Raising a puppy for Guide Dogs for the Blind was 4H project option at our first 4H meeting. My youngest daughter and I were very excited. This was great. Sure, it would be challenging but also fun and rewarding. I mean, who doesn’t love a puppy? The hardest part would certainly be saying good-bye to the puppy after raising it for year, right? Right.
Exactly one week shy of a year from when the Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy truck employees put that furry little bundle of love in our arms, Noreen left our family and was placed in a new home. Her new family will finish raising her until she is ready to return to the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus for evaluation and training.
The experience was everything I expected and nothing I expected. There were the obvious and understood challenges like house breaking and saying good-bye. And there were the obvious and understood fun and rewarding moments like puppy love and watching Noreen grow and learn. But, like most new journeys, there were many situations and life lessons I could never have predicted. I knew that raising Noreen meant that we were responsible for teaching her the commands and manners she would need before returning the GDB campus. However, I did not realize that Noreen and I were embarking on parallel journeys in which she would teach me far more than we would ever teach her. Noreen was unknowingly a guide dog, my guide dog, from the moment she was handed to us.
Our first few weeks with Noreen were spent teaching her basic commands like “Do your business”, “Sit” and “Wait” along with encouraging proper crate and tie down training. We were learning new skills, right along with her, as we were taught how to teach these lessons according to the GDB training techniques. Although my daughter and I often fumbled through our teaching process and were sometimes frustrated and impatient, these shortcomings did not hinder Noreen’s progress. She remained an enthusiastic and forgiving student who was always eager to please and seemed to know what to do even when we didn’t.
As we began to take Noreen on errands, daily activities and Guide Dog events, she was learning how to behave appropriately in new environments with unfamiliar people. It seems kind of odd to admit, but my daughter and I were doing the same. We were learning how to correctly and courteously interact with the visually impaired. We were learning how to tactfully explain to strangers the acceptable way to approach and greet (or not approach and greet) a guide dog in training. We were learning the correct GDB protocol for public and social events. While there was the occasional awkward encounter or personality conflict, the most challenging part of all this for my daughter and I, as well as Noreen, was remembering that social events were also working events and we couldn’t just visit with our friends.
Aside from the GD meetings, outings and events, we had our daily routine at home in which we learned the subtle joys of Noreen’s personality and her company. Our days always started with the same wake up call. Too polite to whine or cry in her crate when she woke up in the morning, Noreen would scratch her collar so that the rattling sound of her tags would alert me that she needed to go out. Our days always included Noreen walking through the family room with a toy in her mouth, ears dropped, butt wagging (yes, her entire butt, not just her tail) and clearing the coffee table with one swipe of her tail. They included her morning sunbath on the slope of our backyard with our tortoise Shelby. They included her warm body curled up by our feet while we watched TV at night. Our days included quiet companionship.
As the time to say good-bye drew near, I found myself torn between wanting to savor every last moment with her and emotionally withdrawing from her in an attempt to make it easier on myself. But the idea of making it easier was ridiculous. It was not easy, and nothing would make it so.
Now, as Noreen adapts to her new home, we are adapting to our home without her. As she continues to learn from her new experiences, we will soon continue to learn from our own new experiences when we welcome a new puppy from GDB into our home.
When we decided to raise Noreen, my intention was to give, to give her a home and love, to give her training and socialization, to give her back to GDB prepared for formal training. Although I knew raising a puppy would have it’s rewards, my intention was not to receive, but I did receive, in countless ways. I expected to be Noreen’s guide through her obedience training and socialization. I did not expect Noreen to guide me to a better understanding and appreciation of my daughter and of her strengths and weaknesses. I did not expect Noreen to guide us to new relationships with fellow puppy raisers and to strengthen existing friendships. I did not expect Noreen to guide my daughter and me to new places, events and people we would never have encountered without her. I expected to help create a guide dog, but instead, I was given one.
I will always be grateful for the time we spent, memories we made and lessons I learned while raising Noreen.