When I volunteered to raise an Assistance Dog puppy I thought I had prepared myself for the job at hand. It wasn’t a job as such. It was a journey of learning and professional enhancement that I wanted to pursue. I have a special interest in Assistant Dogs. I have shared a home with a fully trained Assistance Dog. My background as a physiotherapist has given me insight into the physical limitations imposed upon so many people with various movement, pain related and physical restrictions to the extent that I wanted to explore first-hand how dogs were trained to assist such people. It seemed like a natural marriage of two of my passions: restoring mobility/easing pain and animal training. I was excited to liaise with other training professionals and to experience raising a prospective Assistance Dog first-hand.
So when Scout, the black Labrador puppy, came to me I had already begun to prepare myself for the journey: particularly emotionally for the end stage. I was not to get overly attached to this puppy and reminded myself that I was a temporary carer. My role was to give this puppy the best possible start towards a career as a working dog. I was fully prepared to relinquish my charge when the time came. I used techniques to deliberately avoid becoming too smitten like referring to her as “The Crazy Black Dog” or “The Black Dog” – a way of distancing. It would be much harder to give up “My Little Black Girl” or “My Wee Black Beauty”. I joked about how “nutso” she was. I relayed funny stories of how she relentlessly pestered poor Zuri, my reluctant resident dog who was forced to share her home with a rambunctious puppy! Labrador jokes streamed effortlessly. My plan seemed effective.
Scout was with me for eight months. I enjoyed her enthusiasm for training and we had so much fun. Email subscribers can watch our journey here.
Then she was gone.
The house was eerily quiet. I kept seeing her in the corner of my eye in every room. I woke up, ready for our morning play and fun time … only to remember her absence as the haze of sleep finally dissipated. I exhibited a rather morose display of slow walking, head hanging and tear wiping that first week. I wasn’t quite prepared for the intensity of emotion that accompanied her departure. Then I rationalized and gave myself permission to feel sad at the loss of a friend who had been my constant companion for quite a while. So what if my carefully choreographed attempts at nonchalance had failed? I allowed myself to grieve and began to look forward to updates on her progress. I focused on how happier Zuri was now that she was an only dog again. I started to revel in the excess of free time I now seemed to have. Raising a puppy is hard work. Raising an Assistance Puppy has even more responsibilities. I channelled the sadness into expectation and became excited at the prospect of following her journey and receiving updates.
An expectation is a feeling or belief about how successful or good someone or something will be. Getting a dog can come with many expectations. Take the Border Collie who is chosen to compete in agility. Or the Shih Tzu chosen to be a lap dog companion. Or the bitza chosen as a jogging companion. Or the therapy dog. Or Scent Detector dog. Sometimes expectations are not met. This can be due to many reasons. It could be due to unrealistic expectations to begin with, unexpected factors influencing outcomes, or lack of adequate preparation to achieve desired outcomes.
I received a phone call that Scout was being pulled from the Assistance Dog Programme as she wasn’t suitable. It wasn’t a bombshell. It was confirmation of what I already suspected and had even hinted at in the myriad of Labrador jokes. I had lived with her for months and had given her intensive training to equip her for her calling. She was a dream to teach, such a quick learner, a happy girl. However, she also had a personality devoid of inhibition and exhibited some anxiety. Her disposition just didn’t fit with the sturdy, reliable, naturally resilient demeanour required for the task of being an Assistance Dog. It was a fair call. It was an expected outcome. Yet despite this, I felt a wave of disappointment roll over me. During our time together I knew that she was probably a square peg being trained for a round hole. However, this didn’t change my enthusiasm to train her and provide the best foundation I could. I enjoyed it. My rationale was that all the time and effort was time well spent preparing her for whatever lay ahead, be it Assistance Dog or companion dog. Training is a joy, not a chore for me. She was a delight to teach. Whilst not surprised, I was still crestfallen. I think I was secretly hoping for a miracle. I wanted to be proven wrong.
I have shared a video about how unmet expectations can be viewed positively. Often when a guardian laments that their dog can’t do this or that, I point out that their dog is actually outstanding at something else just as valuable, important or endearing. Little did I realize that I would refer back to this video to console myself.
Unexpectedly, I was given the opportunity to adopt Scout as a companion dog. This took me by surprise as it is not the usual practice to return dogs to the puppy raiser. I was appreciative of the offer since it acknowledged the time, effort and love that had been poured into Scout. Now a decision that I hadn’t foreseen or prepared myself for needed to be made. In a stupor of indecision, I couldn’t answer. My tongue refused to utter a word either way. So I slept on it.
Lists of pros and cons became skewed amidst memories of happy tail wags and inexhaustible exuberance. I had to remind myself that when I signed up for this gig I did it with the expectation that it was temporary and that I didn’t choose a dog to join the home permanently. It is important to me to get a dog at the right time, the right type of dog, for reasons that I am clear about – not just because the chance has eventuated. I waited 18 years for the right time to get Miss Zuri. Even more importantly, Zuri’s wellbeing needed to be taken into account. The jokes about Zuri enduring a whirlwind of Labrador-lack- of-personal-space were based on an element of truth. Zuri was longsuffering in her tolerance of the newcomer. I reviewed video footage of how Zuri deferred continually to Scout’s demands on her personal space; being pushed into walls, accosted in doorways and hallways, slammed into furniture, disturbed from resting and barred access to moving freely around the house. It was my judicious policing and management strategies that kept the status quo. It worked but it was also demanding on me and, I suspect, a level of constant stress for Zuri in her own home. I had noticed this with another foster dog as well. I had also noticed that with other dogs interactions were more relaxed and none of these incidents occurred. Zuri was getting older and while she enjoyed the company of dogs and playing, she enjoyed space and quiet times as well. Scout was still growing into social maturity and showed no signs of mellowing soon.
I made the heart wrenching decision not to adopt Scout.
Second Guessing and Regret
Days later I began to question my decision. I queried my own ability to read dog body language. I viewed my decision as error, putting it down to being emotionally invested in my own dog and projecting excessively. It wasn’t that bad for Zuri, surely? This feeling was different to observing other dogs, client’s dogs or friend’s dogs; emotion was definitely involved. So I sought advice from two other animal behaviour professionals, asking for their opinion on the relationship between Scout and Zuri. They reviewed the video footage I compiled and spoke to me honestly and with great care. They asked me questions and pointed out pertinent information. They listened to me. They didn’t make my decision but they guided me with their input. It was a humbling and affirming act to seek assistance from peers for a personal issue and to receive confirmation that Zuri and Scout were, indeed, not a match made in heaven. The entire journey with Scout had been an invaluable learning experience in ways I hadn’t predicted.
Email subscribers can see the stressful encounters here.
A quiet, lingering sadness.
There will likely be no more updates.
She is gone.
© Sonya Bevan 2016
Sonya Bevan is an avid dog lover with a Bachelor of Science degree in physiotherapy. This combination lead to seeking science based information on how to teach dogs and she commenced further study to complete a Diploma of Canine Behaviour Science and Technology. Dog training is both a science and an art. When based on solid principles of behavioural science, teaching also allows creativity when applied to each unique dog. Most of all, it should be fun for both participants and a way to bond with these special animals we love so much.