“No matter how perfect the next dog is, transitioning to a successor guide still breaks your heart.”
I met my first guide dog, Susie, when I was sixteen years old. She bounded into the room and immediately decided to love me. The feeling was mutual. She was light, joy, and loyalty without question. Walking with her felt like flying, a teamwork built on mutual adoration.
The night I took her harness off, I sat on the floor beside her and cried into her fluffy cream-colored fur. Memories flashed past like movie clips, pages turning, chapters ending and beginning. Our GDB graduation day, when a classmate friend and I confessed in hush tones that we were already dreading our dogs’ retirement. The day in my biology class when she snored so loud my professor thought a student had fallen asleep. That snowy intersection with the car going way too fast. That time we hit a ton of construction and she problem-solved an entirely new route to the bookstore. The countless friends she introduced me to, the hundreds of lives she touched. Susie brought joy wherever she went, and she still does. She held patiently still, looking over her shoulder at me in puzzlement, as I fought to unsnap her harness’s chest strap and slip it over her head for the last time. Then she spotted her favorite Nylabone. She trotted away, leaving me on the floor, now laughing.
My mom, who if you can believe it, is even more sentimental than I am, insisted I spend time with Susie, right up until the last second. So, my kind parents spent the night in my apartment, and I had one more night listening to Susie’s rhythmic snoring.
The next morning, Susie accompanied us to the airport. Getting out of that car and leaving her behind…There are no words. It felt like a betrayal, like the end of something beautiful. I knew I’d see her the next time I visited my parents, but that was weeks away. We hadn’t gone that long without each other since the day we met. But Susie, as much as she loved me, didn’t want to work anymore. She preferred to play, she preferred to sniff, she would rather make friends than do her job. Her soul was as beautiful as ever, her heart just as huge. But her paws wanted to run, and her mind needed a rest. She had been nudging me toward this moment for nearly a year, and all I had to do was take that last step. So I hugged her neck, stroked her velvety ears, and kissed the top of her head goodbye. I got out of that car and left her behind. The Susie chapter had ended, and it was time to begin the next story.
Thirty hours after hugging Susie goodbye, I met Nouveau. I waited for her for what felt like forever. My classmate friend had a longer than usual meet-and-greet with her dog, for exciting, happy reasons I am not allowed to disclose publicly. Check back with this post in a few months for the back story on that if you’re curious. Anyway, I waited and waited and waited some more. It was only about half an hour, but I was so excited it felt like days.
At long last, Nouveau was brought into my room, and my instructor passed me her leash. I reached down to pet her and was promptly sneezed on. I giggled and stroked her giant ears. She ignored me. She had just been bathed, and I think she was a bit overwhelmed by all the new things going on. She kept nervous scratching and curling into a squirmy, wriggly ball on the floor.
My instructor told me things about her like her coloring and how to spell her name. I tried my best to listen, but I must confess I was just as distracted as Nouveau.
I had told GDB that breed and gender didn’t matter. I had wanted a male black lab last time. They gave me the opposite and she wound up being the dog of my dreams. Somehow, I never imagined it would happen again. Before saying goodbye to Susie, I had no preference. When I met Nouveau, I knew the truth. The one breed and gender combination I wasn’t sure I wanted was another female yellow lab. Susie was so perfect in my mind. I didn’t know how to love another dog so similar. And what did GDB give me? Another gorgeous, perfect, female yellow lab.
My instructor left and I showed Nouveau her bed, my emotions spiraling into a swirling tapestry of guilt, loss, love, and joy. I felt as though I was cheating on Susie, moving on to a younger model as it were. I missed her terribly and was upset with myself for not welcoming Nouveau with the open abandon Susie and I had shared eight years ago.
I pulled myself together enough to hunker down on the floor next to Nouveau. She was curled into a ball again, in a position reminiscent of Susie’s sleepy curl. I began petting her, hunting for differences between the dogs, searching for little eccentricities I could love without being reminded of Susie Bear. This is the description I kept repeating to friends and family back home. “She’s shorter and lighter than Susie, with the prettiest cinnamon fur, insanely long whiskers, and the most squishable chubby cheeks. Susie had big ears, but Nouveau’s are giant!” I couldn’t stop comparing them in those early days.
That night at dinner, Nouveau looped her right front paw around my left ankle as if we were holding hands. The next morning, she leapt to her paws as soon as my alarm went off and wagged her tail so hard I thought she might sprain it. Her greatest joys were pulling off flawless sits in the heel position and chasing her jolly ball around the paddock. Little by little, she wriggled her tail-wagging way into my heart, and now I can’t imagine life without her.
I still compare my girls in my head, I think every parent or pet owner must to some degree. Nouveau gets a 90% on targeting to Susie’s 120%. Nouveau gets a 120% on food distractions to Susie’s 20%. Nouveau snuggles me when I cry, Susie runs away at the first sign of water works. Nouveau is occasionally tempted by handsome dogs, Susie is occasionally tempted by handsome guys. Susie makes friends with toddlers and cats, Nouveau makes friends with tiny dogs and babies. Neither of my girls like overly crowded places, and both of them fall asleep on planes. But the biggest difference between my sweet girls is, Nouveau wants to work, Susie wants to chill. Some people think that retiring a guide dog is a decision the handler makes. Most of the time though, it’s the dog who lets us know when it’s time to take off that harness.
Susie is my guide in more ways than one, and her love and her loyalty will stay with me for as long as I am alive. Nouveau captured my uncertain heart within forty-eight hours, and her boundless team spirit and empathetic nature amaze me every day. GDB has blessed me with two floppy-eared angels, two female yellow labs I never knew I needed. No matter how perfect that one dog is, the next one might be perfect in different ways. And no matter how perfect that next dog is, saying goodbye to the other one will always, always break your heart. It just means you love them, and you’ve both done well.
Be kind, and be aware.
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