Loving and Leaving: Raising a Guide Dog

It is hard to describe a miracle when you have lived it. Even harder trying to write an emotion that doesn’t exist except in what we cannot see or touch. And while I am stumbling in the dark with explanations I will start from the beginning. Maybe I will find my way as I write.

When I was twelve I wanted one thing more than anything. It wasn’t a brand name pair of jeans. I had no need for material things. It wasn’t to be able to wear make-up. I had no use for vanity. It wasn’t to be popular. I had no desire for others to determine my worth.

I wanted to raise a Guide Dog puppy.

I saw a clipping in a magazine about raising Guide Dog puppies in 4-H and I was like a torpedo in my pursuit to achieve this goal. My sixth grade teacher was the local leader and I think I annoyed her with my million questions a day about the project. My parents took a while to convince, but they eventually caved.

I raised two German Shepherds and would have raised more if college wasn’t looming so closely in the distance. I always promised myself that before I had kids I would raise at least one more. Something didn’t feel complete. An unfinished puzzle with an important piece missing: the one that reveals the picture.

My husband and I got Balina soon after the ink was dry on our mortgage to our first house. I had just finished graduate school and was about to embark in an exciting career in school psychology and counseling. The school I was set to work for had agreed to allow Balina to come to work with me; in fact, they were ecstatic about the idea.

Balina started out as an amazing puppy. She was house trained in a week and learned the majority of her commands early. She did have one weakness, and that was other dogs. If ever a dog could have ADHD one minute and be the model citizen the next, it was she. And I think most people in our Guide Dog group were convinced my husband and I were crazy when we insisted she was the perfect dog outside of our club meetings. In all other ways she was seemingly ordinary.

Except she wasn’t simply ordinary.

I had a secret wish that Balina would fail out of Guide Dog school and Tyler and I could keep her. Most guide dog puppy raisers have this secret wish in the back of their mind. I remember the day I realized she was meant for something bigger than being our devoted pet. It was the day I realized she was special.

I went up to visit my parents and see my cousin’s new baby. Balina was only a few months old. Things started out calm and Balina was doing her normal puppy thing until she started to become agitated. I took her outside because I thought maybe she needed to go “do her business.” Balina didn’t need to go, but seemed to calm a bit while outside. I brought her back in and after a while she started to become frantic. She was jumping up at me. Something she hadn’t done before. She was pulling on her leash whining to get away from me.

I picked her up to take her home and make my speedy exit. As I was making my apologies and trying to sooth a wiggling and squirming dog she jumped straight out of my arms and over to my younger cousin who was laying on the floor. My younger cousin has cerebral palsy; a condition that confines her to a wheel chair and prevents her from verbally communicating. Balina began to lick her face and paw near her. My cousin looked shocked and I quickly jumped in to grab my dog only to have Balina squiggle her way back. I was falling all over myself to apologize. After all this is the Guide Dog puppy raisers equivalent to having your child screaming in a crowded store for candy. My aunt and uncle were extremely understanding about my dog’s misbehavior. Balina was more catlike in her ability to squirm out of my grasp. Each attempt I made only left me more annoyed. I couldn’t get her under control. Suddenly my cousin started to have a seizure, a large and serious grand mal seizure. My cousin had been having trouble with seizures in the last few years and they had become increasing in the frequency and duration. Balina just lay next to her and kept her head close by as my aunt uncle and my other cousin rushed to get my younger cousin’s medicine and make the necessary calls. When the seizure was over Balina was suddenly calm.

I drove home and cried, because I knew then that Balina was too special to keep. She could help people with her gift and I was selfish to try and keep her with me. People always ask: “how can you raise a dog, love it, and then give it up?” I don’t have an answer other than I don’t think I can love something so completely and ever really give it up. Each dog I have raised is a part of me and I have followed each of my dogs to their new owners like a parent would follow a child. Do we expect our children live with us forever? Or do we raise them in hopes they will start a family of their own and achieve the things we have only dreamed of?

The second thing I always hear from questioners is not really a question, but a statement: “I could never give up one of my pets.” My answer to that: I don’t believe it. I think each of us has the ability in us to give up something we love to better the life of someone else. If we didn’t have this ability I wouldn’t want to raise children in a world where this type of altruism didn’t exist. Someday my children or someone I know will be affected by a gift given by someone who gave up a part of herself. It may have been hard for her, emotional, or inconvenient, but she did it and it made a difference even if she didn’t see it.

As the months with Balina moved on she continued to astound me. I worked in a school and my chief duty was to counsel junior high students. Balina always stayed in her corner of my office curled up on her bed until a student would come in that was in extreme need. Usually these were the worst cases I ever had to deal with. Students who had been abused, students who were emotionally lost, and students who turned to drugs or abused their bodies to cope with stress….over and over again Balina would come out of the corner, only for these students, and rest her head on the couch next to him or her. If the student would look over to her without fear she would nudge the students hand and place her head on his or her lap. The student would usually cry and in that moment I knew that he or she was safe.

Balina was an emotional catharsis for not only the students, but parents too. I had a number of concerned parents in my office over the year I worked with Balina at my side. One set of parents I remember well. Their son had just tried to commit suicide the night before. They sat in my office in silence. I usually like to wait for the person in my office to speak first after the introductions are made. This silence was awful and my heart broke for them, because I knew that I didn’t have the words to comfort them and I didn’t have the rapport to reach out and offer a hug or touch: which is what I wanted to do. Balina didn’t have that awkward space people hold between them. She uncurled herself from her mat and trotted calmly over to the mother and father and managed to lay her head in both of their laps. The look in her eyes soaked up all their sadness and I had to look away while both mother and father cried and held Balina. I usually have to remind people to ask permission to pet her before they do. This one time I made an exception. I knew it was coming. This is what the people on the titanic must have felt when all the lifeboats ran out.

When the day came to take Balina in for her final training I was devastated. I didn’t think I could give her up, but she was never really mine. I didn’t know how I could proceed in this next step in my life without her. I had come to depend on her. My husband and I were a week away from having a baby and I needed her in my life. I needed her more right now than anyone else could. It wasn’t fair that she could show me what love was all about and then I had to give her back. We brought her inside and my movements felt wooden and fake as I tried to stay emotionally disconnected. The workers in the kennel offer raisers the option to take their dog to the kennel to say good-bye and I couldn’t do that extra step.

The idea of leaving her in a kennel and closing the door with the intention of never coming back was too hard to fathom. So we said our good-byes and rushed back to the car. I glanced back her direction only to see her confused expression as she jumped up from her kennel where she was placed. She watched me leave and I let out a gasp and clutched my chest as I held back racking sobs. My husband turned to me with red eyes and concern. At the time, I was nine months pregnant after all.

When we got back to the car my husband announced he had to pee before we went on our long ride home and I sat on the curb next to our car holding the empty leash. The leash was brand new when we first got it as a gift from Guide Dogs for the Blind. It was now worn and marked: the perfect symbol of our journey. In life I felt I had given up a lot. I had given up two other dogs and each time got harder. I don’t believe the raisers who say that it gets easier each time you say good-bye. It is only a way we explain the social awkwardness of what we do. After all, who can give up something they love so much?

I looked up and saw a little girl making her way to the office. She stumbled and swayed and felt around for the curb even though she had a person with her holding her hand. The person, her guide, left her for a moment at the door and walked in to the store. The girl stood there briefly and then attempted to enter the building. She walked to the door and felt around. She missed the door handle over and over and soon was way off from the door altogether. I could see the moment she gave up and just stood there in the bushes. She looked defeated.

I wanted to help, but I couldn’t. What could I offer her? I felt I would only embarrass us both if I revealed my presence. I could have done something and I sat there watching, waiting for her true guide to rescue her. After all what difference could I make in one life? I suddenly had a flash of memories with Balina. In all these little interactions Balina had had with people she didn’t have barriers. I needed to tear mine down.

I realized in that moment I was the blind one and Balina had led me. I had the power in me all along and I just needed to believe in it. I had the power to change lives and someday because of volunteers like me that girl would find the door and walk though. It is a humbling experience to realize the difference someone has made on a life. And I realized the difference Balina had made on mine. Every day people do amazing things, people achieve amazing feats, and I was standing by not noticing until now.

Balina became a breeder. Which is considered the highest honor among Guides. This means that she will breed more exemplary dogs like herself. People asked me if I was disappointed that she didn’t become a Guide Dog. I answer simply “If Guide Dogs finds one good dog then that dog becomes a guide. If they see the potential of hundreds of good guides they make that dog a breeder.” I will admit that I was jealous that someone would get to keep her as a pet near the Guide Dog campus (we were too far away to be considered a permanent home for her). I was happy that she was placed in a home with kids who loved and adored her. She is spoiled like we were never allowed to spoil her and her family thinks she is as special as we do.

Here is another awesome story about a working guide (not written by me). The story has appeared in a number of magazines and other media. It is the story of a how a Guide Dog saved the life of his owner during the World Trade Center bombing on September 11th.


One thought on “Loving and Leaving: Raising a Guide Dog

  1. Logan

    I don’t think I ever heard some of these stories about Balina’s talents. I haven’t been around many guide dogs and I assumed they were all a bit like Balina. Stoic, intelligent, calm and companion worthy. I feel privileged I got to meet and spend some time with Balina. 🙂


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