Joe and Gator


Tomorrow marks eight years since I lost my first guide dog to cancer. The original post acknowledging his passing was lost when my first blog went away, so I am reprinting it here for my own edification.

Forgive me. Normally I aim to post content that helps you, but today is all about the dog that contributed so much to my life. Thank you for understanding.

Honestly, I was not fully convinced I’d get a guide dog until I actually set foot on The Seeing Eye campus. Now don’t take that personally. I was worried about getting a bad match or a great match with a fruity name like Squiggles or Pumpkin or some such nonsense you sometimes see come out of guide dog schools, and was I really ready for the responsibilities of a trained dog? I think I also feared becoming one of those obsessed guide dog owners who sign their e-mails with their dogs’ names.

You were the perfect match from the beginning. I have never met and doubt I will ever meet another dog named Gator, and when I was informed you were a German shepherd, I just about squeaked like a schoolgirl, if you can imagine a squeak coming from my otherwise monotone self. You were the largest dog in the class, as regal as you were stubborn, and when I learned halfway through our training that I was your last hope before they dropped you from the program on account of your strength, I knew it was destiny.

People sometimes have a hard time believing the stories. They can believe you survived the white water rapids in Colorado. They can believe you were intelligent enough to pull me out of the path of an oncoming train. They become a little skeptical when I tell them that during that aforementioned Colorado trip; you nonchalantly climbed up a vertical wooden ladder like a common monkey. But some have a hard time believing that you were clever enough to toss your head so as to catch your bell collar in your mouth, the better to get into the trashcan without being heard. It’s too bad you never failed to knock over the can and give yourself away, and I haven’t worked out how you planned on eating around the bell even if you had succeeded.

That isn’t to say we didn’t have our rough spots. The day you casually relieved yourself in the airport was not amusing. Once could have been chalked up to nature. Twice was suspicious, and after the third I had to think long and hard about whether I really wanted you to travel with me down the street, let alone across the country. I knew you weren’t a healthy boy. It’s something I accepted and dealt with, but sometimes, I wondered what I’d done to deserve your wrath. Did you really have to sneak a dead bird into the apartment?

I’m sure others would have their own stories of woe. Somehow, I don’t think my college debate squad completely forgave me for keeping their suits in a perpetual state of dog fuzz while at tournaments. The lady whose fries you snagged while guiding me through a restaurant did not share your high opinion of your sneaky ways, and the TSA agent whose hand you nipped for getting too friendly more than likely made him bitter toward future service animals coming down his lane.

There are other stories, but why embarrass you. Or rather, why embarrass myself, since somehow I doubt you felt an an ounce of remorse for the stunts you pulled. It’s too likely to generate questions about whether I was a bad handler or you were just a bad dog. You were an independent spirit. That’s why you had to pretend to give it a shot with the first two blind students before you got to me. And me, I wouldn’t have changed anything about you.

It’s now been almost three months since you left. I’m not as likely to break down the way I did in the week after I had to put you down, but part of me still listens for the familiar sound of your collar jingle, the distinct rhythm of your paws and the contented sighs/groans that made taking you to class so entertaining for the unsuspecting professors. Part of me still plans on waking up early to let you out, because your bladder was always more sensitive. Part of me forgets that it’s no longer necessary to round up all the medicines at feeding time, but as seemingly easier as things are now, I would do it all over again. It’s at these times of remembrance that I can’t help but feel that my agony of your loss is as fresh as if it had only happened yesterday.

We found out about your cancer on a Wednesday morning. I tried to ignore the grim reality that the vets only gave you a few days, but if a few days is what you had, then a few days is what I was willing to give you. Only, you got worse. Maybe it was knowing what the problem was that made your slow walk and lethargic spirit more pronounced. Regardless, I hated to see you in such a state, and I hope the walk off leash through the woods and McDonald’s meal in some measure made up for our having to finally take you to the vet that Thursday evening. I now know it was the right thing to do, or as right, as such a thing can ever be. I just hate that after walking through those woods, your last memory had to be of a hospital room.

My last memory of you is of your head on my lap. You were so brave. I think you knew what was going to happen, and you faced it head on in much the same way you jumped into the raft to face those crazy rapids. I think it’s this memory that will help me face obstacles in the years to come. You may have shied away from firecrackers, and the sound of popping the air bubbles in those packing strips drove you nuts. Yet, in the end you more than rose to the challenge of moving on with a highest degree of dignity.

Random thought, but do you remember the time you ate a whole pizza? I was so astonished to have found the pizza box knocked from the table with nothing but crusts left. Oh, you had a good habit of working my nerves at times, but that was one of the times I couldn’t help but laugh at your cleverness. Perhaps it was payback. If you couldn’t get away with trash hunting, then by golly you’d go for the Pizza Hut!

Thank you for showing me another side to nature. I always knew dogs were intelligent, but never in my wildest dreams did I believe I could ever be so incredibly attached to a creature. Thank you for helping me navigate crazy streets and even crazier train stations. Thank you for being a constant companion and for randomly coming up and resting your head on my lap when you knew the comfort was welcomed. Thank you for walking one more time around the block on the afternoon I knew it would be over. You were slower, more cautious, but your work ethic was as steady then as it was the first time I took you around the track at The Seeing Eye. I haven’t decided about going back for another dog, but regardless, no dog will ever replace the beauty that was you.

Find me a good house up there. Be a good boy, and enjoy your new life as a healthy dog that will never need pills or shots to be at peace. We miss you down here. We’ll be along later, and then we’ll see if you’re still up for another round of tug of war.

Eight Years Later

I did go for a second dog. It took me three years to get back to Morristown, but I needed time after your passing. His name is Matthew, another gorgeous German shepherd. He is currently seven years old and in excellent health. Yes, he has relieved himself in the office building, twice. Not amusing.

Though he is quieter and generally sweeter, which is to say he is nowhere near as aggressive as you were, I think you would approve. The childlike side of me believes you may have had a paw in choosing him for me.

A lot has changed since you moved on from this world. I went from three dogs, two cats, and two ferrets to just Matthew. I miss the ones who have since followed you but fervently believe I will see you all on the other side.

“God be with you till we meet again.”

June 20, 2002 – January 19, 2012

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