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soul Mate


One year ago today, on January 7, 2009, I let my soul mate go, doing one of the most unselfish things of my entire life. This soul mate was not a lover. She was my seventh guide dog, a female black lab named Bianca. I have often referred to her as my “soul mate dog”, and if a dog can be a soul mate, she was definitely the one.

I suppose that most people have heard enough about guide dogs to understand their job, and this is not really about all the practical and typical things about safe mobility. I have answered many questions and remarks in the 35 years I’ve been working with guide dogs, and for a great deal of the public, I’ve found they see the dog as a miraculous entity, bravely “taking care of” the poor blind lady. But working with a guide dog is teamwork, a partnership of trust and mutual confidence unlike anything else or any other kind of relationship. After all, few people spend every moment, 24/7 with any kind of human relationship. A guide dog does help to provide independent safe travel for a blind person, but the dog cannot do it all on her own. The human side of the partnership must provide the consistency, direction and support that will allow the dog to do her job safely and with confidence. As the handler, my role in the partnership to provide the dog’s physical and mental well being, going beyond the obvious things like feeding and vet care. I need to know how to encourage and support the dog in her work. At home I need to provide playtime, grooming and other and whatever else she might need. She can only do her job, because I do mine. I trust her absolutely to keep us safe out in the world, and she trusts me absolutely to provide whatever she needs.
So, I want to tell you a little bit about Bianca. She was an incredible guide dog, doing her job with just about absolute perfection from the first day. She was frighteningly smart. She used that intelligence to be the best guide I had ever had, but she also used it at home to find crazy new ways to get into mischief! She was constantly searching out new things to chew up, new ways to get at something I thought was out of her reach. I learned dog proofing to a degree unimaginable to me before she came into my life. Counter tops were no deterrent when she wanted something. It wasn’t always food. Sometimes, it was a roll of paper towel, a ring box, a place mat. If it looked interesting, she found it. I spent years in constant dread that one day she’d get hold of something dangerous or that she’d swallow something that would get caught in her intestines and require surgery. A brief list of her escapades would include eating a pound of Sees candy soft centers in less than a minute, requiring a rush trip to the vet, shredding a full paper towel roll and somehow managing to eat food off a plate on the counter without ever knocking the plate to the floor! She even learned the weekend routine, figuring out that I took showers later on those mornings, and when she’d hear the shower curtain close and the water start, she’d go on a rampage, grabbing any silly small item and romping through the apartment as fast as she could, sounding more like a cattle stampede than one small labrador. And in the midst of my exasperation, I’d also laugh, because she was just so damn smart! Over the years, I have written quite a few funny stories, based on Bianca’s adventures.

Yet, though several people suggested returning her to Guide dogs for the Blind, the training organization from which she came, I never considered it. She was phenomenal at her job, but more than that, she was the most loving and sweet companion, a source of daily laughter, and complete unconditional love, no matter what I was or what was happening in my life. I remember an occasion about six months after she had come into my life. Someone I loved had done something that hurt me deeply. It was august, unseasonable hot in Washington State, and I was reacting to the hurt by going into a sort of emotional shock, shaking and shivering from cold. I put on flannel pajamas and crawled into my bed, but I was still shivering. Bianca normally slept at the foot of my bed, but on this afternoon, she jumped up and laid against my back, pressing her warm body into mine, as if she understood my need for warmth. I turned over, wrapping my arms around her and began to sob. Every other dog I’ve had was uncomfortable with such displays, but Bianca just pressed herself into me, letting my tears pour into her side. On other occasions, she might burrow her head into me, wagging and wiggling when I was upset. If that didn’t work, she’d rush to find her favorite toy, bringing it to me for a game, as if she was saying, “come on, mom, let’s play tug; it will make you better.” It did make me feel better, because it would make me laugh. Bianca could make me laugh, no matter what was happening in my life.

I learned many lessons about living through the years I spent with my dogs, but with Bianca, I learned them to a deeper degree. I learned to be calm when angry, because raised angry voices or banging and throwing things could frighten my dog. With Bianca, I learned patience. I’ve always been patient, I’ve had to be with my life, but I learned it to a level I’d never experienced. I mean, when you’ve got a dog finding new ways to destroy something in your home, just about every week, it takes a hell of a lot of patience to manage that behavior, without losing your cool and having a total tantrum!

In 2006 I went to work at the guide dog school, and Bianca developed a fear and anxiety problem around all the new dogs. The fear was manageable in the beginning, and I watched her carefully. I learned things about putting the needs of a loved one ahead of my own, by watching Bianca continue to work for me, even as she began to fear the other dogs more. She loved to go out and do her job, didn’t want to sit around and be a homebound pet, loved being able to get out and go everyday, but she hated the dogs, everywhere at the school. Sometimes, a dog might develop a fear of something, and with support they can learn that it’s ok, nothing to fear and can learn t be comfortable with it, much like a child gets over fear of the dark in time. I hoped this would be the case with Bianca and gave her calm reassurance, inside feeling awe of this sweet girl who continued to give me her trust and love, guiding me safely in spite of everything around her. But I watched as the fear grew, wept during an out of town guide dog event, as I watched her work for me, even as I knew her discomfort around 70 something dogs was beyond what I could accept anymore. The outside world couldn’t see it in many ways, but I felt her hunch down when she saw dogs coming toward her, felt her desire to go back instead of forward. I vowed that weekend, that she would never have to be put through it again. I knew the time had come to let her stop, to put her needs before mine now, and I made the decision to let her retire.

I knew Bianca would never be happy being left home everyday, especially if I brought another guide dog into our home. I had kept in close touch with her puppy raisers over the years, making sure we saw them occasionally, having regular email and phone communication. At the event that led me to the retirement decision, I spent almost all our free time with her raiser family, since the event was held in the town where they lived. I asked them if they still wanted Bianca to come home to them when she retired, if they were truly ready to accept her fears and mischief making. They understood and they wanted her. She was always so happy to see them, and I knew she’d have a wonderful retirement life. I applied for a new guide dog, planning to retire Bianca to her family sometime in January or February of 2009.

On January 7, 2009, I learned the final thing I would learn from my six years with Bianca, the lesson of how to truly love enough to let go. I packed up Bianca’s rugs, toys, food bowls and other things that were constants in her life. I handed her leash to the van driver who would be taking her from northern California to Portland. I had wanted to fly her up there myself, but another fear she had was flying, and I had vowed that she would never be subjected to flying again. So, I let her go on the van, with people who were used to driving guide dogs puppies and retired guides to new homes. I never wanted to let Bianca go. I didn’t know how I could get through the days without her there to make me laugh, to exasperate me, to comfort me. I knew my apartment would feel empty, that I would be terribly lonely, and that even though eventually, another dog would come into my life, there would always be a hole in my heart where Bianca should be, a piece of her soul left in mine, a big chunk of mine going with her. But she needed this. She needed to be free from fear, free from worry and responsibility. She needed to be able to relax and be a spoiled pampered pet. I handed her off to the driver, gave her one last hug and kiss and walked away, tears streaming down my face. Maybe, no decision I make in the future will ever be harder, but no decision will ever be as absolutely right for the one I loved so much.

A year later now. Bianca is doing well. I keep in touch with her raiser mom, though not as often as I did when Bianca was with me. I wanted to let them build their bond again, without constantly bombarding them with emails and calls asking about my girl. She is doing well. She has caused mischief in their home, to which my secret gleeful reaction was, that’s my girl! Karen, her raiser mom has signed her up for the read to the dogs program, so Bianca is still serving others, helping children. She is still sharing her blend of joy in everything to her family and friends. I now have Olga, another black lab guide dog, completely different from Bianca, never getting into mischief, never causing a problem, yet still giving me that special brand of unconditional love and making me laugh. Bianca will be nine next month, and I still miss her everyday and hope someday to be able to go to Portland and see her again. But I am thankful for her peace of mind and happiness in her life. I wouldn’t trade one minute I had with her and wouldn’t change my decision to let her go. She was the better half of our team, because she gave me more and taught me more than I could ever have given back or could ever have thanked her for giving. I will always miss her and love her, my sweet Bianca, my goofy, silly, loving, mischief making, precious soul mate dog.

Written in memory of bianca, who came to me on January 18, 2003 and left me for retired life on January 7, 2009.


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Jan. 8th, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)
That Beanie girl of yours is one a lot of us will remember for a long time. This was an excellent read.
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