Thursday, May 22, 2014

The puppy no one wanted

My phone rang during a continuing education class on a Sunday last March.  When I checked the message during break, I heard Jodi's voice, "Is there any way you would be interested in an older puppy?  We have one that is 14 weeks old still up in the kennels that had a urinary tract infection when he was younger and by the time he finished his meds, he was so much older than the other puppies that everyone passed him over.  His name is Baldwin and he is a yellow male like you wanted."  Our journey with Guiding Eyes had started in January, and our whole family took part in the pre-puppy placement classes for several weeks.  We wanted to get our puppy before Spring break when everyone would be home.  Initially, we were expecting an 8 week old puppy since that is usually when they place them, but the prospect of getting one farther along in his housebreaking training was tempting.  And my heart immediately went out to this pup, the last one left of his litter, just waiting for someone to choose him.  After talking it over with Jeremy we decided to go for it.  Things moved quickly and we found out about a van ride that would bring him south from the Guiding Eyes for the Blind facility in New York.  The kids had never had a puppy and we were excited to have them be part in the raising of this very special pup with a purpose.  We were clear in the fact that this was not our dog- his future was to be the eyes for someone who could not see.  Quickly this little yellow ball of love won us all over, with his sad expression and "old soul" eyes, and his desire to be anyone's lap dog, even Mason's.  It became exciting that we could take him places other dogs could not go, and the kids liked it when people would ask about our yellow pup and his blue vest that identified him.   He would take turns at night staying with Cameron and Gavin until lights out at 9 pm, and I loved to sneak in and see them curled up reading on the floor or sometimes asleep.  He also came with me to work almost every day.  It didn't take long for him to learn that if he wanted to stay out with all of the other animals and people, he needed to be calm and quiet.  He was always tethered to my desk, and just last week a client remarked that she thought he was a statue, he was so still and good.

We knew he could not stay with us forever.  I clearly recall one class we had inside of Old Navy.  We had been working hard on walking without pulling at home and he was superb in the store.  I teared upright there in the store in the moment I realized that this dog was so hardwired to succeed at his "job."  With or without my help he would become something amazing.  We learned his big guide dog test would be May 20 and as that day crept closer on the calendar we savored more of the day to day moments like how he always watched out the car window when I dropped the kids off at school, or how he still tried to climb into everyone's laps, especially during family scripture and prayer time, or how he would have these impressive strings of drool form when he was waiting to be released to eat his meals.  He was completely integrated into our family life and in our hearts.  We decided to go with him on his journey back to where he came from, and made the long car ride feeling somber and a bit nervous about how he would do on the test.  People constantly asked us how we could ever do this thing- love a dog for so long and then give him back.  The truth was we didn't know until the end was there in front of us.  We stayed at the GEB guest house and were fortunate enough that of the 30 dogs being tested in May, Baker, Baldwin's brother and his raisers also stayed at the guest house and the boys were reunited the night before we had to check them in.  We shared stories of our boys and were astounded at how similar the two were.  They wrestled like brothers and we wondered if it was possible for them to remember each other.  It was slightly comforting to know that they would be moving on together.  When Sunday morning came we made the drive to the training school and everyone held it together until they showed us to his kennel and told us to take as much time as we needed to say goodbye.  Baldwin had no idea what was coming, he was just sniffing everything and trying to say hello to the dogs across from him.  The reality sank in to me that I was leaving my baby- yes he belonged to Guiding Eyes but for 15 treasured months he was mine.  We knew we would get to see him again in a couple of days when we watched his test, but leaving him there in that loud, cold place was almost too much.  Cameron got a little emotional once he saw how upset I was, but the younger two seemed fine.  It was comforting to know that Baldwin would have two roommates join him soon.  He always loved playing with other dogs.

Tuesday morning we got stuck in traffic on our way to the testing.  We arrived just as they were starting and discovered that Baldwin was number 3 on the list.  Jeremy and I held our breath as they brought him in and worked him around different sounds/obstacles to see how he would do.  We were so proud!  Immediately after we were escorted out to see him and wait to hear what was decided.  Most dogs that make it this far in the program  go into harness training, and a select few become breeders for the next generation of guide dogs.  It came as no surprise that our Baldwin was selected to go into breed evaluation where they will do medical testing to determine whether or not he will make a good stud.  This news gave us very mixed feelings, all along we had been picturing him in a harness giving someone such great freedom and changing their life, but now he may just be going to another, closer, foster family to be a pet until needed for breeding.  It will still be a while before his fate is really determined, but regardless we know he will be fulfilling his destiny.  As a breeder he will be making the next generation of guide dogs that will live a life of service, and if he is not selected he will go into harness training and be paired up with someone who needs him and we know will love him dearly.

There have been many tears since Tuesday when we said our final goodbye.  I bought the boys all stuffed yellow lab puppies before the ride home and asked them what they would name them.  Mason said "Mike."  Gavin said "Alpha."  Cameron sobbed "Baldwin!!!"  For Gavin it took a little longer to sink in.  Coming home to an empty house was awful.  Gavin had a hard time getting to sleep and was crying, worried that we will never see Baldwin again.  The future is indeed unsure, and that scares all of us, but we are hopeful that someday we will be reunited with our Ball-sy boy.  No matter what happens, we don't regret bringing that unwanted puppy into our lives.  This was something that we did together as a family that brought us all closer together.  That puppy was fed 5 hearts full of love and devotion, and he grew into something better than any of us could've imagined.

In talking with the kids about whether or not to raise for Guiding Eyes again, I was impressed with Cameron's maturity.  Through tears he said that as much as this hurt, it was such a goodness we had done and that he wanted to keep helping.  Maybe next time it won't hurt so much.


Jean Allen said...

Beautifully written. Although it was hard to read between the sobs.

Susan Ring said...

So eloquent. You and I had many conversations at MVES regarding how we love our animals. You and your family have done such a loving, selfless thing by training Baldwin. We cannot wait to read your future chapters and find out if there are other puppies to be trained or more kittens cuddling a pup's nose! Seeing what the Johnson family is up to is more enjoyable than any book or TV show -- I am in awe of you and your family. Such a good example for us all.

G Porter said...

In the end, it's hard to say that doing this really hurt anyone. Even Cam and Gave who I worried most about have learned about sacrificing for a higher purpose. But I guess I'm still sad/mad that B is not around for me and Joe. He will be loved and missed by more than the 5 Johnsons.

G Porter said...

In the end, it's hard to say that doing this really hurt anyone. Even Cam and Gave who I worried most about have learned about sacrificing for a higher purpose. But I guess I'm still sad/mad that B is not around for me and Joe. He will be loved and missed by more than the 5 Johnsons.