Beginnings: Meeting Maggie, July 1999

Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes. I recently experienced a tremendously painful goodbye by allowing my guide dog Maggie to rest in peace after fourteen years of love and loyal service. I’m sad but I’m also tremendously grateful to have had all those years with her. I met her a few days before her second birthday and her spirit and body parted ways a few days before her sixteenth birthday. She worked up until a couple weeks before her passing. I’m blessed, lucky, and thankful to have had such a good dog by my side for such a long time.

Statistically, those things aren’t supposed to happen. Guide dogs are generally a year and a half to two years old when they complete formal training and are matched with the blind person they’ll be helping. Then, each dog’s “working life” will last eight to ten years, on average. The typical life expectancy of a Labrador Retriever is ten to thirteen years. It amazes and humbles me to think about all the averages we blew past years ago. Knowing Maggie, though, it doesn’t surprise me that she kept going for so long. She was that way from day one. Maggie had such enthusiasm for life.

Since Maggie’s passing took place exactly fourteen years from the day we met, I’ve recently spent time recalling our first days together. I’d rather think about July 11 1999 than July 11 2013. That more recent date has been the one I’ve been talking about and emotionally responding to the most lately. It was a sacred day and as right and peaceful as such days can be. It was also very sad and contains details I absolutely can’t dwell on. The other July 11 fourteen years earlier, the day I met Maggie for the first time, was a much happier day. A ray of sunshine entered my life that day and has been a source of warmth and comfort to me ever since.

Maggie represented hope and second chances for me. She was my second guide dog. I traveled back to Pilot Dogs in Columbus Ohio to train with her only three years after being matched with my first guide, a black Lab named Poppy. I hadn’t expected to be going through that process again until at least 2003 or 2004. My plan was to have Poppy with me throughout the rest of college and graduate school, at least. In total contrast to how things went with Maggie, that working relationship was much shorter than average. Our training went extremely well, but problems began soon after we returned home and only got worse over time. I didn’t want to give up on Poppy, but trying to keep her working left us both frustrated, exhausted, and miserable.

As hard as it was, making the decision to retire Poppy was a relief in some ways. All the energy and effort that had been going towards trying to “fix” her could now be put towards planning for the future. Once I started accepting the situation for what it was instead of what I wished it could have been, it was easier for me to begin putting it in perspective. I knew I was doing what was best for both of us and that we would both be okay. I knew my Mom would take good care of her and that Poppy would enjoy being out from under the stress of guide work. I knew I would be able to still visit her and have a relationship with her. It would be different, of course, but Poppy would still be a meaningful part of my life. Knowing we weren’t saying goodbye forever was a tremendous comfort to me.

Poppy would always be special as my first guide dog but I knew I didn’t want her to be the last one or the only one. There were times when she’d done excellent work and I knew how much I enjoyed the feelings of freedom, dignity, and independence I felt at those times. Going back to being a dogless cane user was not something I wanted to do. I was ready to begin working with a dog who could be the reliable and capable guide Poppy was no longer able to be.

Retiring Poppy and retraining with a new dog was one of several stressful transitions I was experiencing during the summer of 1999. I was twenty-two and had just served as maid of honor and wedding singer in my sister’s wedding, with Poppy by my side. That was her last official work day and we barely got through it. I was living in Columbia for the summer, and sharing a house with several friends. At the end of August, I would be starting my final semester of college. I was facing decisions about where I might go to graduate school and what type of counseling I wanted to focus on. Poppy would be moving in with my Mom and the newlyweds and I would be living an hour and a half away with a new helper. I was still getting used to being an aunt and a sister-in-law and would have a new human roommate when we moved back into our dorm, as well. I’ve never handled change particularly well and was experiencing a lot of mixed emotions about all these things.

To make matters worse, I was also physically sick. A few days before I was supposed to travel back to Columbus, I’d come down with some kind of cold or allergies. I was coughing, had a sore throat, and was experiencing fatigue and achiness. I felt mentally foggy and had a hard time deciding what to pack and making last minute arrangements. I wasn’t running a fever so I didn’t want to postpone the trip. I had no idea how I would get through the intense and exhausting process of two weeks of retraining if I didn’t start to feel better, though. Most of the symptoms were gone by the time I met Maggie, but I kept a chronic cough throughout the time I was in training with her and for several weeks after we returned to South Carolina.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with airplane travel sick and emotional after saying goodbye to Poppy. I’d initiated contact with the mother and daughter who had raised her more than a year earlier. When they found out when I was supposed to go back to Pilot Dogs, they told me they’d be vacationing a couple hours from our home the week before and offered to take me back with them. I could spend a night at the home Poppy was raised in and they would drop me off at Pilot Dogs the next day. Nora and Emily had visited us the previous summer and I felt comfortable traveling with them. More importantly, I knew they’d experienced the same emotions I was struggling with when they returned Poppy to the guide dog school for her formal training. I could cry openly without feeling embarrassed and in the company of understanding friends instead of being on an airplane full of strangers. We had a fun road trip and I heard more stories about Poppy’s puppyhood. Those helped me to think happy thoughts about her rather than sad ones.

Once I was at Pilot Dogs again, I immediately became eager to meet the dog who would hopefully become my next guide. My trainer Sue had recently completed her training apprenticeship and was just beginning to conduct classes on her own. She was young and fun and I knew we would work well together. I also knew I would get reacquainted with trainers who were there when I trained with Poppy. I was familiar with the structure of the program, the campus, and the areas we’d be traveling around Columbus. I was ready to be introduced my new dog and to begin the process of bonding and learning to work together. It was July 10, 1999, and thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long.

The next morning, I was in my room, waiting, tense, and listening for excited panting, the click of toenails, or the jingle of a dog’s collar. Trainers at Pilot Dogs joke that they’re the only people in the world who get happy reactions when they say, “Go to your room and wait for me.” That’s the procedure when students are about to be introduced to their new dog.

Meeting a new guide dog for the first time is exciting and scary, kind of like a first date you’ve really been looking forward to. There are speculations and expectations. I wondered what the first moments with my new dog would be like. The first time I’d met Poppy, she hadn’t seemed interested in me at all. She was more concerned about where her trainer had disappeared to. It had been disappointing and very anticlimactic. I hoped this time would be different, especially since I was already worried about how long it might take me to begin getting attached to Poppy’s “replacement.” Could I really connect with another dog when I still cared so much about Poppy? Could Dog Number Two and I form a solid enough bond and working relationship in just two weeks? Would we work well together? Would she be able to handle getting around campus as well as sitting through long boring classes? Would she be a yellow lab like I’d asked for so everyone would be clear that this was a new beginning with a dog who looked different from the last one? Would she have a normal name or something weird?

I squirmed in my chair as I listened to the sound of footstepps and the familiar jingle of metal tags coming down the hallway. I wanted to run to meet them. I already had the leash. I just needed a dog to attach to it.

“She’s a yellow Lab and her name is Maggie,” my trainer Sue said from the doorway. “Call her.”

“Maggie!” I repeated, feeling an immediate sense of relief. Maggie was a cute, normal name for a dog, and as I quickly discovered, it suited her perky personality. And she was a yellow lab. Two important questions answered the way I wanted.

Worries about our initial meeting were quickly crossed off the list, as well. As soon as she heard her name Maggie launched herself across the room at me. She flung herself into my personal space like she already owned the rights to it. She acted as though we were long lost relatives. She was a squirming, hyperventilating, wagging whirlwind of fur and enthusiasm. She tried to climb in my lap and lick my face and seemed truly thrilled to be with me.

It was as though she were saying, “Oh my gosh, where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you forever! Thank God. I thought you’d never get here. I think you’re awesome. Let’s go places. Let’s do things. Let’s be friends. We’re finally together!” I was pleasantly surprised (and a little unprepared) for that level of unrestrained happiness. It was impossible not to respond emotionally to a reception like that. I couldn’t help laughing as I reached for her. I got down on the floor to pet and talk to Maggie, but quickly turned my head when a blast of her horrible fish breath hit me full in the face. That problem never went away and it always got worse the more excited she was.

Despite her horrible breath, Maggie had a great personality and the best attitude towards her work and her life. She got excited about pretty much everything. She seemed to think every aspect of the world she came in contact with was fascinating and completely worth getting worked up about. She was like a ditsy blond cheerleader on four legs and amphetamines.

Maggie’s excitement about the world in general made her eager to get where we were going when we went out on morning and afternoon training walks, too. I discovered this later that day, when we took our first walk together. We dashed from one intersection to the next, dealing with whatever obstacles or distractions presented themselves along the way. My left arm was sore for the first several days because Maggie’s pull in harness was so strong. We practically sprinted down the sidewalks of Columbus and would often have to wait at the end of each block for Sue and the other guide dog team we were training with to catch up.

Maggie wasn’t even slowed down by the unusual heat wave in Columbus that summer. It felt like South Carolina! We often had to do our training early in the day due to the heat and the potential for the dogs to burn their paws on the pavement. Some of the dogs were obviously more sluggish because of the hot weather, but not Maggie. Her excitement wasn’t going to be dampened by a little heat or humidity, or even a lot of heat and humidity.

It did rain one evening. When we went out the next morning, Maggie took a flying Superman style leap off a curb to avoid stepping in a mud puddle. I was startled, but hung on to the harness, and once she landed, we proceeded on across the street. “I can’t believe you were able to keep a hold on her,” Sue said, when she caught up with us and finished laughing. “We need to go back and work that again.”

Despite her eagerness and quick pace, Maggie stopped for curbs the way she was supposed to, guided me safely across busy intersections, and worked appropriately on and off busses. They were doing construction along some of the usual routes that were typically used during training. Maggie handled the noise and narrower sidewalks like a pro. When we were doing indoor work at the local mall, I worked hard, under Sue’s guidance, to slow her down to more of a “shopping speed.” To her credit, Maggie tried to contain herself, but she still moved at a brisk pace. We negotiated flights of stairs with varying degrees of steepness. She guided me on and off escalators and elevators and navigated revolving doors with surprising focus. The Pilot Dogs training facility had a revolving door on campus for us to practice on. I never did care for those and neither of us were big fans of escalators, but we were trained on how to safely use both when necessary.

Maggie was a happy worker. I could often feel her tail wagging against my leg as we walked together. I started calling her Waggy Maggie. I think she knew when other people were watching her work and liked to show off a little. She seemed to like all aspects of guiding, but obstacle work was her favorite part, I think. She appeared to enjoy the challenge of weaving around people, cars, or whatever else blocked our path to keep me safe and on course. This included knowing how to handle cars that pulled too far up in the crosswalks or turned unexpectedly in front of us. Her responses to these possibly dangerous situations were quick and confident.

She may have played the part of the ditsy blond, but Maggie proved her intelligence by how she handled several tricky scenarios. Sometimes, I didn’t know exactly what she was having to negotiate or make a decision about until Sue told me. The more opportunities I had to appreciate her judgment, the more my trust in Maggie grew.

Maggie aimed to please. She didn’t have the stubborn streak that had caused so many problems with Poppy. She didn’t need many leash corrections or verbal reprimands. Her nose got her in trouble more than anything else and she could be easily sidetracked by intriguing smells. It didn’t take much to get her back on track if she made a mistake or got distracted, though. A word or touch was often all it took to get her to refocus. She wanted to do what was asked of her and loved the verbal praise and petting she received as a reward for her efforts. Attention made her happy and she was very affectionate in return.

It takes time for a guide dog team to bond emotionally and to become truly comfortable working together. That process begins at the guide dog school as the new handler becomes the person walking, feeding, brushing, praising, correcting, and spending time with their new guide. Maggie needed drops put in her ears twice a day for an ear infection, too, and I quickly took over that responsibility. Maggie quickly seemed to understand that I was her new special person. Once that attachment began to be established, she didn’t like to let me out of her sight for more than a few minutes, ever. That was the case throughout the years we spent together.

I knew she was naturally a very flirtatious and curious dog and appreciated her ability to focus and reign in her social tendencies when she was working. Even when she was lying down, she did cute things like turning her front paws under so they made a heart shape, making eye contact, or changing facial expressions. People often commented about how, even when she was in harness and knew she would get in trouble if she made obvious efforts to engage with other people, she would try and draw them in with her gaze. I guess she thought she was getting away with something but I knew what was going on.

She was opinionated, too, and often sighed or groaned theatrically when bored. It always made me and other students laugh when she did this during college lectures. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to whisper “Amen,” after Maggie expressed her feelings that way.

Occasionally, during our dog care or animal behavior lectures with Sue, Maggie would pop her head up and bark for no reason. “She did that in the kennels during training, too,” Sue said. “She gets bored kind of easy. I guess that’s her way of saying she wants to go do something else.” She always was like that. Hours in our dorm room waiting for me to take a break from studying or a quiet weekend in our apartment were never Maggie’s idea of a good time. She preferred to be going somewhere or doing something.

I worried that she might bark like that while my professors were lecturing, but she never did. She was always mouthy when out of harness, though. Whereas Poppy barked if someone knocked on the door, Maggie barked for attention and treats, when she thought things were just too quiet, and sometimes, just to entertain herself, I think. It seemed like she truly enjoyed running her mouth and hearing herself making a lot of noise.

Poppy had never been a snuggler, but Maggie loved to cuddle. She liked physical contact and to be talked to. She would often lay on my feet or sit with her head on my knee. When we got home and I began allowing her on my bed, she often slept with her head on my chest or with her back curled against mine. When being petted, she often put her paw out like she wanted to shake hands. It didn’t take me long to figure out that what she actually wanted was to have her chest scratched.

Maggie wasn’t interested in games or toys. This surprised me given her energy level and because I was used to Poppy’s need for daily play time involving tug of war, ball chasing and catching, and destruction of stuffed animals. None of that was interesting to Maggie. All she ever did with stuffed animals was to bite off their eyes and noses. It creeped me out to think she didn’t want her toys to be able to see until I realized she was chewing up the noses, too. She obviously enjoyed them for their crunchiness. She and Poppy both loved chewing on their NylaBones, but that was about the only similarity.

In between training sessions and lectures, I worked on the Abnormal Psychology class I was trying to finish as an independent study course before the end of the summer. I also made an effort at being friendly with the half dozen other students from all over the US who were training with new dogs, as well. Most of my classmates were “retrains” instead of first time guide dog handlers but the gentleman Maggie and I usually went on training walks with was training with his first dog. He was a store owner from Tennessee who told great jokes.

There were several black labs, a Boxer, a Doberman, and a Standard Poodle in our class. Pilot had recently begun training the Poodles as an option for students who needed a hypoallergenic breed. Maggie was the only yellow lab in our class. When some donors came by who especially liked yellow labs, Pilot’s Executive Director asked if Maggie and I would spend a few minutes talking with them and posing for a few photos. I was glad to do so.

Guide dog schools are nonprofit organizations. Several, like Pilot Dogs, are supported by the Lions Club’s local and regional chapters, as well as the contributions of private donors. The training and travel expenses of dogs and students are usually covered in full and costs for all these services are considerable. The couple I met with seemed charmed by Maggie’s big dark eyes and freckled nose. They were interested in our new partnership and in how she would be helping me achieve my educational and career goals. I told them about how excited I was to be training with Maggie after my first dog’s early retirement, how she would be helping me during my last semester of college on a small campus, throughout graduate school (most likely on a larger university campus somewhere in SC, NC, or GA), and on into my career as a licensed psychotherapist.

Maggie celebrated her second birthday on July 15. I didn’t know this until I got her records right before we left Pilot Dogs. She still seemed to have a lot of awkward adolescent puppy left in her. Her head seemed way too big for her slightly scrawny body. Maggie wouldn’t eat around the other dogs so I had to feed her separately. Throughout her life, she was funny about her food, often trying to push her bowl into corners or under rugs to hide it if she wasn’t hungry when I fed her. She was picky about dog food, but never turned down other types of treats or snacks.

Time passed quickly, and within about ten days of training together, it seemed clear that we were a successful match. We passed our final test involving executing a planned route around Columbus to demonstrate the ability to stay oriented and to travel safely as a team. That meant we were considered “graduates” and that Maggie would be going home with me as my new guide dog. We took pictures for our ID cards certifying that we were a formally trained guide dog team, signed paperwork transferring her ownership from Pilot Dogs to me, and received a new harness and leash instead of the older ones we’d used during training. These practical matters all symbolized our readiness to leave the supervision of our trainer and to return home to begin our lives as a working team.

Some schools have formal graduation ceremonies and opportunities for puppy raisers and donors to visit with the new guide dog teams. Pilot Dogs didn’t do those things and I appreciated their lack of emotional hoopla. Training is stressful enough on handler and dog without a lot of extra excitement and drama, in my opinion. Her puppy raisers would receive a copy of our ID card and I would be able to contact them through the school eventually if I wanted to.

I packed my stuff, and my new dog’s stuff, for our flight back to SC. That would be our first airplane trip together, but not our last. Other adventures would take us to Albuquerque and Philadelphia and would include flight transfers in busy airports in Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte. They would also involve post 911 TSA security checks to make sure the blind woman and her yellow dog weren’t carrying terroristic contraband. I was looking forward to getting home and spending time really cementing the bond with my new helper and companion before beginning my final semester of college. But first, I just wanted to take a nap in my own bed. I was so tired that I kept falling asleep at the airport while waiting for my flight.

I was exhausted but hopeful. My life with my new guide and friend had begun and I had every reason to think it would go well. I knew we still had a lot to learn about each other and that every guide dog team experienced frustrations and challenges early on as they continued sorting out how to work and live together. I felt sure we could handle whatever was to come, though. And we did, from the moment we met on July 11 1999 to July 11 2013. When we arrived back in Columbia near the end of July, exchanging the unusually bad Columbus heat wave for the identical but more typical South Carolina summer heat, our partnership was less than fourteen days old. To my surprise and delight, it would last for fourteen amazing years. Maggie was a blessing to me from the first day to the last. I could have been matched with any number of dogs. I’m so glad Maggie became mine. God gave me a tremendous gift and memories of our years together will always keep her close to me. There will be another guide dog in my life (maybe several more) but there will never be another Maggie.