Emmy lived a special life for 16.5 years. She was born to be a service dog, hailing from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI )in California. I was her foster parent for her first 15 months, raising her to be an obedient, trained companion for someone in need. I'll never forget picking her up on Long Island. The handler came out with 3 fat-bellied puppies (all lab/golden mixes, specially bred for the program). One of these was looking straight at me and never took her eyes off me until the handler placed her in my arms. (It had been pre-determined that Emmy - Emera as she was officially named - was to be my dog). It was as if Emmy knew which of the 6 people awaiting their dog was "hers." That was the start of a long love affair. |
Having recently lost my mother, I was in need of healing and thought raising a dog to help another would do the trick. It did, and so much more! My world was now forever changed. Time not at work was dedicated to the care, feeding, and training of Emmy. In return she provided me with lots of love and laughs as her puppy shenanigans never ceased. Unraveling toilet paper and paper towels was one of her favorite things to do. "Counter surfing" was a great sport and often yielded that sweet yellow spread that she loved until the penny can was introduced to dissuade that behavior. After all, a service dog can hardly be spending her time stealing food when her person might be needing assistance!
The time eventually came when I had to "turn in" Emmy, back to the training facility on Long Island. She proudly went through her "graduation" ceremony to signify the end of her "home schooling" and the beginning of what I like to call "grad school" also known as advanced training. So many people had asked me, knowing my deep love for this special animal, "how will you ever give her up?" My answer was always the same - by keeping my eye on the ball - the end result of knowing I helped train her as a gift to another who needed her. Despite my certainty, I was heartbroken when the handler walked Emmy away from me that day, taking her to her new life. My sadness was partially consoled, however, knowing someone in need would reap the benefits of all I was able to teach Emmy.
I received regular telephone and written reports from her CCI trainer, assuring me that Emmy was healthy, happy, and progressing through her advanced training. One report, however, was not so reassuring - Emmy had growled at another dog during the stressful "team training" portion of the program which would decide with whom Emmy would be placed. So she was "held back" from graduating, awaiting the next team training a couple of months later. Well, Emmy wasn't used to this type of stress, and once again she exercised her only option - she growled at some strange men when being walked back to the kennels one evening after team training. Now it needs to be said that Emmy had never before been heard to growl and, in fact, I had to "teach" her how to "speak" as she never barked! This was the last infraction - Emmy (of course along with some others) had to be released from the program as growling was never allowed in these service dogs-in-training.
I had been on pins and needles waiting to hear her fate during those last 2 months, wishing and praying that she would succeed and be a star service dog. But the call finally came that she was to be released and I - as the foster mom - would be given first option of providing her forever home. Most folks would assume I would be ecstatic over this, having never lost my deep love of this special furry friend, but I was devastated. I so wanted to "gift" someone in need with this furry 65 pounds of love. It wasn't until a friend (who helped me raise Emmy by playing with her while I worked) said to me: "Amanda, the gift is for YOU!" That statement made all the sense in the world to me, explaining how Emmy knew from day one that I was her "person" and why she growled as if knowing she would get to come "home" if she did!
We spent the next 14 plus years hiking, swimming, and generally enjoying all that life with a companion dog offers. She went to work with me at several assisted living facilities, bringing love and enjoyment to the residents, staff, and visitors. She had her own fan club of all who got to know her. Patients who resided in one Alzheimer's unit couldn't normally remember their own family member's names, never remembered mine, but when Emmy walked in, there was always a gleeful "Hello Emmy!" from many of the residents. One of my favorite memories is of Emmy's first visit to a stroke victim who was unable to speak coherently although her mind was intact. At first sight of Emmy she managed "Oh, you beautiful girl, come over here, sweetie..." Amazing! Another resident, an elderly gentleman in his 90's who had no family, was allowed to keep Emmy in his room for an hour while I made my rounds. He wasn't allowed to feed Emmy or allow her on his bed as her training was continued even in this setting. (Of course I know he sneaked her graham crackers and snuggled with her on the bed the minute I left.) This gentleman was overheard later in the lobby telling the receptionist that he just had THE best day of his life, spending that hour with Emmy. My heart was filled from these experiences and so many more that occurred during the 6 years that Emmy accompanied me to work. The therapy work with Emmy healed my heart, broken from so many losses and disappointments in a way no person could have.
Of course, life is about nothing if not change and there came a time when I offered Emmy her work wardrobe - a dress-up kerchief from a selection of colorful ones kept nearby and she settled back onto her bed and told me she was retiring - it was "her time" and she wanted to spend her last years chasing tennis balls and worrying over her dinner bowl. I'm still in awe that Emmy was able to stay by my side to die peacefully at the ripe old age of 16.5! Maybe it was the home made diet. Perhaps the daily romps and swims until her hips would no longer allow it. Or maybe it was the love we shared....what I know for sure is that "the gift" was definitely for me and I am forever grateful for this.