An Angel in the Form of a Service Dog

An Angel in the Form of a Service Dog

From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul

An Angel in the Form of a Service Dog

He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason for being: by the way he rests against my leg; by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile.

Gene Hill

The start of my life in a wheelchair was the end of a very long marriage.

In 1989 I had a serious truck accident, which shattered my lower back. Though I was considered an incomplete paraplegic, as the years passed, my back got progressively worse. At the end of 1999, my doctor ordered me to use a wheelchair at all times. My wife walked out.

Suddenly on my own, I decided to relocate to California where the weather was warmer, there was more to do, and, most important, things there were more handicapped-accessible than in the rural area where I was living. Even so, adjusting to life in a wheelchair, alone in a new place, was no picnic. After six months in California, my doctor felt that a service dog would be an immense help to me and put me in touch with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). I went through the application process, but when I was finally accepted Iwas told that Iwas looking at nearly a five-year wait. Disappointed but determined to make a life for myself, I continued to struggle through each day, at times becoming so tired that I’d be stranded somewhere until I found enough energy to continue.

So the call from CCI only three and a half years later came as a complete surprise. They’d had a cancellation for a class starting in two weeks—would I be available on such short notice? Without hesitation I said, “Yes!” I felt a rush of emotion. I’d pinned all my hopes on this, and now it was finally happening, almost too fast.

The very next day I headed to the CCI campus as requested, just to be sure they had a possible match for me. This preliminary session was to test my handling skills and to see which of three potential canine partners might “click” with me. I was taken into a dog-filled room, and was surprised when a very fat black-and-white cat, threading his way calmly through the dogs toward my wheelchair, decided my lap was the perfect resting spot.

A trainer brought the first dog, a petite black Lab named Satine, to meet me. We had only a minute to get acquainted before starting basic commands such as “heel” to see how she would respond. Despite the feline riding shotgun on my lap the entire time, Satine responded amazingly well to everything.

Next, a much larger dog, a black Lab-mix called Hawk, took Satine’s place—and the cat left my lap in a rush. But Hawk didn’t give chase. In fact, he ignored everything to focus on me. Although his headstrong personality initially tested my commands, I held to my guns and soon Hawk started working for me—opening doors, picking up dropped items and a long list of other things. I was awestruck by his sheer presence, not to mention his skills and obedience.

The third candidate was a lively golden retriever named Tolarie. She was very pretty and smart, but no matter what I did, she didn’t want to work for me.

When asked which of the three dogs I would choose, I named the more easygoing Satine as first choice, but really, I wanted Hawk. I was totally in love with that dog from the word go!

The next day, CCI called to tell me that I had impressed the trainers with my handling skills with Hawk and that they hoped to place me with him. My heart soared! I thanked themprofusely andmade arrangements to attend the two-week training course at CCI’s campus in Oceanside, California.

I arrived early and spent the first day doing paperwork and meeting the three trainers and five other people in my class. When we entered the classroom, I immediately found Hawk. He came to the door of his crate and licked my fingertips as if to say, “Hi there, I remember you.” I could hear his tail thumping in eager anticipation.

Then came the moment we all were waiting for: working with the dogs. The trainers brought Hawk to me, and we spent the first few minutes in a joyful exchange of greetings.

The next four days were nerve-racking. Pairs wouldn’t be assigned until Friday, after we’d each worked with enough dogs for the trainers to determine the bestmatches. By the second day, though, most of us had already chosen our favorites and felt jealous if “our” dog was working with someone else. On Friday, Hawk was paired with me, but the match still wasn’t permanent. Trainers needed to be satisfied that the dogs had bonded with us, and that we felt comfortable with each other and worked well together. By then, I couldn’t imagine having any other dog but Hawk—especially after what happened the first night we spent together.

Since my accident I’d always had a very hard time sleeping at night. Every time I moved, the pain roused me, and falling back to sleep was next to impossible. For me, three hours was a good night’s sleep. The first night with Hawk, I was supposed to crate him while I slept. But as Hawk and I lay on the bed watching TV together, I dozed off. I woke at five the next morning—and Hawk was still there. He had stretched himself across my body in a way that was comfortable for me but kept me from painful motion. I had slept the whole night through!

I was amazed. With the renewed energy and sharpness that comes with a full night’s sleep, I realized Hawk had done similar things all week that I’d written off as part of his training. He’d bonded with me from the start, and in a remarkably short time, had figured out my abilities and limitations and adjusted to them to make the whole training process easier on me. Every time the pain got unbearable, he had done something silly or sweet to take my mind off the pain and help me get through that day. He had done all this with no instruction—just his innate love for me and his desire to please me and make my life easier.

Hawk and I passed our final test with flying colors. We returned home and started a new and very different life— together.

Now when I go out in public, people no longer avoid me or give me weird stares. When people hear the jingle of Hawk’s collar and see this team on the move, they smile and come over to meet us. Hawk does so many different things for me: he pulls my wheelchair when I’m feeling tired, opens doors and picks up things I might drop. People love to see my beautiful black dog rear up on a counter and hand a cashiermy cash or credit card—what a crowd-pleaser!

Hawk’s “fee” for all this? A simple, “Good boy.” He loves to hear those words because he knows he is doing something that makes me happy.

His other rewards come when we get home. We both enjoy our nightly cuddle on the floor, followed by a favorite tennis-ball game. It still amazes me that Hawk, who can pick up a full bottle of water and not leave a single tooth mark, can pop a tennis ball in no time flat.

I would never have believed that I could feel this way about my life again. Each day I look forward to getting up after a full night’s sleep, grooming Hawk, going out some-

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