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We were on a normal walk to town when I first noticed. My harness hand. It was dipping and swerving with each step. I leaned down to feel Dora’s shoulder. She was limping.
Arthritis, the vet said. Taking his advice, I started Dora on a daily dose of buffered aspirin. The limping stopped, but the walks to town that used to invigorate Dora just plain wore her out. She started taking long naps after our excursions, and she didn’t rouse from those naps as easily as she used to. She’d need to retire soon.
Back in 1990, it took two terrifying mishaps in traffic to convince me to switch from a white cane to a guide dog. Now, after ten years of side-by-side travel with Dora, it was going to take a lot to convince me that I’d ever love my next Seeing Eye dog as much as I did her.
Blindness dictates practicality, however. For Dora’s and for my sake, I signed up to return to the Seeing Eye for a replacement dog. Dog-loving friends assumed I’d keep Dora at home when she retired. My husband Mike would have liked us to keep her, too, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to devote myself to a new Seeing Eye dog if Dora was still around.
Another option was to bring her back to the Seeing Eye. They keep a long list of volunteers interested in adopting retired dogs. I’ve never done a formal study on the pros and cons of bringing a retired dog back to the school they started from, but I’d talked to two people who had chosen that option. Our conversation took place way back in 1991, when I was training with Dora. Their stories have stuck with me all these years.
Barking in the Kennels
I talked to John and Jeri about their dogs’ retirement at the Seeing Eye during one of our rare breaks from the daily training routine. John described walking into the front hallway with Robin, his previous dog, and being met by a Seeing Eye staff member. “Say goodbye to your dog,” the staff member instructed. “I said goodbye, and then someone took her away,” John said. He heard Robin’s harness jingling as she walked away. “And that was that.
Once Jeri got started telling me about her retired German Shepherd, Sarah, all she could do was cry. The only thing I understood through all the tears was that she was convinced she could hear her dog barking in the kennels at night. “I know it’s her,” she said, taking a couple big sniffs. “I can tell it’s my Sarah.” John claimed, too, that he could pick out Robin’s barking amongst all the dogs we heard each day in the nearby kennels. “I know she’ll be happy here,” John said, talking to himself now rather than to us. “They’ll take good care of her.”
Dora wouldn’t be going back to the seeing eye to retire. There was no way I could concentrate on a new dog while hearing Dora bark in the distance. The new dog wouldn’t stand a chance.
Lots of people showed interest in adopting Dora. The post office worker who helped with my packages had just lost her yellow lab the year before. she told me she’d like to take Dora. The waitress at our favorite restaurant wanted Dora. One day at the library, the man behind me in line heard me talking to the librarian about Dora. He passed me his business card. “I’d take her in a second,” he said.
But I’d pretty much decided that if Dora was going to live with anyone, it’d be with Randy. Randy lived alone and dated an old friend of ours who was a single mom. When we first met Randy, he took an instant liking to Dora. After finding out that Randy did foster care for the local animal shelter, I took an instant liking to him, too. So did Dora.
Dora spent a happy trial weekend with Randy. I liked the idea that at Randy’s, Dora would get a lot of individual attention. Plus there’d be plenty of opportunities for play with children when our friend and her kids came to visit. Best of all, Randy only lived a half-mile away. This meant that when I got Dora pangs, I could easily head over there for a hug. Which I did. Many, many times. Every time I visited, I found Dora lying on the couch, happy,fluffy and…fat. “I give her treats all the time!” Randy gushed. “She is such a beautiful, beautiful dog.” He bathed her every week, too — that’s why her fur fluffed out the way it did. I could hardly recognize her by the feel of her coat!
Happy in her retirement, Dora lived to be 17 years old. These days when I think about my own retirement, I hope it’s one like Dora had: living with a man who spoils me, lets me lie on the couch, feeds me bon bons and tells me all the time how beautiful I am.