Service dogs greatly enrich the lives of their handlers by performing a myriad of tasks that mitigate a person’s disability. And they provide so much more — unconditional love and acceptance, a feeling of safety, increased positive social interaction. Trite comments like “no speeding” and “you are such an inspiration” are replaced by compliments about your beautiful dog and its stellar obedience. Not only do they enhance mood, they even provide relief from physical pain, a phenomenon supported by research showing that interacting with dogs produces an increase in mood-enhancing brain chemicals. And of course, they forge a bond in your heart.
The trade-off for this amazing support is having to say goodbye all too soon. Service dogs generally start work between 18 months and 2-and-a-half years of age, and their average working life is about eight years, sometimes as long as 10. Sadly, usually at 10-14 years of age, your best friend and soulmate will pass away. Any dog lover who has gone through this knows how devastating the loss can be. Unfortunately, the passing of a service dog is much more difficult because it means loss of physical independence and psychological loss of a 24/7 companion — something to consider when deciding whether a service dog is right for you.
In 2005 Schatzie, a 2-and-a-half-year-old female German shepherd service dog came into my life. We formed a bond the moment I held her leash. Her main task was to help tow my wheelchair, which provided relief to my aching shoulders and enabled them to heal. Although focused on me and aloof to others, she charmed everybody she came in contact with — except individuals with questionable intent. A simple raising of her ears and her piercing stare was enough to make potential perpetrators do an abrupt 180.
Several times a night Schatzie would come up to my bed and give a few light taps of her paws and await a gentle pat on the head, assurance that I was all right. Other nights, when needed, Schatzie would sleep next to my 4-year-old daughter Sarah’s bed, keeping invisible monsters at bay.
Schatzie was a part of work and holidays, accompanying Sarah and me on adventures far and wide. Her high-speed towing ability, with Sarah in my lap, enabled us to see every exhibit at huge places like the Kennedy Space Center. She was featured in several father-daughter-dog NEW MOBILITY adventure stories
Last February her breathing became faster than usual. She wasn’t eating. The vet ordered an ultrasound. I expected the results to show something that required expensive medication and a slower lifestyle. Instead they showed hemorrhaging abdominal tumors. Emergency surgery might prolong her life by six to 12 months. The vet was empathetic and explained she was comfortable and I could take her home, but she would turn for the worse within 12-24 hours. Surgery was out — I wouldn’t put her through that kind of trauma. I was at the point that every dog person dreads.
Feeling like I had been shot in the gut, I told the vet I would rather put her down now, when she was at ease. Through my sobs I arranged for the vet to get her prepped and bring her outside, so they could euthanize her on the grass. I signed papers, decided on standard cremation rather than the more expensive private one where you get your dog’s ashes in a custom box — then changed my mind, sensing I might have tremendous guilt later for trying to save a few hundred bucks now — a decision I’m glad I made.
When Schatzie walked out to meet me on the grass, she must have sensed my sadness because she put her front legs into my lap, something she hadn’t done in some time because of her painful hips. The vet said to take as much time as I wanted, she would check from time to time. I hugged her, said my goodbyes and thanked her for the gift of an amazing life, and promised her I would be OK.
It was time. I gently stroked her as the vet pushed the syringe. A few moments later Schatzie gave a very contented sigh, the kind I was used to as she was falling asleep. Her body relaxed, and for a brief moment — in my perception — her hair coloring and body looked like she did when she was in the peak of her youth. My subconscious said, “She’s OK now, let’s get up and go home.” The vet, listening to her heart, gently said, “She is gone.”
When I got home I wept for hours. I have had dogs all my life, so I knew losing Schatzie would hit me hard, but I had no idea how much harder the loss of a service dog would be. I woke up in the middle of the night, anxious, nauseous, retching. A Web search on grieving the loss of a dog helped, but didn’t explain what I was experiencing. When I typed in “loss of a service dog,” however, I found the physical and emotional bond between a handler and their service dog is so deep, the loss can feel the same as losing a loved person.
The next day I phoned Marcie Davis, 48, author of Working Like Dogs, The Service Dog Guidebook, and creator of the Working Like Dogs website. Davis, a para for 42 years, has had service dogs since she was 28. In talking with her, she said she would send a copy of Working Like Dogs. I had interviewed Davis for a NM story earlier [“Service Dogs: Making The Grade,” August 2011].
Speaking with Davis was extremely helpful. Her experiences each time she lost a service dog were similar to mine. “Service dogs provide so much help, love and companionship that it is gut-wrenching when they leave,” she says. She got her first dog, Ramona, a golden lab/golden retriever mix, from Canine Companions for Independence, after developing chronic shoulder problems and having to switch to a power chair. Unfortunately Ramona had to be retired abruptly at age 8 due to health issues, so Davis then got Morgan, a golden retriever, from Paws With a Cause. “You would think that Ramona would be jealous, but when Morgan arrived, she seemed relieved, and even seemed to say, ‘Dude, what took you so long?’” she says.
Davis and Morgan were starting to bond when Ramona, who had just turned 9, fell ill. Davis took her to the vet and found she had developed a tumor on her heart and was hemorrhaging. That afternoon Davis held Ramona as she was put to sleep. “You would think having another dog would soften the blow, but if anything it made me feel more guilty,” she says. “I came home after putting Ramona down, and Morgan came running to the door with a toy in his mouth to greet me. I just felt horrible. I was sobbing. I had such a connection with Ramona. The loss made me feel so helpless and so vulnerable that it felt like I was disabled all over again. I sobbed, had serious anxiety, and thought how can I go forward, how can I do anything?”
“I had to do something to remember Ramona,” says Davis. She organized her things in a big trunk, started burning a candle 24/7 for her, anguished that she hadn’t taken enough photos. The grieving process finally led Davis to write Working Like Dogs as a way to honor what Ramona had done for her. “I had never thought about writing a book about service dogs until she died.” The book led to the website, speaking engagements, and a radio show.
The Healing Process
Following Davis’s advice, I took time off from work to grieve. I phoned my family and friends to break the news. Although each call was difficult, each time I spoke about it eased the pain a bit. I created a Facebook post to let people know Schatzie had passed. The many condolences brought more tears. I also created a photo album (more tears, but also many smiles) in remembrance of all of the good times and adventures. These activities helped me let everything out, and the healing process slowly started.
When Working Like Dogs arrived, I learned that the loss of a service dog puts many people, myself included, through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Other advice I took from the chapter called “Surviving the Loss” was to get out and exercise. I also wrote a letter to Schatzie’s trainer, thanking him for such an amazing dog, and telling him what a great life she had.
As difficult as the loss of Schatzie was, the assistance and joy she brought into my life was far greater. Five weeks later, I started my search for a new service dog to share the next chapter of my life with. In late June I welcomed Killy, a male German shepherd, into my home.
For me, a house is not a home without a dog.
• Canine Companions for Independence: www.cci.org
• Dad’s Dream Vacation: www.newmobility.com/2007/09/dads-dream-vacation/
• Dad and Daughter: Epic Road Trip: www.newmobility.com/2012/03/dad-daughter-epic-wheelchair-road-trip/
• Paws With a Cause: www.pawswithacause.org
• Service Dogs: Making the Grade: www.newmobility.com/2011/08/service-dogs-making-the-grade/
• Working Like Dogs Website (Bereavement Help Lines listed under Resources): www.workinglikedogs.com