It would be easier to tell you the story of how my guide dog, Saint, and I met and became a team. Spoiler, it involves a lot of cuddles, kisses, wags, wiggles, and lots and lots of love. It’s straightforward and predictable: I arrived at GDB for training, I was given the leash of my dream match, and two weeks later, we flew home to begin our life together.
But that’s not the story I’m telling today. Rather, this is the story of how we almost weren’t.
Tears on Tuesday
It was the Tuesday of the second week and we had only three days until our flight home. By this time in the program, we were scheduled to be working on training in environments specific to our home life. For me, that entailed walking along some trails, rough terrain and navigating through chairs, tables and the crowds in coffee shops.
But Tuesday afternoon, while my fellow clients and their dogs headed out to work on various routes, my instructor, team supervisor and I headed to a local park to walk a long, looping path. It was half concrete and half gravel, nothing complex or difficult to navigate. We were there to work on pace.
Pace is a crucial aspect of matching the right dog to the right handler. If the speed at which the handler walks is faster than the dog, a myriad of issues can arise. The dog may begin slowing down because of forward pressure on the harness handle. The dog may also feel defeated and wonder, “if my handler is going to walk ahead of me anyway, then what am I guiding for?” Additionally, with a slower dog, the handler is often “hopping-up” the dog—hopp-up being the command to go faster. Alternatively, if the handler walks slower than their guide dog, the handler is continually asking their dog to “steady” or slow down. While this may seem less problematic than having a slow dog with a fast handler, neither are ideal and the pace needs to be matched appropriately.
My first guide dog and I were matched primarily for my mental and emotional health. I was struggling significantly with anxiety and wasn’t terribly active. Therefore, they matched me with Cricket who was very chill, laid-back and cool with lazy days in. But as time went on, I noticed that our pace wasn’t cohesive.
I was walking faster than Cricket was and consistently asking him to hopp-up. In response, Cricket would slow, and when I slowed to try and match, he would slow to a stop. Pushing the harness handle forward and simply walking at my preferred pace yielded only a moment of catch up before he would slow again. It was a source of constant frustration in our teamwork and a mishandling of the situation on my part.
But after Cricket’s retirement, my lifestyle changed and so did what I needed in a guide dog. When asked what I was looking for, I said simply that I wanted a dog with lots of energy and a fast pace.
Fast forward to week one of training and Saint was all that I had hoped for and then some. He had a good pace that matched mine and lots of energy and enthusiasm for the job. At our mid-training meeting, my instructor said that she was confident Saint would be going home with me.
But by Tuesday, we knew something wasn’t working.
Saint had slowed down, even from his recorded pace during his training, and my instructor noted how often I was hopping him up on our routes. I was befuddled; our first week had gone off perfectly. But it was now a problem.
The pattern was all too familiar. I hopped him up, he slowed, and we both got frustrated. It was happening again.
So on Tuesday afternoon, we were at the park, hoping that on a straight and easy-to-navigate path, Saint would get into his groove. We called it “the wiggle,” and feeling that dance in the harness was what I so desperately wanted.
He didn’t. And when we walked an in-town route afterwards, the result was the same.
My heart was sinking. My stomach was in knots, and the only sound on the drive back to the school was the slight gasping of my breath as I tried not to completely break down. No one said it out loud, but the question hung over us like a dense fog:
Did I have to give Saint up?
In the fireplace room, my instructor and supervisor sat me down and laid out my options. There were three:
- I could keep Saint, so long as I accepted his slower pace and was content to work with him this way.
- I could go home without a dog and come back to training when they had a dog who walked my preferred pace.
- Or, I could try out a new dog, because they just happened to have one in the kennel who had just graduated and walked that fast pace.
Tuesday night was one of the hardest nights of my life. Every time I ran my fingers over Saint’s silky fur, or got a surprise kiss on the face, I started sobbing. I called my fiancé and my parents, trying to process what was happening, but I couldn’t. My heart was breaking and I could do nothing but cry and whimper a prayer of “help me, God.”
Was this really my last night with Saint?
Whirlwind on Wednesday
On Wednesday morning, I put Saint into a crate at the downtown training lounge and picked up the harness handle of a dog with tufty, yellow fur and boundless energy. When we set out on our route, it was obvious from the get-go that he had the pace I was searching for.
Maybe even a bit too fast. But then, it was easier to slow a dog down than to speed them up. This dog had the energy and the pace I wanted… but Saint was my baby. Already, we’d bonded on such a deep, emotional level and I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Saint was everything I’d dreamed about but hadn’t dared to say out loud; he was a boy, a yellow lab, an enthusiastic worker and a snuggler. But working with a guide dog wasn’t about snuggles, but being guided safely and independently through the world.
I was torn. Seeing the struggle, my team supervisor offered to have me walk one last route with Saint before making my final decision. But before we took off, I took a minute to talk to God. I said, “God, I need an answer on this walk. I’m so confused and I don’t know which dog to choose. But you know. If it’s going to be Saint, you need to make it clear on this walk.” Then I picked up the handle and said, “Saint, forward.”
It couldn’t have been clearer. And I couldn’t stop the smile from taking over my whole face. My supervisor, observing from across the way, said that this walk either made my decision so much harder or so easy.
“Easy,” I said. “God gave me my answer. I want Saint.”
Love for a Lifetime
It feels impossible to think that I may have come home with a different dog, or no dog at all. Both were very real possibilities. My instructor told me that dog switches happen almost every class, so I wouldn’t have been the first.
But I was among the minority to keep the dog that I was originally issued. And in the month since we came home, I’m so thankful I did.
Saint is my baby. Once I took the pressure off of us to keep up a faster pace, his pace naturally increased and is now exactly what I wanted. We fly down the sidewalk like a well-oiled machine. We snuggle in bed at night, and while I groom him, he licks me clean. He loves playing with his squeaky dinosaur and chewing on one of his many Nylabones. His favourite place to be is on my lap, tummy up and getting endless belly rubs.
He has my heart so fully and completely.
Guide dogs aren’t just dogs, nor are they just mobility tools. Guide dogs are so much more than that. They’re dogs who are part of who we are, who give us things this world can’t, and who help us become the people we desire to be. Because of Saint, I feel independent, free, safe, a little more equal, and so, so loved.
This was the story of how Saint and I almost weren’t. But I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude that we were, and are, and will be forever together—the dream team. Nothing in life is ever guaranteed, and once you come close to losing something you love, it changes your perspective. It helps you stay thankful and not take anything for granted. And that’s my prayer, to never take Saint for granted and to stay thankful for the amazing blessing that he is in my life. He gives me so much—independence, freedom, unconditional love—and all I want is to give him the best life I can in return.