89: Service with a Smile

89: Service with a Smile

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog

Service with a Smile

Fun fact: The first prison-based dog-training program was established by a nun in the early 1980s in Washington State. Hundreds of these programs now exist in the U.S.

My neighbor arrived at my door eleven years ago, clutching a tiny, skeletal ice cube under her jacket. I turned on the heating pad as she unwrapped a purebred, red-nosed Pit Bull puppy, about ten days old. As I wrapped her in the heating pad, I remembered the promise that I had made to my husband when the last of my Pit Bulls died at the age of sixteen. During our years together, he had asked only one thing of me: that I bring home no more Pit Bulls.

When I heard his car come down the driveway, I dreaded his reaction when he saw what I was holding. But he merely took the dog, about the size of a soda can, from my arms and leaned back in his recliner while she cuddled up beneath his chin. Each time she woke up for feeding and cleaning, he put her back on his chest.

By morning, she had demonstrated her will to live by learning how to slurp up her formula from a shallow bowl. Our Manx kitten, Clyde, happily shared it with her. My husband declared that her name should be Bonnie. I questioned whether we should name her, since I only planned on keeping her until she was old enough to be spayed. He repeated, “Her name is Bonnie.”

The deadly duo proved to be well named. Together, they terrorized our other animals, including my retired service dog, a German Shepherd capable of squashing Bonnie with a well-aimed paw. By the time she was a month old, Bonnie was escaping from every enclosure I put her in. It was time for crate training.

In addition to being small for her age, Bonnie suffered from severe separation anxiety. Each time I left home, unless she was held on my husband’s lap, she would scream until I returned. My solution was to bring home a big bone that she could only have when she was in her crate. In less than a week, she was sitting in front of the refrigerator when I dressed in my town clothes, and headed straight for her crate when I pulled out her bone.

Bonnie was just four months old when I began retrieval training with my new service-dog prospect. I had great hopes for her, as her leash work was perfect, and she would even pull my wheelchair with me walking behind it.

Armed with a pocket full of dog treats, we went to police and fire stations so she could learn that people in uniform are friends. We went to restaurants, grocery stores, and casinos. Bonnie was a social butterfly. She would sit and politely greet everyone who spoke to us. To this day, more people in town know her name than mine. I remain the woman who comes in with Bonnie.

When my husband passed away in his sleep I woke up to find Bonnie pounding his chest with her front paws and licking his face as hard as she could. It looked exactly like a canine version of CPR. When the funeral home took him away, she expressed her grief loudly with a sound I had never heard a dog make before. It sounded exactly like a human crying.

Five years ago, we left on a five-hundred-mile trip to visit family in north Idaho. About halfway there, an elk jumped in front of my pickup, and I drove off the road to avoid hitting it. My truck rolled, coming to rest on its top in the middle of the road. Both doors were jammed, and my legs were pinned under the steering wheel. Bonnie was safe, as I had thrown myself on top of her, hanging on to the seat rails.

When help arrived, they first tried to force open the doors, and then broke out a window. They pulled Bonnie out and held her out of the way. She was lunging and barking, trying to get back to me. I was actually afraid that she would bite someone in order to get free. The last thing I needed was to have my service dog in quarantine in the middle of Nowhere, Idaho. My rescuers finally turned her loose, and she rushed back to my truck, turning around so I could reach the handle on her harness. She pulled, slowly and steadily, while I worked to free my legs. The ambulance arrived just as she finally pulled me free.

Bonnie stood with her paw on my knee while the EMTs examined me, watching everything that they did. She then stood like a statue while they also gave her a thorough exam. They determined that I needed to be hospitalized and loaded me into the ambulance. Bonnie rode the entire thirty-five miles with her paw on the foot of the gurney, observing everything that was done to me. At the hospital, she heeled beside the gurney and sat by my bed in the emergency room. A CAT scan showed that I had broken my neck and back, but it was determined that I could continue my trip if I wore neck and back braces. I attended the reunion, had a nice visit with family members whom I had not seen for many years, and was driven home by my brother.

I knew that my life would change with the unexpected arrival of the tiny Pit Bull, but had no idea how much until the day she decided to become my new service dog. Somehow, she knows what I need before I know it myself.

The tiny, dying puppy that my neighbor fished out of a dumpster seemed to realize that she had a mission to complete and intended to live to fulfill it — and fulfill it she did. At the age of eleven, Bonnie is ready to retire. Eventually, I will find a dog capable of performing the tasks I need, but there will never be another Bonnie, the dog that changed my world.

~Kathryn Hackett Bales

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