I’m at the doctor’s office today (as I am usually two or more days per week managing my rare eye disease) and my primary care doctor, (whom I see but twice a year) remarks about my dozing Labrador Guide Dog, “wow, he certainly is getting white, isn’t he? I remember when you first got him, and what a silly, friendly, active dog he was. Now look at him! He didn’t even wake up when I entered the room!” I sighed deeply, and looked down at the white-faced ‘middle-aged’ dog that is my constant companion. “I know. I know. Time does fly, doesn’t it?”
I spoke at an elementary school last week about guide dogs and how they work and are trained and how they help the blind and visually impaired. One of the children always asks at some point, “What happens when he’s too old to work?” Well, typically a guide dog starts their career at the age of two when they are placed with the blind to start their work as a guide. Ideally, the dog can work as long as possible, some even up to the age of 11 depending upon the individual dog. Some can retire as young as the age of 6, which while not ideal, certainly can happen.
The factors that determine a dog’s retirement age can range from problems with their work, if they begin to make mistakes, or perhaps develop issues after being attacked by other dogs, or an accident involving doors being accidentally closed on them or any variety of training issues that may not be overcome through work and patience. Sometimes the dog’s pace becomes too slow for the person being guided and the dog can no longer successfully keep up the pace. And other times, as with any dog, health issues can arise that require the dog enjoy some well-deserved rest and removing the stress of work from their lives.
Recently I have known four amazing working guides that have retired between the ages of 6 and 9, and it rocked me to my core. Elvis turns 7 in less than a week, and we will have been a team for 5 years this March 8th. I have NOT LEFT THE HOUSE without this dog more than a dozen times in 5 years. The ONLY time Elvis stays at home is if I’m running or open water swim practicing with a friend at the beach, where they are acting as my ‘sighted guide’ and we are tethered together wrist to wrist. The only other time Elvis stays at home alone is if I decide to go sunbathing at the beach with my friends, and it’s simply too hot for him to sit under an umbrella at a public beach. That’s IT.
Imagine spending 24/7 with someone. Never going away on vacation from them, never ‘staying over at a friend or relatives’ house’ without them. You are NEVER apart. Now imagine that person is TIED PHYSICALLY to your body for a good portion of every single day, and they know your EVERY single movement by heart. They follow the direction of your fingers when you point. They follow your eyes when you stare. They hang on your EVERY word, even when you’re not addressing them, just waiting for the opportunity to assist you in some small way. Imagine someone that their ENTIRE LIFE AND HAPPINESS depends upon your happiness and safety 24/7 for their whole existence. I can’t imagine anything more stressful and selfless all at once.
So I am sitting here looking at my white-faced nearly seven-year old best friend, confidante, caretaker, protector and extension of my own body, wondering, “When, buddy? When will it be your time? In 6 months? Will we have years? Will you TELL me when you’re ready to retire? Will I be able to let go of that harness handle for the last time? How can I do that? Will you be happy hanging all day with my mom in your retirement? Will it be ‘enough’ for you?
I’m VERY blessed, because I KNOW where he’s going when he retires. A guide dog’s retirement home depends upon many factors. Ultimately it’s the decision of the handler of the dog to determine when he’s ready to hang up his harness for the last time, however, if a guide dog school determines that either the handler’s or the dog’s safety or health is in any way compromised, they will step in and help make that tough decision. If the blind person has family living with them that can care for the dog in its elderly years, then the dog may be able to stay with the owner. If the person lives alone, or they feel it may be too emotionally stressful for the dog to be left alone each day while the handler goes out for many hours with a NEW guide dog to work, etc, then the dog will be placed for adoption or a family member or friend can take the dog. With most guide dog schools, the family or person that raised them as a puppy up to 18 months before formal training is offered the dog in its golden years. If they choose not to take the dog (most DO want them back), then there are MANY MANY folks looking to adopt a well-trained friendly companion.
I watched my friends recently have to hang up that harness handle, and offered support and love during their transition. Two dogs were medically retired due to life-threatening, sudden-onset cancers, and two were simply ‘done’ with working and one day decided they were no longer as interested in getting their uniform on to leave the house. It gave me pause and made me realize that every moment I spend with Elvis is precious, and as I throw the ball and he becomes more and more tired, sooner and sooner with each game of fetch we play, I realize that he is simply ageing faster than I’m prepared to face. While he still enthusiastically wags to get his harness on each day, and guides me with skill, speed, and precision like a finely tuned sports car, I do ‘feel’ those days after a vigorous swim in the ocean, or a tough game of fetch in deep snow that he is indeed slowing down.
His naps have become longer and deeper, like today at my doctor’s office, and the white around his muzzle marks the passing of these five incredible years. I took the elevator down yesterday to my laundry room in the basement of my building, happily talking to Elvis the whole way, who had stuffed TWO tennis balls in his mouth. I was picking on him for his choice, and laughing out loud, not caring who could hear us. I can’t imagine if he wasn’t there to share my day with both verbally and physically. I would have no one to share all of those ‘little moments’ that make up each day for me.
I shook my head and got choked up when I realized that had I chosen to use a CANE these past five years, and had NOT received the greatest gift that is Elvis from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, how SAD and lonely of a blind person I think I would be. I know for SURE that I wouldn’t have had the strength to endure 15 painful eye surgeries in 4 years without him at every single procedure and pre and post op visit, laying quietly next to the exam chair. Each time I got the terrible news that my blindness was progressing and that we needed to go back to the operating room, I could reach down to my right side next to the chair to scratch his head nervously, and be instantly soothed by a heartfelt Labrador gently licking my hand. I would not be the confident, capable and brave woman that I am today had I not made this decision, by far the best decision I’ve made since my diagnosis.
So here’s to Elvis, and to hopefully another 3 good years together, or as long as he tolerates my shenanigans. I think my dancing on bars and waving a sword, and competing in triathlons has prematurely aged the poor, dedicated four-legged soul. God bless my tall handsome blonde man as we celebrate his 7th birthday on Valentine’s Day next week, and I thank god for each and every day that he came into my life, making me whole again when I was so, so broken.