Moments of Choice

For the ninth ADBC I was initially going to write a post sparked by a friend’s rather innocent question about whether I’d ever consider keeping one of my guide dogs after she retired. I’m often asked about my retired guide dogs. People want to know what happens to a guide dog after they are no longer working. Others are just curious about the specifics of my retired girls. But as often happens the post I submitted was something very different. Even so the idea has continued to gnaw at me for quite some time now. It’s not so much the question itself, which is easily enough answered with a resounding yes. Rather it’s the fact that it was asked in the first place because I think it’s not so much a choice to keep my guide dog, but whether I can and/or what is the best post-harness home for her.

Before I go on further let me take the time to stress one thing: I am incredibly grateful to Dad and Keith for opening up their home to both Dolly and Yara. I don’t mean to downplay their generosity and I’m thrilled that it’s allowed me to keep the girls in my life, albeit a bit removed.

Yara guiding me along the bridge over Washington Park LakeRetiring a guide dog is not one of the easier aspects of being a handler and has been some of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in my life. A major part of being partnered with a guide dog entails developing an incredibly strong and very unique bond and severing, or even altering, that is extremely difficult. Very often there are extenuating circumstances that add to this, like Yara’s many health issues and then spending six months in a limbo of uncertainty from the time I initiated her retirement to the day it became official.

Even when you’ve prepared in advance for this sad event it’s still a complicated and difficult process. I had always intended for Dolly to have a working life capped off with as much enjoyment as possible and so my plan from very early on was to retire her at 10, unless something, e.g. her health, dictated it should be sooner. Anyway, the long and the short of it is that my plans for her were disrupted by a job offer that required six months of training in Arkansas. In something of a whirlwind I ended up retiring her several months earlier than I’d initially intended and it was terrifying and sad all at the same time. But even before all that chaos, I was already dreading the day she wouldn’t be walking by my side any longer.

The thing of it is, not working with your partner is only part of what makes retirement such a hard thing. It’s a big part, sure. And on the part of the dog is one that is hard to predict how they’ll adjust to. The fear is always that they’ll react badly to not being with their partner all the time; that they’ll need something to occupy themselves with after years of busy work; etc., etc., etc. So, in my case, we prepared for that and certainly both girls had an adjustment period, but they each slipped into their new lives as spoiled pets with a lazy, even expectant ease. And that’s a solace for me because, well, that’s what retirement should be!

What I find the most difficult — and incidentally where the actual choice comes in — is accepting that my home is no longer the ideal situation for my guide dog. Sure, no one can possibly take care of them the way I have over the years. No one will ever have that level of closeness with them as I have shared. And no one will ever truly know them as in-depth as I have come to.

And I admit, selfishly, I just don’t want to be separated from my dogs!

Yara lounging on the sofaIn the end, it’s always about what is the best situation for the dog, though. And the crux of both my experiences was that there was a large unknown factor and not being endowed with powers of clairvoyance I couldn’t know how things would turn out. It just wasn’t fair to either girl to put her through such a potentially stressful situation, especially when retirement is inherently stressful to begin with. I also think that having the one big change — moving to my dad’s — followed by a constant stability in their lives has only helped them to transition into retirement with that much more ease.1

What I have learned through these experiences is that it’s nigh impossible to predict where your life will bring you in a year, let alone eight. And so much as my heart yearns to keep my retired guide dog, in my previous two experiences it hasn’t been the best option. I’ve been extremely lucky to have things work out as they have, though, and that is no small happy in my life. Which is to say while I expect that Uschi will still be hanging around here when she’s no longer racing about like a wild puppy, I am open to the possibility that may not end up being what the future holds. And like before it will be a terribly difficult, but ultimately worthwhile choice.

  1. Not to mention the bribery of being spoiled relentlessly.

Yara is Seven!

Happy birthday, Yara! My retired second guide dog turns seven years old today. I made a mosaic from 1,000 different photos of her using one of my favorites as the base.

A mosaic image made from 1,000 assorted photos of Yara

I’m hoping to get out to Dad and Keith’s for a visit in the coming month, but by all accounts it sounds like she’s doing quite well and enjoying retirement.

Retiring Reactions

One of the hardest things a handler has to go through is retiring a guide dog. It’s one of those things that does not get easier the more times it’s done. This past weekend I visited my father, who has very generously given homes to both of my previous guides once they’ve retired. It was my first visit since retiring Yara and the initial introduction she had to my current guide dog, Uschi. I think we were all a little nervous about this, but our worries were completely unfounded because the girls got along wonderfully. This got me thinking about how the guides themselves react to their retirement.

Portrait of Yara and me on a sapphire background; Yara is lying beside me, partially in my lapFrom almost the moment they are born guide dogs have been treated in specific ways to help aid them on their potential journey to working in harness. Before being placed with families who will raise, train and socialize them, they are constantly being held by people and being exposed to new and different objects, sounds and smells. The idea is to help foster confidence and mold those necessary strengths that a guide dog requires. At home with their puppy raisers, their entire lives revolve around learning proper manners and being exposed to situations that might crop up in their working life. And, of course, throughout their training they are being shown exactly what will be expected of them as working guides. Basically, by the time a dog has become a guide, the idea of going out into the big, wide world with their handler is as normal to them as drinking water.

So, while retirement is certainly hard for a handler, it can be almost devastatingly difficult for the guide dog. Guides that are used to going everywhere and having a very active life are not always able to adapt to life as a lazy pet. Even more stressful for them is the very idea of being left alone for extended periods. My first guide dog, Dolly, seemed to fall into retirement rather naturally. She was retired solely due to her age, so I think it was a welcome treat for her to just lounge around the house, eat table scraps, and play with her toys. Since, she and I lived at my father’s for a good portion of her working career as I was in college, in essence it was like coming home for her. She didn’t even pine for me, though she did have some quirky habits that clearly developed during our years living there; for example, when going to bed, she would always walk into my old bedroom first and in fact she spent so much time randomly falling asleep in there that my father finally put a spare dog bed in the room. And while of my three guides she proved to take being left at home the worst — she’d literally get sick — she wasn’t fazed at all by the long hours home alone while Dad and Keith were at work.

Yara, on the other hand, was retired at five for a series of health reasons. Moreover, I think I can count on one hand the number of times she’d been at my father’s before being retired. And after falling so hard for Dolly, who passed away last year, I think Dad and Keith made a concerted effort to distance themselves from this dog. I really didn’t know what to expect of her new life and home. Before visiting, I had several conversations with my father over the last three months about how she was doing and everything seemed to be going smoothly. Most notably, her health was better than ever!

What’s probably more intriguing is how the dogs have reacted to my presence after their retirement. Dolly always seemed rather indifferent to me when I would visit. She’d greet me happily and she was especially obedient, but she was clearly no longer my dog. During this visit with Yara, though it was obvious she was trying to reclaim me. It was so profound that we had a running theory that Yara and Uschi had conversed and decided they were switching places because Uschi seemed quite attached to Keith! When I pulled out the harness in front of Dolly one time, she waddled up to me on her arthritic legs and dutifully stood there waiting but she clearly wasn’t enthused by the idea. However, Yara practically bowled Uschi over when I took her harness out. She got into her excited whining thing and basically justified everything I said above about the normalcy of going places. Dad said that she was a might peeved when I left with Uschi.

Portrait of me and Uschi on a brown background; Uschi is lying upside-down across my lapNot being a dog I can’t really say as to the specifics of why some dogs are able to transition into retirement so smoothly and others aren’t. But in terms of my two girls, I think age has a lot to do with it. Dolly was more than ready to be done with her life in harness, she was nearly ten when I retired her and she had slowed down considerably. She’d developed arthritis and I’m sure it was terribly painful for her and, as I said above, going to my father’s was literally like coming home for her. Not to mention he had been notorious for spoiling her throughout her lifetime. On the flip side, Yara was in her prime as my guide dog and were it not for the health issues I never would have thought to retire her so young. While she definitely enjoys her new sedentary life, she’s always been eager and excited to go anywhere and retirement certainly has not stopped that. So, it doesn’t surprise me that she’s always happy to see her leash (or my harness) being picked up and gets miffed when she’s left behind. I think some of it is also personality. I know there are a lot of days I get up and go to work more on autopilot and because I have to, you know, pay bills and eat than any real desire to go and actually do my job and I really do enjoy being in my career. I can’t say Yara ever had a day that she showcased this, even when she was literally wasting away from her EPI she was always happy and energetic about, well, everything. Dolly, however, always had a bit of a lazy start to her day. It was like she needed a cup of coffee to get herself going; I used to call it her “five block or fifteen minute rule” because whichever came first would be when she really started to work in earnest. And for a completely black dog, she had one of the most expressive faces on a canine I’ve ever seen. Very often it displayed a look of severe boredom or irritation, like she was just too good to put up with the menial task of making sure I didn’t walk into things. Really, I’m not speaking with hyperbole when I say she was vindictive; if she thought I’d wronged her in any way, I could pretty much guarantee my face would collide with something shortly thereafter. It’s one thing I definitely don’t miss about her.

Whatever the reason, though I’m glad that my girls have had the opportunity to have a “dog’s” life after their years of in harness. I think it’s a well deserved treat for them and from what I’ve seen they would no doubt fervently agree.

This post was written as part of the third Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. This edition’s theme is “Reactions” and further information can be found here on the founder’s blog.

K-9 Officer Denied Retirement

Via [original article]:

There is a interesting, and complicated, and some would say, heart-breaking story out of Orange County, NY that is raging over a 7 yr old K-9 officer by the name of Hunter.  Hunter’s current handler, Ed Josefovitz, is leaving the department and has requested that Hunter be retired in light of his age (most K9 officers retire between 8-9 yrs of age) and due to a diagnosed heart condition which is progressive.  In April, 2009, a veterinarian diagnosed Hunter’s heart condition and he was approved for day-to-day service, which typically included hanging out in court, or other sedentary duties. Hunter rarely (as of late) saw any action that would require him to exert himself.

Proponents of the sheriff’s office argue that Hunter is owned by the department, rather than the officer and that he must continue to work until he has reached full retirement age, despite his heart condition. For Capt. Barry’s personal stance on the issue, please visit this link.

Advocates for Hunter insist that going through the rigorous 8 months of retraining at the academy, in addition to the emotional toll of being removed from his current family and placed with a new handler, will only aggravate his worsening heart condition. Concern for his welfare is tremendous and there are many who believe that the dog could be killed by the stress that will be placed upon him in the coming months.

Hunter’s current handler, Josefovitz,  has offered to pay the department $6,900 to cover the cost of a new K-9 officer, but the sheriff’s office has refused. Apparently, many believe that the department is denying Hunter’s retirement out of malice and that the welfare of the dog is being completely over-looked. Some suspect that an ulterior motive could be at play since a prior, healthy K-9 was allowed to retire at only 3 yrs of age when his handler was fired from the department.

Supporters of K-9 Officer Hunter are encouraged to join the Facebook group Stop NY OC Sheriff’s Office from Killing Hunter. Additionally, supporters are being encouraged to email the NY OC Sheriff’s office at this link or send an email to the mayor at this link. The family is hoping to not only spread the word of Hunter’s plight (if you are concerned, please forward this to friends and family and post on your social networking sites), but also, to get the word to the sheriff’s office and the mayor, that there is support for Hunter. There is amazing power in numbers and obviously, the stretch and power of the internet is incredible.

[Read more…]

Dog Day!

For those of you that rely on Facebook or Twitter to be alerted to posts, you may have missed yesterday’s announcement. As a word of advice, the script that sends a notification to those social networks takes a backseat to actually populating the post on the website. So, if those services take too long to respond, the notification doesn’t go through even though on my end it says it has. Better methods to keep track of posts here are definitely through the syndicated feeds: RSS or LJ. If you’re a Blogger user, you can “follow” my blog by going to your Dashboard and adding it. Of course, I won’t stop sending notifications to Twitter and Facebook, I just wanted to note alternatives that are slightly more reliable.

Anyway, getting back to the subject at hand: guide dogs!

Dad and Keith came over last night to pick up Yara and I’m rather relieved to say that my neurotic worries about reluctance in taking her seem rather unfounded. I’m going to assume my dad was just stressed when I spoke with him Tuesday because he was much more optimistic about everything yesterday. I think it’s safe to say we all have our kid gloves on at the moment because my father and Keith aren’t nearly as familiar with Yara as they were with Dolly. And vice versa. Mostly, this is because I lived at home for much of the time I worked Dolly since I was just starting college. So, for her part when she went to live with them as a pet it was like coming home. I think for a bunch of reasons Dad and Keith have tried to distance themselves a bit from Yara. Basically, it’ll be an adjustment for everyone. Myself included.

I’ve said many times that I’m more aware of my guides when they aren’t around — infrequent as that may be — than when they are. This is because so much of our interaction becomes almost subconscious: petting a head both to comfort her or check that she’s not into something she shouldn’t be, checking on her whereabouts in the house during the rare occasions she’s not right there, etc. My dad called shortly after they all arrived home and I’d already caught myself doing exactly that at least five times in the hour or so that elapsed during their drive. I won’t even be without a dog a full day and I’m left wondering how I got through 21 months sans a guide dog!

I’m sure to hear more today, but as of last night’s call Yara seemed to be doing pretty good. She whined a bit in the car, but was otherwise pretty quiet. I’m totally shocked by this since even for a shepherd she’s pretty whiny. She went right for Dolly’s old crate, which they’d set up before leaving to pick her up, and seemed pretty settled. Dad said she seemed to be looking for me a bit, wandering to the back door. But they were distracting her some with treats and Keith went and found Dolly’s monkey toy, which I think is actually bigger than the one I got Yara for her birthday.

Dad called again this morning and said that she was doing pretty well. She spent most of her time at the back door, including sleeping pressed against it all night. Somewhat odd, since her crate is right near it and I’m sure far more comfy than the cold floor. Before going to bed they played with her a bit and she even followed them upstairs and hopped in bed for a bit, chewing a bone. Keith took her out and fed her this morning and she followed him about the house as he got ready. But eventually she went downstairs and Dad said she’s basically been in her crate since. I’m taking the fact that she hasn’t whined much as the best sign.

As for me, I still have the stupid sinus thing, but I do feel better than I did Tuesday or even yesterday. At the very least I don’t have a sore throat or that horrible sinus headache that made even my teeth hurt. I’m taking this as a good sign that I just have a cold and not a full out sinus infection. The latter would definitely make guide dog training much less fun. Even so between the inability to breathe and the nervousness about Yara leaving and meeting Uschi, I had a very hard time sleeping last night. I finally gave up tossing and turning and have been up since about 5 a.m. For so little sleep, I certainly have an abundance of nervous and excited energy. Thankfully there’s lots to keep me busy, so I’m sure the time will pass quickly enough before Uschi arrives this afternoon.