The number one question I’ve been asked since the beginning is, how can I give up my dog? Everyone wonders about the bond formed between trainer and dog and what happens when your time together comes to an end.
Seva is almost 2 1/2 years old. That means she’s in the Big Dog class at Helping Paws. We’ve already seen 2 groups of dogs go through placement and leave their trainers and fellow service dogs-in-training to begin their lives as full-fledged service dogs. The process is best described as bittersweet–even if that is a cliche. We’re so happy a dog has been placed with a person who has a real need, and we’re sad to see the dog leave our ranks. Our dogs form friendships in and out of class. Many of the trainers get to know each other. Dog class is no longer on that person’s weekly agenda. It’s kind of like becoming an empty nester, only your kid at college will probably call home once in a while. The dogs never call and they never write.
I’ve thought about that question more as Seva has aged. My public answer is always that I went into the program knowing I’d have to give her up. That is the why behind the last 2 1/2 years. I became a foster home and trainer for Helping Paws, because I wanted to help change somebody’s life in a meaningful way.
In fact, Scott and I had more than one conversation about how significant this would be. I mean, you can donate time or money to good causes, but how often do you make an investment this significant in terms of personal commitment? And we mused about the magnitude of the impact this dog would have on someone’s life: greater independence, greater social connections, constant companionship. It might sound like we were getting full of ourselves, but really we were weighing the value of this decision. It was a big one. We had to consider the impact a puppy would have on our lives, including our kids’, and what it would mean for all 5 of us to give up the dog one day.
My private answer is more complicated than “It’s what I signed up to do.”
We have all bonded with Seva to different degrees. I, naturally, am most bonded to her. I spend most of my waking hours in her presence (I work from home). I am her mama. Scott and I have a joke that Seva thinks he’s her littermate. I am the clear alpha, but during Seva’s adolescence her play with Scott looked like vying for beta!
Now the time is approaching, and I am asking myself, “How can I give up my dog?”
This is surprisingly complex. I love her like any pet I’ve ever had. And I know she doesn’t belong to me. I realize that while I have allowed myself to love this dog, I have not allowed myself to imagine her in my future beyond a certain point. It’s like there was a countdown timer on our relationship.
Seva has a destiny. She was born into this breeding program to bring her special Retriever gifts to a special person. I’m just an intermediary. I would never stand in the way of her destiny, which is why I haven’t let myself imagine her as mine.
A few weeks ago, E., the Director of Helping Paws, talked to me about Seva’s allergies. We’ve been watching them for a while. E. said she’d be sad to lose Seva, because she’s got some good skills and is a nice dog. The “but…” was implied. Nothing was decided that night.
I went home with that “but…” resounding in my mind. I thought Seva was about to be pulled from the program, which often means ownership of the dog is transferred to the trainer. I spent the next week imagining Seva in my future. I was careful to remind myself that nothing had actually changed, yet I couldn’t help picturing us on long walks, throwing balls in the park, and having cuddles in front of the fireplace.
After class the following week, E. took me aside again. She was going to tell me Seva was out of the program. I was going to leave the training center as Seva’s permanent mama.
E. asked me to bring Seva in for pre-matching. Pre-matching is when a dog meets applicants to see if the dogs will work with them.
Suddenly, my expectations were reversed. Again. I spent the weekend a little heart broken. And I blamed myself. I never should have started imagining her as my own dog. After a few days of mental gymnastics, I decided that Seva was again on her way to fulfilling her destiny and that after she graduated, I would get a cat. Cats don’t require long walks and love to cuddle by the fire. All would be well, and not only for me and Seva.
Seva did really well for both people she auditioned. Or did they audition her? It’s like speed dating, but instead of impressing your date with wit and charm, you pick things up off the floor and turn on the lights.
I was glad she did well. I also had the blues that night.
The following weekend, Seva went to visit S., one of her dates at pre-matching. She spent 3 days with S. and her cats. This trial run isn’t normal, but S. used to be a vet tech and needs a successor dog, so she knows the program.
I spent the weekend convinced S. was falling in love with Seva.
How could she not?
(To be continued.)