Life after 50 has revealed milestones I never thought would ever come to pass. Imagining some of the less mundane things coming to pass include looking forward to celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary next year and celebrating four years as a trauma counselor. Not being a social security disability recipient thanks to the salary I now earn at my job is also something I never thought would happen. My children are grown and my youngest will soon be living on her own.
2015 will also be the year I train with a successor dog. Verona is retiring and is now on a modified work schedule. She’s still choosing to harness up but sometimes it’s a very slow walk to get dressed. I can’t help thinking of my friends, other handlers, who have abrupt separations from dogs who quit the job due to stress, illness or death and my heart goes out to them. At the same time, I am fortunate to experience a slower, less traumatic retirement process with my first dog guide. Six years is a good working life. I wish it were longer, but the gray beginning to take over Verona’s chin and lips is proof she deserves some R&R. There are days she is distracted and slow, making clearance errors and I think, am I doing the right thing by still working her? Then she turns us away from an oncoming car or speeding bicyclist running the light and I think, maybe I shouldn’t retire her so soon. Then, the very next day, she walks like a turtle and stops short at curbs, stumbles down the bus steps, and I am back to thinking retiring her is the right thing to do, but when?
This is the torture I have been putting myself through all these months and I still don’t know when, exactly, to hand in her harness to Guiding Eyes. Just thinking about it makes my eyes tear up. This is a dog that has stolen my heart, which has included me in her realm of canine reasoning and makes decisions to clear me along with herself when in danger or when avoiding obstacles. This is a dog that becomes a serious worker when the harness goes on and silly happy pants when the harness is removed. This is a dog that has a natural ability to empathize with my clients and also sense when not to interrupt. How am I going to allow another dog the same level of trust? How will this new dog prove themselves to me? Will this new dog fit into the counseling Milieu like Verona? The most troubling piece of this entire conundrum is, will I be able to do it and how will I know if it isn’t working?
I know this kind of thinking and feeling is normal, I have spoken to other handlers about transferring these elements of a canine/human bond. One person told me she felt guilty going back for another dog. Another person only went back when the previous dog finally died, saying he was obligated, in his mind, to return the dog’s loyalty by letting the dog live out its life for the many years of loyalty and work without compromising it with yet another dog. One of my best friends has reminded me that when we walk into a guide dog school and put the harness handle in our hands, we are making the decision to accept the risk of the emotional attachment and consequences of the attachment along with the increased freedom a dog provides. I identify with all of these perspectives, feeling them at different points, depending on what level Verona is working, or not and how vulnerable I am feeling.
I wish it were simple, well, maybe not simple, but clearer. I will do what is best for my dog. If it means dealing with emotions that stir me up, that is something I will deal with as it comes. I will keep on traversing this evolution of sorts and rely upon one thing: knowing that thousands of other dog guide users and service dog handlers have gone before me and have been successful in transitioning to a new dog. Change is hard and I’m going to use all my 50 years of coping skills and resilient thinking to get through it. This is the challenge for 2015 and I am hoping to be successful but I wonder and have my doubts. I just heard from the admissions department and my class date is tentatively scheduled for April 2015. So, I have five months to work through this.