A Gift of Love
A Gift of Love
By Kathleen Ginder-Vogel
My black lab puppy, Fairfax, is smart as a whip, mostly well-behaved, knows all kinds of fun tricks, can walk five miles a day, and likes to cuddle; in a year, I will give him away.
“How can you do that?” people ask, incredulous. “I could never do that,” they say, shaking their heads.
I am raising Fairfax to be a guide dog, because I want to give someone else a more independent life. You don’t get many chances to make a tangible difference to another person’s existence, but I will. When my dog becomes a guide dog for a blind person, I will give that person the biggest gift of love I have ever given to another.
People ask me how I got involved with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the guide dog organization based in Yorktown Heights and Patterson, NY. I was looking for a dog or cat to add to my household, already populated with one orange-striped princess named Poppy. I love both dogs and cats and thought it might be fun and different to have a dog to take on walks and interact with a little differently than one interacts with a cat. However, my husband is an academic, and we don’t know where we’ll be moving when he gets his faculty job. Back to San Francisco, where we can only afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment and certainly can’t afford to have a dog? To the Midwest, where we might be able to have ten dogs? To Switzerland? We thought perhaps a cat would be the way to go.
Then I read an article about the Wilmington coordinators of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind (GEB) puppy raisers in Northern Delaware, and I started to think about raising a guide dog. GEB puppy raisers are responsible for proving a safe and loving home, socialization opportunities, and education in manners to puppies from eight weeks old until they go in for training at fifteen-twenty months. The organization provides a crate for the dog and regular dog training lessons, and covers veterinary costs (most vets donate routine care and vaccines to Guiding Eyes). It’s a win-win situation: volunteers benefit from GEB training and resources. The organization gets committed people to provide loving homes to its dogs before they are old enough to be trained as guide dogs. Volunteers agree to follow GEB’s procedures and guidelines and attend regular meetings, which are as beneficial to the raisers as they are to the dog.
I decided that not only would this experience be the major volunteer commitment I was looking for, it would be a great way to learn how to properly train and raise a puppy for a wonderful cause.
On my birthday, after flying home to Delaware the day a huge ice storm hit the Midwest and East Coast, I had been trapped in Chicago’s Midway Airport for 24 hours. I was wandering the airport, making friends, using electrical outlets, and entertaining myself. I had paused at a mostly-empty gate to read the paper and drink my orange juice, when the gate attendant spoke to a man behind me. “Sir, your gate has been changed to gate A19.” We were across the airport from that gate, but I thought nothing of it, until he said, “That’s fine, but can you get someone to walk me there?” Sensing a person in need, I turned. A tall man was sitting with his guide dog, a beautiful black lab. I piped up, “Oh, I can take you. I’m stuck in the airport for the day anyway.” “Are you sure?” asked the attendant. “Yeah, of course,” I responded. I introduced myself to the man, whose name was Joe, and met his dog, Todd. As Joe, Todd, and I walked through the airport, and I marveled at this dog’s ability to lead Joe in the right direction, based on my cues, we talked about Todd. Joe explained what I was already starting to learn, that puppy raisers raise the dogs as babies, and then they work with trainers for several months before they get paired with a blind person. Joe flies a lot for work, and Todd flies in the cabin with him, tucked under the seat.
I managed to get on the last flight back to Philly that afternoon, in time to have my birthday dinner at home, and I concluded that meeting Joe and Todd was serendipitous. Soon after, I applied to be a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. I was invited to a pre-placement class, where one of the organization’s Regional Managers explained the organization’s mission, the puppy raising program, taught us multiple training techniques, and let us work with some of the puppies in the Delaware region. My husband and I attended ten hours of training before we filled out a puppy raiser agreement, our contract with GEB.
On April 23, a GEB staff member handed me a black bundle of fur with a little white splotch on his chest, and I fell in love.
The first few days weren’t easy. He was getting used to being in his crate, away from his litter-mates, in a new house. However, as time went on, he learned to walk on a leash, do more tricks, come when called, not bother the cat, and so on. GEB’s training methods, resources, and care for the dog’s health and well-being have been phenomenal. We have had GEB’s complete support throughout the process of raising Fairfax.
Giving Fairfax up will be full of heartbreak—even the puppy raisers who have raised ten puppies say it is always hard. But I keep coming back to the fact that Fairfax is the best gift I could ever give anyone. I get to touch a life and make it better. He will be happy; he’ll get to spend every waking second with his owner, and he’ll be doing the work he was born to do. A friend of mine once remarked that he feels sorry for guide dogs when he sees them; I explained that they love it. I’ve seen them working; they are so proud in their harnesses. If they seem unhappy or distracted, I think what you are really witnessing is intense focus. I watch Fairfax closely as I work with him; when he is concentrating, his eyes become serious; his mouth closes, and he moves with determination. Though he may occasionally let his attention move to other things, he is actually splitting his attention; half is on me, his handler, and half is on the other things in his environment of which he must be aware.
I believe that Fairfax has what it takes to be a guide dog, but people have told me that the dogs choose the life they want to lead. Sometimes, when I’m walking Fairfax, he just stops. He smiles and looks at me like, “I don’t feel like doing this right now.” I know every trick there is to get him moving again, but sometimes, he just doesn’t want to walk with me right then. It’s possible that he will choose that he doesn’t want to be a guide. He’ll then have the option of working for the police department, ATF, or being paired with an autistic child, all of which are wonderful ways in which he can save, protect, and improve lives. In rare instances, dogs come back to the family that raised them, and of course, we would be delighted to have him back. However, I am prepared for him to leave us. He is an extraordinary dog, bred for and capable of bringing independence, joy, peace, and love to another life. He won’t just touch that life, though. He has already touched my husband’s and mine; he has touched my friends’ and families’ lives; he has brought kisses and cuddles to countless neighbors. Most importantly, he has brought awareness of blindness and disabilities to our community and reminded those who have met him that there are all kinds of ways to help improve the world, just a little bit.
I love Fairfax dearly, but it’s more than that. To me, he is love incarnate. He will love whomever he is with; what other animal gives you such unconditional affection? His person will adore him. Everyone who meets him will think he is beautiful and sweet. His presence will spread sensitivity and awareness of blindness and other disabilities. This little black dog with the cute white patch on his chest has made my world a better place, and he will make the world better for so many others before he is through. It’s this that makes me kiss him and hug him and love him to pieces. It’s this that makes it possible for me to give him up.
Copyright 2007 Kathleen Ginder-Vogel
Bread and Circus contributing writer Kathleen Ginder-Vogel owns the freelance writing business Poppy Communications.
Picture (top): Fairfax shows his goofy side. Photo by Matthew Ginder-Vogel.