I know there’s “Throwback Thursday,” but I’m inventing “Way Back Wednesday.” That handsome gent above is Rocky, the first service dog we raised. Rocky was a wickedly handsome, overwhelmingly social Labrador retriever. My husband and I were on our honeymoon when we picked him up. [I know what you’re thinking: that husband’s a keeper! I agree…]
This isn’t a story about how magnificent a dog Rocky was (although he was), this is a glimpse of what it’s like to raise and train a service dog for the very first time.
I was nervous. I was a dog trainer, yes, but I’d never had a puppy before! We’d always had hunting dogs or found strays. So while I knew how to train a puppy to love his crate, how to teach a puppy to go to the bathroom outside, and how to keep those needle teeth to himself, I’d never actually done it.
Raising Rocky was also my first experience with taking a dog in public places like the grocery store, the movies, and to the doctor’s office. There are laws in each state covering service dogs and trainers (here’s a great resource) and that eased my trepidation about grocery shopping with a dog. Understandably, though, it took a little getting used to being stared at, pointed out, and whispered about when Rocky and I were out and about in public.
I worked at the Department of Commerce when we started raising Rocky. Oh so naively, I figured that with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), created by the Federal government, meant that I could just bring Rocky to work with me as soon as he was house trained.
The Federal government had other ideas. (Being naive is fun until real life hits you square in the face.) I moved mountains to find another Federal employee who was bringing a service dog to work. Let’s just say that the Federal government follows precedent much more easily than it sets it.
I found a United States Attorney in Florida who had been bringing service dogs in training to work with him for several years and who’d even taken a picture of one of his service dogs in training with former United States Attorney General Janet Reno.With that kind of strength on my side, we were a shoe-in.
We learned so much diplomacy during that first year at work with a dog in the office. Not everyone liked dogs. Not everyone thought a dog should be in a government office. Not everyone understood that Rocky wasn’t a pet. With gentle determination, we tried to assuage doubts, concerns, and fears — and did a pretty good job thanks to Rocky’s sensitive friendliess. He seemed to know at first glance who would appreciate his approach and who really needed him to stay on his side of the elevator.
We had Rocky for almost two years before he went on to his next phase of training and I thought I’d die of heartbreak when I had to leave him at the service dog agency. He handled the transition much better than I did, and was quickly one of the favorites there at the agency.
When it was time for graduation, time for us to meet Rocky’s new partner, there were smiles and tears. At the formal graduation ceremony, we were given Rocky’s leash to bring him on stage where we were to say a few words, then ceremoniously hand the leash to Rocky’s new partner. Being an extrovert and not afraid of public speaking, I knew I could do this.
My introverted husband panicked when he found out I had no notes. “I’ll be fine. I can do this. I don’t need notes. Don’t worry, you don’t have to say anything.”
Famous last words.
We got up on stage with Rocky and as I began to reflect at all he’d taught us, a tear slipped down my face. Not to worry, I was still doing fine, and besides any talk with tears is compelling, I thought to myself. One tear led to another and within 30 seconds, I was unable to speak. At all.
Remember my introverted husband? The one to whom I’d whispered “I’m alright, I promise you won’t have to say anything. I got this.” Yeah, him.
He was now front and center, without having prepared one single word. He managed to put something together for about 60 seconds until I regained my composure and finished my thoughts. He did a great job, said some amazing things that I can’t remember because I was frantically trying to stop crying.
Rocky did great work for his partner. We felt so fortunate to live relatively close by so we could still see Rocky. Even better, his family asked us if we’d watch him whenever they went on international travel. We were able to see Rocky at least twice a year every single year. We enjoyed his company every Christmas and he got presents just like every other dog in the house.
It did my heart good to see how happy Rocky always was when his family came to collect him when they returned from their travels. He’d hop into their car and settle right back into his old life as if his time with us was a relaxing vacation. And the next time he’d see us, we’d see that same joy when he was with us again. It was beautiful. He was a lucky dog: he had two families who adored him, and who he adored.
Rocky was the first service pup we raised. He was also the first one we lost. I was at a dog training seminar when Rocky’s partner called me in tears, panicked because Rocky was losing his life to cancer. Within hours Rocky was gone. I remember the long drive home from the seminar, thinking about the fabulous dog, the amazing things he’d done for his partner, and how wonderful it was to be even a tiny part of that magic.
We’re now on service dog number 15 and while all the dogs have their unique qualities, there’s a common thread. Each dog has brought us something different, has taught us something new, and has introduced us to a great new family who shares our love for that very same dog. It’s great work, raising a service dog. But it is work. Lots of it. Lots of poop, pee, slobber, drool, chewed up things, and hair. So much hair. But, man, does it fulfill and enrich our lives like nothing else.
Thanks, Rocky, for being the first, for being the best introduction to service dog raising, for being an ambassador for all the dogs who have come behind you. We’ll see you on the other side, my friend.