gave his permission to bring any good dog she found to him for inspection and approval.
Janet's friend Ruth knew the woman who had adopted Major's father — a beautiful German shepherd dog named Caesar, who was living a happy life with loving people. The woman had told Ruth the story of lonely Major and expressed hope that someone would be able to help the dog. When Janet heard about Major from Ruth, she arranged to meet the dog. "I was looking for a dog who had the potential to be as good as Duke, but I knew that those would be big paws to fill. My new dog would need heart and courage, and he would have to love to play fetch."
The woman who had Caesar brought Major to Ruth's farm so that Janet could test the dog on neutral territory. From a distance, Janet saw that Major had the potential to be a beautiful dog like Caesar, but that he looked very sad and appeared to be in bad shape — he was underfed and in poor health. There was no glow to his heavy, matted coat.
Ruth and the woman took the scruffy dog into the barn and fastened his chain to a stake. Purposely dressed in unusual clothing — a floppy hat and long, oversized coat — Janet suddenly appeared before the startled dog. Her goal was to create a bit of agitation and determine his level of defense and "prey drive," the basic drive for survival in dogs derived from their past in the wild, where they had to chase after their dinners. Janet watched for the modern-day equivalent of a prey drive by observing how interested the dog was in chasing a ball, toy, person, or whatever else she meant for the dog to catch.
A lot was riding on the initial testing result, because Janet would take Major home with her if he tested well. To Janet's delight, Major responded boldly by barking and snarling with extreme confidence, matching her aggressive behavior with his own.
Once Major had passed his first test, Janet took him outside the barn for further testing. She moved slowly around the dog to observe him. After a cursory assessment, she moved farther away and peeked at him from behind some trees to test his reactions. The dog growled and barked ferociously.
"Perfect!" Janet thought. "Now let's see what he's got." Slowly, Janet removed her odd clothing while talking softly to Major. She took her time, letting the dog get more comfortable with her as she watched his aggression start to dissipate. Despite his former unfriendly response, Janet slowly inched closer. Suddenly, his fierceness ceased completely. As Janet drew near enough to stroke him with her gentle hand, Major's heart melted. She squatted down to address him at his level, and he put his massive, furry head into Janet's lap. He allowed her to scratch him, enjoying a tactile luxury he'd surely never known on the farm.
Janet felt an instant bond with the dog. Memories of her beloved Duke momentarily flooded back as she looked at the scraggly dog with his head still burrowing into her lap. He needed her so badly. Without a moment's hesitation, she decided to keep him. "As soon as I took his leash, he easily went with me, watching me all the time, alert at my side."
Finally freed from his dreaded chain and stake, Major trotted along, eager to enter Janet's car. He was so excited to go with her that he jumped right in. Once inside the car, he barked at anyone who tried to get near Janet. "Already, he felt the need to protect me, but he responded with trust when I told him everything was okay."
Major Meets the Sheriff
Janet drove Major directly to the sheriff to show him her new dog. Boldly, the dog strutted into the building. "Even though Major obviously had had a rough start in life, he exhibited the same self- confidence I had seen in his father, Caesar. Nothing seemed to scare him."
Finding no one in the sheriff's office, fun-loving Janet sat behind her boss's desk with the dog at her side. When the sheriff returned, the startled Major leapt up from the floor and jumped over the desk. Janet caught him on the other side before the big dog could chase the sheriff down the hall. The shocked look on the man's face was funny to Janet; she laughed at Major attempting to run the sheriff out of his own office. Major had surprised her as well, since she had never expected him to go over the desk. The sheriff too laughed heartily. Being a dog lover, he knew that he and Major would become fast friends. He instantly admired Major's spirit and sensed the same potential that Janet had seen in the dog.
Excerpted from Dogs and the Women Who Love Them by Allen Anderson, Linda Anderson. Copyright © 2010 Allen and Linda Anderson. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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