Career Change

Yesterday I had to work late at the Urgent Care.  As a result, I was unable to accompany my wife and our guide-dog-puppy-in-training to the meeting of the puppy club.  The regional head trainer for the organization was there to evaluate the dog.  An hour of various handling exercises went by with good results.  Then the trainer tried to do a “turnover”, which is kind of like a wrestling takedown.

The idea is to turn the dog over onto its back and examine it with your hands, as a blind person would have to do in checking for wounds or insect bites.  The dog is expected to accept the handling passively.  We did it with her hundreds of times successfully.  This time, she growled and bit at the trainer.  Guide dog candidates don’t get second chances. Lila got shipped off to Oregon for re-training toward other kinds of service work, or adoption as a family pet.  I didn’t get to say goodbye.

Everyone has unexpected losses they must deal with.  I’m no different.  I haven’t much skill in articulating my feelings about it except to note another event in my past that made me feel this way.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I lived with a woman for four years.  We broke up, and I couldn’t afford to keep the apartment by myself.  The places I could afford to move to would not allow pets, and I had been left with two cats, beautiful, black sisters.  I found a shelter that guaranteed not to have them killed, for a fee.  I slept with them both, one last night.  They were unusually affectionate.  The older sister kept touching my cheek gently with her paw.

I didn’t own a car at the time, so the next day I took them in a taxi to the shelter.  After dropping them off and paying the fee, I had no money left to get back home.  I walked back, about eight miles.  When I got back home, I called my ex-wife, who I had not spoken to for years.  I told her I thought God didn’t want me to ever have anything that would last, not even a pet.

Some months later I was told that both cats were adopted together.  That was more than twenty years ago.  I have had a good marriage for going on 17 years, and we have had pets that spent their entire lives in our care.  I’m grateful for these things, and I know the dog will do well, because she loves people, even if she objected to the way one person handled her.

We’ll try again with another dog beginning in January.  Until then we will continue to work with other dogs and other trainers in the club.  I know that feelings aren’t facts, and that our mentor-trainers don’t blame us for what happened.  But tonight I feel that I failed, and that my child was taken away forever as a penalty.


Filed under animal communication, Emotions

42 responses to “Career Change

  1. Mikey – I am choking back tears. I’m at a total loss for words. You’ve read my story so you will know how I can relate to your losses. My heart is aching. I’ll try to come back to leave you a decent comment, if I can. Just know that I love you.

    • I love you too, Tracy. We understand each other, which helps a great deal. I admire your ability to access your emotions so freely. Mary’s that way too. I’m not, of course. I write instead. I certainly want to cry, but my behavioral reaction to loss is to focus on the next task, because I can still help elsewhere. It’s all right to cry, in fact it’s best, but don’t be sad about what happened.

      What it comes down to is that Lila is too autonomous by nature for the job. It’s no one’s fault that she was born to serve through a fiercer expression of loyalty than what is required of a guide dog. She doesn’t have sufficient docility for guiding, but she will bond strongly to her permanent owners and give comfort to them by her enthusiasm for being with and working with people. And just around the bend, next January, we’ll try again with another puppy. We’ll be better handlers for the experience.

  2. I’m so sorry Mikey. I loved reading your blog posts about the puppy training with Lila. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a small dog since I began working from home 2 years ago, yet I constantly make excuses for why it wouldn’t work. I think the thing that really stops me is that I will become so attached, as I have always done with family pets, and I know, just as you do, only too well how hard it is when they are gone.

    • The cure for the pain of loss is service. I already have a job helping people directly, so I have a place to put that energy right away. Don’t let your worry about possible outcomes keep you from trying, Emma, if what you want is to have and be with a dog. Go to a shelter near you. There are dogs without homes in all of them. If you want to do it in stages, you can volunteer, to understand more about the individuals, before deciding to adopt. I guarantee they want homes just as much as you want to have a dog. You can save a life.

  3. Mikey, I am so sorry for your loss and know how painful such a loss can be. I, too, have a long history of having to deal with loss and I help others to do so, which gives me great satisfaction. I also know the difference in being able to cope with feelings and sadness when we have the opportunity to say goodbye, versus being deprived of that opportunity. Unfortunately, we don’t always get that chance. Sometimes it is helpful to us to find a different way to say our goodbyes. For some of us that might mean writing out our feelings in a journal or a poem (or a blog as you have done), or even trying some therapeutic exercises like the empty chair exercise (or in this case, the empty dog bed or crate exercise). I am not trying to be funny. It really can help you to get into the mode of really letting yourself feel the loss fully, and telling your feelings to the one you are missing, even if he, she or it isn’t there to speak back to you.

    I have a friend and former co-worker who does fostering/training for Fidelco Foundation, here in Bloomfield, CT. She has found it so rewarding but she grieves the loss of each and every one of her puppies. She takes a little time to do so and then signs up for a new dog, which has worked well for her. I wish you and your wife peace and am sure you did a wonderful job with Lila and whatever her destiny, she got a good foundation for her future from the two of you.

    • Thanks for your kind words and useful advice, Iris. I didn’t have any choice about the empty chair exercise. There are three empty sleeping crates, an empty kennel out back, and abandoned toys all over the house. I can still smell her.

      But we were offered another puppy as soon as December, so they obviously believe we are up to the task. I have too many classes right now to complete for re-licensing. We’ll try again in January.

      My own repression about crying is from the physical abuse in childhood. The child in me believes that if I cry openly, I will be hit and possibly killed. However, over time I’ve discovered I can cry pretty freely in reaction to the losses of others and at movies and when reading etc. There’s progress. It will take the time it takes.

      It also helps to learn to see things as they are. Easy to say. Hard to do.

      • That is wise to understand that it will “take the time it takes”. We can’t rush these things. Your awareness of your feelings though will serve you well as you move through this new loss. I am sad for you. Would it help to temporarily store the doggie equipment somewhere for now? When we lost our beloved Scottie, Danny, almost two years ago, it recycled all of my old grief over the losses of so many other loved ones,. I had to donate his things to a pet shelter and just kept a couple of things. I was ready faster than I thought and our new little Emily keeps us entertained with her crazy antics, but I still miss my Danny Boy. Lila will always have a place in your heart.

        • Yes, I expect she will. If the little princess flunks out of finishing school, we would get first choice to adopt her as a pet, but that would make it hard on a new trainee pup. Best to let her go to someone where she will be their entire focus. I’m not going to store the crates and dissemble the kennel, though I might stack them up for the holidays. They took me hours to put together, and will be needed again in about seven weeks. I’ll pick up the toys. And I’ll write about the new dog. And the wheel will turn…

  4. That’s bad times. Sorry to hear it.

  5. I, too, have teary eyes. An emotion filled experience for sure. While it is unfortunate that Lila left abruptly without your getting the chance for a good bye and some emotional closure, please know and trust that whatever happened is in the highest good. Keep telling your heart this.

    I have come to know that even when something painful or not “good” happens, in retrospect, I will remarkably see how it was for the best, makes sense, and was even preferable in the end. The universe is amazingly clever this way.

    Know that you contributed valuably to her spirit and journey and she to yours.

  6. @#$%!

    Mikey, Gwen and I are simultaneously crushed and furious for Mary, you, and Lilah.

    You haven’t asked for “advice” and I’m too outraged to read any of the other comments or your replies, but I’m going to jump in here anyway.

    If you decide to get another dog – and I hope you do because dogs are the most wonderful, loving friends this particular human has ever had – please think about simply doing just that. Getting your own dog, without anyone else’s rules or restrictions. Train it to be what you want and need, a complement to your lifestyles and, yes, neuroses. If, in the process, you discover that dog owning isn’t for you, believe me when I say that you’ll have absolutely no trouble finding a new home for a puppy bearing your imprint. I can’t speak for your other friends, but Gwen and I would be proud to raise your “child” any time.

    Love you,


    • I accept your reaction with gratitude my brother, because I know you are also an alpha and want to protect us from harm.

      If you do decide to read the other comments, you’ll see there’s a healthy process of understanding going on.

  7. Mikey, you made this long time puppy raiser cry. I am so sorry you had this experience, and that your time with Lila was so much shorter than you thought it would be. I am amazed at the clarity with which you’ve written about what happened after such a short time. You have a wonderful ability to put it in perspective and that is a gift – perhaps one of life experience. I think I’ll be keeping puppy in training Saxon close for the rest of the day today.

    • My thanks to you both. Whatever my ability is to see events with an undimmed eye, it comes partly from previous things that happened that have shaped me, and partly it’s who I am and always was. I was born with an interest in structure. I disassemble and reassemble everything; my thoughts and feelings, events, diseases and injuries, and films, music and TV shows. Lately I edit and rewrite sentences. I’m glad you find the result of that absorbing to read.

      (Didn’t set out to make others cry in my place, however. The right words at the right time do move people. I couldn’t help it.)

  8. I’m sorry you didn’t get to say good-bye to the dog friend that you worked with so much. It must be a strange feeling to have the rug pulled out like this.

    Maybe the dog will be used for something else than a seeing guide dog. I worked for a govn’t agency responsible for fire code enforcement and fire investigation. We had 2 dogs on “staff” that were former police dogs, retrained to sniff out 15 different accleratants for arson investigations.

    • It’s true that many service dogs of other kinds including fire, police and therapy dogs begin as “career changed” guide dog candidates. Guiding is the hardest discipline, with only a 40% completion rate. I expect it was weirder for us because she was our first, and she was the smartest dog I’ve known personally. I’ll know more with more experience. Thanks for your reassurance, Jean.

  9. sb

    Oh Mikey! I’m so sorry, that is absolutely heart wrenching. As everyone else has said, I really do have tears in my eyes. That’s such a terrible loss… And so quickly! How unfair.
    Don’t feel as if you’re a failure though. You raised her well, and I’m sure everything you taught her will help her in in whatever they place her in to. She will still do great things.

    • It’s really okay, Sarah. I wrote that late Tuesday when the action was very fresh and the wound was raw. I’ve gotten so much support from the club members since, and from people here. I’m much better about it already. I miss her of course, but it was the correct decision.

      All kinds of mammalian training need to be reinforced as young as possible to maximize the chances of success. Lila is too loyal to specific people, and too assertive if not handled by those people. A guide dog must be docile, no matter who is handling. That’s why all the dogs get rotated around to other handlers. They learn to perform the same way, as long as any human is giving the right commands in the right manner.

  10. Ouch. Sorry about this, Mikey. It’s horrible. And you’ll pardon my being a little miffed on your (and Lila’s) behalf, since she had acquiesced hundreds of times. Maybe she was rightly sensing some hostility in the trainer that day and…off to Siberia. Life is unfair and I grieve that reality with you today. Nice that you remembered to be grateful for the good things, always a helpful approach, I find. Chizmite!

    • The problem with Lila was that as far as being “handled” (turned over, examined in the mouth etc.), she is too specifically attached to and protective of certain people – us. That makes her better suited for police/fire/military-type service work, though possibly also therapy, since she adores being petted, praised or fed by new people. A blind person would not be able to see her prepare to bite in reaction to handling, and could be injured.

      This was one of those times when I might have written it very differently if I had waited even one day, but I wrote it “raw”, and therefore made my readers sad or angry out of my own need to be comforted. I got what my ego wanted out of it, but not what the best, most integrated part of me wants in the long run.

      One of the questions I am still examining is ‘When should one write?” The child position, as expressed by WP and other hosts, is “all the time, right away, every day”. But neither I nor anyone else really understands the full meaning of things immediately. So, because it’s more important to me to generally write posts that have more substance and depth, it’s necessary to wait and think things over.

      I really appreciate and enjoy the way you write, Matt, and I learn lots reading your story posts even though I hardly ever comment. You understand that need to write where there are layers of meaning.

  11. Oh Mikey, I’m so sorry. I understand how you feel with the loss of a pet; a dear friend, but I can’t even begin to imagine the pain you felt in not getting to say goodbye. My thoughts are with you and I’m sending so much love that I really hope you can feel it, because this feeling is most certainly a fact. I know it’s hard, but you will get through it. I always feel awful trying to find the words to say in these kind of situations, but at least you know she’ll be going to a good home. This wasn’t at all your fault, and you’re not being penalised for it and all of our thoughts are with you, not just via the internet, but in person too x

    • I think you understood it and imagined it perfectly, Anna. I think everyone responding did. I’m so grateful for the support and understanding I’ve gotten from everyone for losing it a little over the suddenness of the career change. I’m so much better already. Of course, Lila will be absolutely fine, and I’ll be fine too. And I’ll write all about the next dog, beginning in January.

  12. So sorry you didn’t get to say goodbye to Lila. She’ll be a wonderful family dog and / or service dog with a lifetime of joy and service ahead of her thanks to your training, but in the raw present that’s little solace. Again, I’m sorry.

  13. Oh, Mikey. I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve never owned a dog, but I did own a cat, who I still think about 8 years later. I could tell you a million times that it isn’t your fault, but I think deep down you know that.

    If Lila does end up as a family pet, she’s going to be an amazing one, and it will be because of the time she spent with you guys.

    • You’re right, Becca. I know it’s not anyone’s fault, including the dog’s. I usually self-censor those kinds of feelings when writing. This time I didn’t, which made the piece end up powerful, but also a bit manipulative. Still, real is interesting, and I’m astounded as well as grateful for how supportive everyone has been in response.

  14. I join with others in offering sympathy for your loss. More than anything, though, I’m so sorry you didn’t get to say goodbye. Why would they do that? That seems so insensitive to the people who work so hard to help these puppies be successful. I’m very sorry about that.

    As for your sense of failure, I understand that is an emotional response and not a rational one. Any “parent” feels that way when you know your kid or your dog can do something…and then they don’t, especially when so much is riding on it.

    I know Lila will find a great home, maybe close to me (!), and will have a great life because you got her off to such a good start.

    PS–So glad you proved yourself wrong about not having anything that would last.

    • I think they did it for convenience and cost savings. The head trainer was on tour, and going to Everett from Sequim. It was easier for her to take Lila immediately than to have to coordinate for us to have her another night and meet up later etc. It wasn’t respectful of our feelings, but the people at the top of the organization are primarily focused on the mission – get these $60k wonder dogs properly trained and distributed ASAP.

      And I’m glad you said something about my having earned successful, long-lasting love. That was the hidden gem in the piece, me reminding myself that I once thought with all my heart that nothing would work out for me in terms of relationships. We will have another dog, and another petal of the lotus will unfold. Meanwhile, Lila will be fine, just not our success story.

      • I just wanted to respond to your last sentence. You don’t know that Lila isn’t your success story. Maybe she will save someone’s life because she was in the right place at the right time because of her “failure.” Or maybe she will be the most beloved friend that someone ever has. She might be your greatest dog success! But true, not the way you envisioned. I think about my kids sometimes that way! They didn’t turn out the way I fantasized, but in ways I couldn’t have predicted, they turned out better.

  15. You didn’t fail Mikey. I raised quite a few dogs. One I put down as she was a fear biter. Yes, we got a dog psychologist first, but in the end I made the decision.

    The puppies are bred to this work, but not all will make the grade. You simply got one that didn’t reach that high standard.

    Do not let this experience influence how you treat the next puppy and I am glad to hear you are getting another.

    • Yeah, I know I didn’t fail. I just felt like I had because she got taken away so quickly. The main influence this experience will have on the next one will be that if he/she flunks out, we will demand a night in which to complete giving them up. Mary was too much in shock, so she didn’t ask, and she’s still angry about it. Most of the dogs don’t make it after all. The least the organization can do is let us see them off properly.

  16. Dave and Lisa

    So sad.

    We’ve been checking your blog every once in a while, just to keep up with the dog news and photos. (Your other subjects have been interesting, but truthfully, we really came to hear about Lila.) We had visited during the final days before her arrival, and had sensed a mix of confident preparation, firm purpose, joyful anticipation and yet real concern about how the unknown future with the unknown dog would play out.

    This outcome with Lila confirms our thinking that we would not, could not raise a service dog ourselves. Just not willing to take the emotional risk, even for the higher purpose. We admire you, not only for taking it on the first time, but especially for choosing to take it on again.

    This is, of course, real life. We don’t own other people or creatures, we just share our lives with them for a time. And how can we dare to devote ourselves fully to someone or something, knowing that they could be ripped away from us in an instant?

    We’re confident you’ll continue to find a way.

    Love to Mary.

    • You’re welcome to drop by for any subject that interests you, guys! Being a generalist by nature, and because I’m writing as a recreational pleasure, the topics I choose range all over the map. I’m happy to get any sort of reaction at any time. I’ve gotten a lot of supportive, positive feedback, and also a lot of attempts to hijack this space to sell products. (The spam filter is pretty good here.)

      One way to understand how we could want to do it again is to think about how this enterprise began. It was established originally to provide trained assistance companions for blinded veterans. The organization was giving back to those who had already served us. That’s still a large part of where the dogs go, though the mission has expanded to include anyone in need. There are more people who could benefit than there are dogs.

      The experienced trainers have gone through this before, and only 4 out of 10 dogs make it to guiding, but others become companions to autistic and physically frail children, fire/military/police assistants, therapy dogs for nursing homes, or super-qualified family pets. Lila has a great future.

  17. LittleBro

    Took me a while getting through the comments to find the answer to my question, which was how Mary was handling it. I am not surprised to hear her sense of shock.

    You know my work (which, incidentally, is being eliminated by state budget cuts at year’s end) puts me in contact with a lot of guide-dog owners, so I can respect how strict the training organizations have got to be in which canines pass muster. Their role is so critical to these people and the quality of their lives.

    From what I hear, every initial puppy-raiser has an experience similar to this (if not several); it’s always difficult, but it helps to keep the perspective about how “perfect” these animals have got to be – and as several people have noted, it’s just the dog’s personality far more than any training.

    But you folks still gave Lila a foundation that will likely put her in good standing in whatever environment is in her future – be it service or simple companionship.

    See you at Christmas, maybe?

    • We would love to see you both over the holidays! Please do call or email us. We had a good meeting with the club today, and a lot of healing was promoted. We shouldn’t have had to give her up with no notice, and it won’t happen to others in future. We aren’t worried about Lila, and Mary’s much better now. I heard about your situation when we took Mom to eat today.

      (For those who do not know, my younger brother has been employed producing and performing in audio productions for and on behalf of the blind for some time, including original radio shows, and readings from a wide variety of books.)

  18. Pie

    When I read your post, I wanted to give you a virtual hug. I really was deeply moved. Having Lila taken from you, without a chance for you to properly say goodbye was particularly rough justice, in my opinion. I’m glad you’re getting another puppy in January so you can try again. The experience gained from training Lila will be invaluable, therefore, it was not a failure. I’m also happy that both you and Mrs Invisible are in better shape now than when you originally pressed the publish button on this post. However, I’m sorry to read about your brother. Why is it the services that actually help and empower people are the first to go when the economy is tight? I hope things get better for him soon. Maybe there’ll be something to look forward to in the new year.

    • Thanks for your support, Pie. My brother is a resourceful and adaptive person. He’s been downsized by budget cuts from government sources before. He used to work in public radio. He also is pretty good at living on a low rate of pay, as is my whole family. I’m not too worried, though I agree with you that it’s wrong to cut funding for support services for the blind. We could jettison a few weapons projects and easily save that much!

      • LittleBro

        Not to take this too far off the topic, but for those who would like to learn about what my job is: – and for info on how a group of patrons & volunteers are trying to create an alternative funding structure:

        We’ll be up that way over the holidays, with Tara & Sam in tow.

        I am so glad to hear about your meeting with the club leading to some personal resolution. Some of the folks I know with guide dogs say that they are eternally grateful not only to the organizations who work to make sure the dogs are perfect matches for them, but also to every single individual who is part of the process – like you guys. These dogs are key elements to their human companions being able to live as independent people, and they owe so much of their lives and their safety to all of you.

  19. Pingback: Three Dogs at a Graduation | Invisible Mikey

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