Out of Retirement for the Day

January 12, 2010 · Posted in Aging Dogs, Doggie Healthcare, Service Dogs · Comment 

We took an adventurous trip to the vet today to introduce our new kitty to our vet and to get Morgan checked. Morgan has been exhibiting some issues with his anal area and we thought he might need his anal glands expelled. As we packed up the kitties, I called Morgan to put on his harness in preparation for the 30 minute drive to the vet’s office. I use his harness to seat belt him safely into my van. He was thrilled that I was calling his name as I was going through my ritual preparing to leave the house.

It was as if he was having flashbacks to his working days. Whistle, on the other hand, was noticing my departure rituals and he got into place to accompany me. He seemed confused and disappointed that I did not dress him. Morgan followed me to the door as he does many mornings. He paused as if I would be saying good-bye and leaving him behind once again. Instead, I held the door open for him and called him to come. He sprinted through the door and into the open door of my van with a huge smile on his face. I clicked his seatbelt and closed the van door. He seemed to realize that Whistle was staying behind. His chest swelled with pride and he perched himself on the backseat of my van.

Morgan has horrific allergies that cause him to lick himself insatiably. As a result, he has to wear an Elizabethan collar 24 hours a day. For those of you who have seen the movie, Up, you know this collar is referred to as “the cone of shame”. Morgan is such a good sport about wearing it, but I can only imagine how uncomfortable and frustrating it is for him. Unfortunately, he has to wear it or he would cause serious harm to himself.

However, today Franz removed the collar when he put the harness on Morgan. Morgan was perched on my seat with his harness and seatbelt, cone free. He was a service dog again if only for a little while and he was behaving like a service dog. No licking, no thoughts to illnesses or retirement. He was working and it felt really good.

Morgan went with us to the vet and he performed as a perfect service dog. He proudly waltzed into the vet’s clinic and conducted himself with the utmost professionalism as his kitty brothers received their check-ups and as he endured his check-up and gland expulsion. It was so heartwarming to see my retired guy feel so good about himself. The ultimate thrill was to see him without the Elizabethan collar.

I wish being dressed and being in public was the answer. Unfortunately, this phenomenon will be short lived. I know Morgan will once again begin uncontrollable licking and he will have to put the collar back on.

But for today, for this moment, he was young again. He was working and he was my service dog. I am thankful for today and for having the opportunity to see Morgan by my side. When we got home, Whistle was waiting at the door. His entire body was wiggling with excitement that we were home and things went back to normal. Morgan is resting on the couch again, but I can still see a twinkle in his eyes as if he is remembering that he got to go to work today. He was the working service dog and Whistle had to take the day off.

The journey of 2010 begins…

January 4, 2010 · Posted in Aging Dogs, Service Dogs · Comment 
old dog

As 2010 begins, I feel like the luckiest girl in the world because I am living with two service dogs, Morgan and Whistle. Morgan is retired and I am so thankful he has made it through another year. He turns 12 on May 1, 2010 and I know his remaining time on this earth is limited. He has had some serious health scares in the last two years and I have been amazed at his resiliency.

Although Whistle and I have bonded into a strong working team, Morgan remains ever watchful ensuring that Whistle adequately performs his job. Retiring a service dog and ultimately saying good-bye to a service dog is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I have only done so once. I can only liken it to becoming disabled all over again. I felt so helpless.

As a member of a service dog team, I feel it is my responsibility to take the best possible care of my service dog. I vigilantly monitor their food intake, treat distribution, types of toys, and everything that goes and comes from every orface of their bodies. I think that is what makes it so difficult to lose a service dog to retirement or death. I believe that my job is to take care of them as well as they take care of me.

I will never forget the day when I lost my first service dog, Ramona. I felt like someone had ripped my heart out of my chest and showed it to me. I was heartbroken. I still am.

As I anticipate Morgan’s death in the not too distant future, I am so fearful of experiencing the same emotions that ravaged my body when Ramona died. I don’t think I have ever felt such pain and agony. Since her death, I have tried to process those feelings and cope with her loss.

I am especially interested in identifying those feelings and reactions as I anticipate my loss of Morgan. I did not think I could be closer to any working dog than I was with Ramona. However, Morgan and I were once virtually one being. He knew my every move and I his. From the moment we met, we were inseparable. Even though he is retired, he stills keeps a watchful eye on me and his ears are always alert. When I call Whistle for assistance, it is Morgan who still arrives first.

The bond we develop with these working dogs can not be described or defined. My love and adoration for all of my service dogs knows no limits. It is a feeling and a loyalty that has no bounds. We simply take care of one another. It is a lifetime commitment. Unfortunately, as we all know, a lifetime has a beginning and an end.

As the day when I am placed with a service dog is one of the happiest days of my life, the day when I must say good-bye to my partner is one of the saddest days of my life. I know that 2010 may be the year when I have to say good-bye to Morgan as he turns 12 and continues to struggle with his health issues.

I hope and pray that I will have the courage to be by his side when his time comes and to honor and respect him in the manner he so deeply deserves. I don’t know when Morgan’s time will come but what I do know is that it will come. I also know that I want to be there for him as he has always been there for me.

As 2010 begins, I am thankful for each day that I can spend with Morgan and I am hopeful that 2010 will not be the year I must say good-bye to him. The only thing that brings me any consolation when saying good-bye to my service dogs, is that I believe I am not saying, “Good-bye forever my dearest friend.” Instead I am saying with all of my heart, “Good-bye my dearest friend until one day when I will see you again.”

Challenges with Service Dog Retirement

November 6, 2009 · Posted in Aging Dogs, Doggie Healthcare, Service Dogs · 1 Comment 

Jeff Schettler stopped by Working Like Dogs on www.petliferadio.com this week to visit with me and Whistle about his new book, Red Dog Rising. As we talked about his police K9, Ronin, the conversation ultimately led to Ronin’s retirement. Jeff shared with me the difficulty he had with Ronin’s retirement. This is definitely something I have struggled with also. I am on my third service dog now and I have experienced two very different types of retirement.

My first dog, Ramona, was retired abruptly. She was 7 years old. I thought she was in her prime when I was informed that she had bone spurs on her vertebrae and had to be retired immediately. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I also felt like I had become disabled all over again. I was lost. How could I go out at night without her? Would I be safe? Would it be OK? More importantly, would she be OK? What was she going to think about being left at home alone?

The first few times I left her after her retirement it was agonizing. She did not understand nor appreciate the fact that she was being left at home. She knew that I needed her and it really wasn’t safe for her to be left behind. But, we got through it. I took her in public on a part-time basis and started gradually leaving her at home more and more. When Morgan, my successor dog arrived, she looked at him like, “What in the world took you so long to get here?” She then promptly made herself comfortable on the couch and the torch was successfully passed onto Morgan.

Morgan and I worked together until he began showing signs of slowing down a few years ago. My bouncy, playful golden retriever was reluctantly getting dressed in the mornings. He seemed to be saying, “Let’s don’t go to work today, let’s just stay home and see if a good movie is on TV.” I had to face the reality that it was time for him to retire and to get the rest and relaxation that he so richly deserved.

I began to slowly take Morgan out of service on a part-time basis. He became more and more accustomed to staying home. And then, one day Whistle, his successor, arrived. I was hoping Morgan would have the same reaction Ramona had expressed.

To my disappointment, he had the opposite response. Morgan resisted every aspect of retirement. It was gut-wrenching to see the look on his face when he realized that I was training with Whistle. He would bark incessantly as if to say, “How dare you work with my mom—I am the only one who knows how to help her.” And, he was right. Morgan and I had been together so long that he knew or could anticipate my every move. We were inseparable and he was irreplaceable.

Transitioning to Whistle was difficult. Whistle is an amazing dog. He is a pure athlete but he was also a stranger. I did not know his likes or dislikes, his habits, and his favorite treats. He was not my cuddly, adorable golden retriever, Morgan who knew me better than I knew myself. Whistle and I were strangers. Poor Whistle walked into a house with an established service dog and four cats.

It took time and work for all three of us to transition into our new life together. I had to work with Morgan to make sure he felt secure in his new retirement life. And, I had to work extra hard to make Whistle understand that he was my new service dog. I have to admit that at times I wondered if the three of us would survive. I love both dogs and I want to honor both of their roles and commitments to me as their human partner. I especially love how Whistle respects Morgan and still relinquishes toys or treats to Morgan. It is really beautiful to watch the two of them together. Whistle seems to idolize Morgan.

I wish I could say it was easy. I will say it was work and the three of us now share a unique bond. Morgan has come to understand that he is still my dog but, he has to stay home. He really doesn’t want to go out of the house anymore, but he still keeps a close eye on Whistle to make sure he is performing his commands correctly and making sure he doesn’t get more treats or attention than Morgan.

Whistle, on the other hand, likes going with me everyday. He is always ready to get dressed and head out the door. He loves traveling with me when it is just the two of us in a hotel room. He enjoys being the only dog in my world for a little while and Morgan enjoys having a house sitter to take care of him while we’re gone.

Transitioning from one service dog to another can be challenging. It is a delicate process that must be handled with love and respect. It is painful for all three beings. Occasionally, Morgan gets a spark in his eye as if he wants to try and go with me as I am gathering my purse and keys although we both know it’s probably not a good idea. As he approaches 12, he still has the desire to be a service dog and I still wish he could go with me. It hurts, but then I turn and look into Whistle’s trusting face. Thank goodness for Morgan AND Whistle.