What is it that dogs have done to earn the title of “man’s best friend”? And more broadly, how have all of our furry, feathered, and four-legged brethren managed to enrich our lives? Why do we love them? What can we learn from them? And why is it so difficult to say goodbye? Join B.J. Hollars in From the Mouths of Dogs (University of Nebraska Press, 2015) as he attempts to find out — beginning with an ancient dog cemetery in Ashkelon, Israel, and moving to the present day. In this excerpt we explore the 3 emotional goodbyes of guide-dogs and a lesson on staying positive.
Though most pet owners know all too well the heartache of saying goodbye to a beloved animal, far fewer grasp the grief a human feels when saying goodbye to a guide animal. After all, how can a person ever repay a creature that has dedicated her entire life to service? Despite Kathie’s training as a psychologist, she offers little advice to help assuage the pain felt by those who lose their guide dogs, or, for that matter, assistance animals of any species.
While guide dogs remain the most popular species of assistance animal, various other species have recently joined their ranks, from miniature horses to monkeys on down. As writer Rebecca Skloot makes clear in a 2008 New York Times article, each species possesses its own unique skill set, offering people with disabilities a wider selection of animal partners. Miniature horses, for instance, are “mild-mannered, trainable, and less threatening than large dogs,” Skloot contends, not to mention their 360-degree range of vision and their thirty-year lifespan. For many people with disabilities, the miniature horse’s longevity is the species’ greatest benefit, particularly when compared to the abbreviated life of a guide dog. The extended working relationship shared between people and miniature horses not only ensures fewer substitutions on the team but, perhaps of equal importance, spares the human from having to say goodbye any more than necessary.
“Every goodbye is hard,” Kathie admits, a slight waver developing in her throat as she recalls the eight dogs that came before Luna. “And it’s especially hard because there are three parts to the goodbye.”
In my observations as a pet owner, the final goodbye to a pet has always seemed a two-step process: determining the pet’s low quality of life and then taking responsible means to end the suffering. Throughout my adult life, I’ve been fortunate to never have to take either step alone. Nevertheless, I’ve watched my parents tread this trail on multiple occasions. For them, the decision to drive the animal to the vet was never easy, though they recognized the necessity of their task. But as Kathie explains to me, saying goodbye to a guide dog is different and requires one additional step.
“Three parts,” she repeats. “There’s the decision making, there’s the actual moment when you take them to their new place, and then there’s the eventual goodbye to death. And though they’re not in service to me at that point, I’ve been at most of the final passings.”
“The first step is deciding to retire a dog,” I say, beginning to understand the guide dog’s unique goodbye.
Kathie nods. “And when it’s a retirement decision, I don’t pull any punches with them. I talk about it with them, tell them, ‘I wish this wasn’t happening, but I pledge to you that I will find a good place for you to be where you will be loved and needed.’”
“When does the average guide dog retire?” I ask.
“Usually somewhere between the ages of eight and ten.”
“And then you find the dog a new home?”
“I do,” Kathie nods. “I interview a lot of people and I make sure I stay true to my pledge. But the actual taking of the dog ... That’s a real tough piece for me. Packing the bag, writing up a summary of likes and dislikes, the things they need to know.”
Despite her efforts to maintain her composure, when leaving a newly retired dog in the hands of a new owner (the guide dog’s second goodbye), Kathie admits she barely ever makes it out the door before breaking down.
“When I go to drop off a dog, I always bring a friend I trust to see me being a basket case. I’ll walk in, I’ll visit, I’ll drop off the supplies, drop off the dog, and then my friend gets to lead me out of there and I say, ‘Goodbye, be good,’” Kathie says, imitating the cheery trill she fakes for the dog’s benefit. “But as soon as I get outside and the door is shut, I dissolve.”
As she explains the procedure, I fear she may dissolve once more right here in her living room, but instead, she reaches for Luna, offering her dog a scratch that calms them both.
“When I walk out the door, they don’t follow me,” she says. “I don’t think it’s because they’re saying, ‘Hallelujah, I don’t have to work anymore.’ I think they’ve just gotten to that point in their minds when they know this is how it’s going to be.”
“They’ve got a mind of their own,” I say, echoing Kathie’s earlier remark, “and that sounds like a good thing.”
“Mostly,” Kathie agrees.
Though Kathie’s nine seeing eye dogs have taught her an incalculable number of lessons, the lesson she remembers most she learned from her first dog, Cindy, whose independent streak left an indelible mark on Kathie.
“She’s the one who taught me to be positive,” Kathie explains.
Kathie takes me back to a sweltering-hot Arkansas day many years back when she and Cindy began their trek across a field on their way to work.
“It was about 90 percent humidity, as it often is in Arkansas,” Kathie begins, “and Cindy was walking slower and slower, and it was getting hotter and hotter, and I was crabbing at her. ‘Hurry up. Let’s go and get to our building and into the air conditioning.’ So she starts going slower and slower and I’m crabbing louder and louder, and finally, once we’re in the middle of the field, she just sits down on her big Labrador rump and that was it.”
Suddenly at the mercy of the dog, Kathie realized she’d have to try something different.
“So I started to sweet talk her,” Kathie remembers. “‘Oh, Cindy, you’re hot. Oh, Cindy, I know just how you feel.’ When I talked to her, she sort of cocked her head like, ‘Hmm, something’s changing here...’ so I said, ‘Come on, we can do this,’ and sure enough, she got up and we got moving. Of course, I didn’t mean a word of it,” Kathie continues. “Truthfully, I wanted to kill her, but I learned that being positive was useful.” It was a lesson she soon integrated into the human world as well.
“Eventually I thought to myself, ‘Well, it works on animals, it might work on people, and if it works on people, it might just work on you. Maybe you could look for what’s right in yourself instead of just what’s wrong.’ So that’s what I did, and it was a life changer,” Kathie concludes. “And I didn’t learn that from any psychology class I ever took. I learned that from a dog.”
I reach my hand down to Luna, offering a final pat. “They teach us a lot, don’t they?” I ask.
“They sure do,” Kathie agrees.
Kathie and Luna escort me to the door, and after we say our goodbyes, I’m left alone to gather my thoughts beneath the summer sun. Within seconds, I’m interrupted by the barks of the neighbor dogs, still engaged in their serious play.
“Good dogs,” I say as I pass them. “What very good dogs you are.”
They don’t understand a word I say, but it still feels good to practice what I’ve learned.
I reach for my pen, then flip wide the notebook.
Reprinted with permission from From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human by B.J. Hollars and published by University of Nebraska Press, 2015.