Thursday, March 4, 2010

Friday, February 26, 2010

Two Days I Will Never Forget

I spent this past Tuesday and Wednesday at SSD's Team Training. It was definitely worth taking a couple days off work. My initial reason for going was to see Natalie working with her new partner, but I ended up witnessing so much more.

The four teams had only been together a little over a week, yet I saw the bond between dog and person already forming. Though Natalie was excited to see me, she quickly fell back into working with her partner and handler (his mom). I was afraid she would be distracted by me being there and look to me for direction since that's what she was accustomed to, but she didn't. Sure, from time to time she would look at me like, "Hey, why are you over there and not here with me?" but mostly she kept her attention on her job. Though some might find this to be sad, I was actually very happy to see that. The last thing I would want is for her to pine over me. To see her give all of her attention to Carlisle and his mom & dad, reassured me that she was content with her new family.

Natalie was not the only one who looked content, all of the dogs seemed to be enjoying training with their partners. I saw SSD Lil pull and hold open a heavy door for her partner.  SSD Gnat pulled his partner across the room in her manual wheelchair.  And SSD Coriander filed her own nails for partner, a task he taught her himself. Most importantly, I always saw everyone smiling. The two and a half weeks of Team Training are brutal for both dog and person, but everyone took it in stride and continued to work as hard as possible each day.

As a Puppy Raiser, Team Training is the best time to see the effect your dog has on its new partner. On Tuesday we walked around the Harrisburg mall and I got to see first hand how Natalie will help to change her partner's life. I had to fight back tears as I watched her climb into Carlisle's lap, effectively ending an impending meltdown. As soon as she made contact with him, a smile spread across Carlisle's face. It was the most gratifying moment for me.

Everyone always asked me how I was going to be able to give Natalie up. All I can say is, when you see the impact your dog makes on somebody's life, it all becomes worth it. I'm so proud of Natalie for all she's achieved. A part of me will always miss her, but I will never regret my decision to raise a service dog. I would suffer heart break over and over again to give someone that gift, because it is the most precious gift you can give.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Proud Moment

This past weekend was my last with Natalie. Today I lost the right to refer to her as "my dog", because today she officially became her partner's dog. I cried this morning on the way to drop her off at the kennel when that thought occurred to me, but I also knew this was the very thing I had wanted all along. All I can be is grateful for the time I had with her as my own.

I realized something significant today, something that everyone had been trying to tell me all along. As I thought about how happy I was for Natalie, it hit me that I truly should be proud of her- and of me. It takes a special dog to make it all the way to becoming a service dog. It's certainly not an easy feat. Among other things, a service dog must be calm, patient, brave, dependable, and focused. Not every dog is cut out for the life of a working dog. For Natalie to be the first service dog I raised, and to have her make it through all the hurdles to becoming a certified service dog, is certainly something I can be proud of.

I would never take all the credit for Natalie being the dog she is today, though. I tried my best to shape her into a wonderful companion, but I also know she was already a great dog to begin with. I've believed she had the makings of a service dog since she was a puppy. Natalie was always so focused and driven. She loved learning new cues and enjoyed training in public. As she grew and matured, it became a game for me to find new things to challenge her with- a new store, more advanced behaviors- she was always ready and willing.

Though I will miss her, I know in my heart that Natalie will be doing what she was born to do. And I know for certain that she will adore her job as a service dog.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

My Ode to Puppy Raisers

I set out two years ago to do something I'd never done before- take an adorable puppy into my home and raise it as my own for a year and a half. Seems easy enough, but here's the catch- I was raising the puppy for someone I didn't even know, a complete stranger. After I spent a year and a half training, loving, and bonding with the puppy, I would give it up for them. When you put it like that, it seems crazy. Who would take on this huge endeavor, fully knowing it would lead to heart break in the end? Puppy Raisers, that's who.

I've learned that it take the right person- a combination of loving, nurturing, steadfast determination, and selflessness- to be a Puppy Raiser. To want to take home an eight week old puppy, get it through the awful stages of housebreaking and teething, devote countless hours to training it, and spend everyday loving it, only to give it up once it has become a solid, dependable adult, certainly takes a special kind of person. I feel honored, for the first time, to be able to say I am one of those people and to now be among the ranks of all of you who do this time and time again. Without you, the magical matching of dog and person would not be possible.

Months ago, I would have said that I was dreading the date of Natalie's Team Training. Back then, it signified our final goodbye. Now, however, I look forward to the second week when I can go watch Natalie and her partner become a true team. Like many of you, I know the initial feeling of sadness and regret when you get that call that your dog has been matched. You know you shouldn't feel that way, yet for that one moment, you get caught up in yourself. But, I also know that in the days after the news, you'll realize that this was your dogs' calling all along. That life as a pet would be mundane compared to the things they'll do with their partners. And that if changing someone's life by giving them the independence they've always hoped for means your heart has to break a little, then that's OK.

I garuntee the day Natalie graduates with her partner I will be a mess. I'll probably go through an entire box of tissues. But now I know that it will be because I am so very proud of her. I was lucky enough to get to meet her partner and his family at the fundraiser. It didn't take long after talking with them for me to realize that this is the perfect match for Natalie. In fact, I'm not sure I could have found a better match for her myself.

The number one question I was asked while raising Natalie was whether I would do it again after I gave her up. I always said yes without really putting any thought into it. Though one would think that the closer I go to having to say goodbye to Natalie, the less I would want to do it all over again, the opposite is actually true. I cannot think of a more rewarding experience than being a Puppy Raiser. Yes, it has its downsides, but when you see that dog who once ate your socks and chewed your mouse cord standing next to the person they were destined to help, that all vanishes.

So, I'd like to congratulate all of the Raisers, Sitters, and countless volunteers who make Team Trainings and graduations possible every year. All of your hard work truly pays off.

To the lucky partners who will receive these fantastic dogs, I wish them to experience the endless love and devotion all of the dogs have to offer. It will change your life as it has mine, and all of ours.

To the dogs themselves, I wish them many carefree days spent working side-by-side with your partner. And I hope you never look back, but you never forget, all the ones who love you in the place you left.