Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Obstacles of Grace

This post is for the sixth
<"Assistance Dog Blog Carnival">
The topic is obstacles.

When an assistance dog organization trains their specially-bred dogs to become working partners, it's only the top half, or less who make it. So many obstacles stand in the way of a young puppy. Will it have the correct temperament? Will it be physically sound? Will it like the work? So many things to overcome.

If a specially-bred dog has such a small chance of making it, then how much less so, a mutt who found herself in one of America's dumping grounds for pets, left to be someone else's problem. Her black color became yet another obstacle; because nobody wants the black ones; they will always have a higher chance of being euthanized.

Her name was Jewel. She had a filthy coat and eyes that seemed to know too much. Her first family didn't want her, none of the people who walked by her cage at the shelter day in and day out wanted her, and her time was running out. I was volunteering at this shelter at the time, and was also looking for another dog to train, maybe as a guide dog, just for fun, to see if I could train the tasks, but mostly just to have as a friend for Bristol, my old working dog. but we didn't want Jewel, either. I knew what I wanted and that wasn't her.

But sometimes we don't get what we want, and through a string of small yet life-changing events, I found myself up to my neck in suds and black fur. Jewel became my dog on a long-ago Saturday morning, as I washed her encrusted hot spots, trimmed her matted fur, and otherwise tried to fix what had been broken. At some point during that endless-seeming afternoon, Jewel the unwanted and castoff farm dog had taken her first tentative steps to becoming Gracy the guide dog. But just like windshields have bugs-- roads have obstacles.

She came to live with me, and it soon became apparent that her socialization was minimal, at very best. We did it all-- steps, cars, out door strip malls. She loved being out in the world. I loved having her, and what was even better, she was helping my current working dog to change for the better.

Her only problem was me. I had been taught just how to "train a dog." There was the one way I knew, and I used my method of choice in a manner I thought was pretty even-handed, and "normal." If leash corrections made her shut down, well that wasn't my fault, was it? I couldn't let the dog "be the alpha," could I? She has to learn to be tough. When I finally saw the metaphorical light, the popping sound which signified the removal of my cranium from my rectum was so loud, it may have contributed to my deafness.

Eventually I became an operant trainer and we both got a lot happier. I wasn't perfect, but I was a lot more willing to try different things, and a lot less quick with physical correction. She blossomed. We finally had a working relationship.

Things sailed along pretty smoothly for a while, but I should have known it was the calm before the storm. The storm even had a name-- it was Katrina. She rolled into town on August 29th of 2005, and left failing levees, and almost total destruction behind her. Gracy learned to work in a city other than New Orleans. We came back home in March of 2006, to a city laden with obstacles. All of the hours of training, all of the tears and hard work, and second guessing the both of us paid off.

Walking down the street was like visiting a third-world country. Homes lay neglected, with debris scattered everywhere. There were FEMA trailers on the sidewalk, rusted cars on lawns, refrigerators with their seven-months old contents lay in the pedestrian walkway. Nails in the road, and potholes which you could literally use for swimming holes. She guided me around them all. She knew what to do and she did it.

I remember on one of my first trips back to the city , when all I could do was walk-- zombie like-- through the blocks and blocks of destruction. Walk passed numbers on doors which told of the body count inside. walk passed people coming home for the first time, who stood weeping in yards. I just walked, knowing that if I were to stop-- even for a moment-- that I would be completely unable to move forward, or to even move at all ever again. There was nothing else to do-- so she lead me through this new landscape of death and broken lives. Without a flinch, or a twitch of an eyelash she guided me around the obstacles until I was safely home again.

Now she is retired. She is a gray-muzzled lady of leisure. She spends her days keeping the gardens free of mice, and the yard clear of intruders. I have another dog in the harness. I would like to think that I'm a better trainer, though. I'd like to think that somewhere along this unexpected journey which I've taken-- guided by grace-- that I've changed and that my current and future dogs will have benefited from the obstacles Gracy and I have overcome together.


  1. Oh wow. What a powerful post. I'm kind of lost for words, except that this was very moving.

  2. I think Gracy had a very special purpose in your life just as Met (formerly Archie) had in mine. Our obstacles were truly ones sent to guide us through what it meant to be trainers. If we could train the dogs that never should have made it by program standards and come out with dogs that could take us through the heartbreak and turmoil they managed to, how can we deny them their rightful place in the world as pawsitively awesome teachers and guides. The two of you were so lucky to be together just as I have been so lucky to have you and the knowledge of your experiences you share with me in my life