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Until one has loved an animal,
a part of one's soul remains unawakened.
— Anatole France

T H E    B E G I N N I N G

I was nearly thirty years old before I had a dog of my own. My sister Alice always had dogs and I learned to love them through her. But my own living situation did not allow for a dog until I moved to Oregon and married. My husband, Jon, brought home a golden-retriever puppy. His fur was like goose down. When he yawned, his pink tongue curled up and he smelled sweetly of puppy breath. When I held him, he kissed my neck then buried his nose into the crook of my arm. Jon had rescued him from a college-bound girl; she had purchased him on a whim in a pet store. Of course, the dorm did not allow pets. And of course, I could not resist him.

We named him Max.

I wanted Max to be my walking buddy but he pulled me down the road. Full grown, he weighed sixty pounds. I called a friend, a long-time dog owner, for advice. She suggested we meet at a park. I got there early and sat down on a bench to wait. Max lay at my feet as I held his leash. My friend arrived a few minutes later, walking up behind us. Max immediately scrambled under me toward her, yanking me to the ground with a thump. Max pulled me halfway under the bench before I let go of his leash. Embarrassed, I crawled out from beneath the bench while Max cavorted around her.

"Looks like you need some help," she said wryly as she extended a hand. "Let's start with how to control Max." And my learning began.

Max taught me a lot about raising and training a dog—mostly what not to do. In fact, I'm sure I made every mistake possible on him. But he still loved me and I loved him. He could carry three tennis balls in his mouth at one time; it never failed to make me laugh. On cold evenings, we'd cuddle in front of the wood stove.

Max was not a healthy dog. We learned later he came from a puppy mill; he was bred solely for the wholesale pet trade. He lived less than five years. When it became apparent that he could not live without extraordinary medical measures, Jon and I decided to humanely end his suffering. The night before the vet appointment, I sat with Max. His once-downy coat was now lumpy and dry. He was bald in some spots. His skin had basically stopped functioning. But he still knew how to lick my neck and nuzzle into my arms. He sensed that I was upset and he tried to make me feel better with his kisses. I could barely stand it. Max was comforting me for the decision to put him to sleep.

The next morning, I told Jon, "I can't go with you. I just can't do it." So Jon took Max. He was the one who held Max as Dr. Ross first administered a sedative that would relax him. Several minutes later, Dr. Ross gently injected a second needle. Jon slowly stroked Max's ears and whispered to him, "You're a good dog, a good boy," and Max quietly slipped from this world to the next.

Now, I regret my decision of not going. Max had asked nothing from me but love and I gave it. With love comes responsibility; I had failed in my responsibility to him.

Months passed. Max's empty bed was a constant reminder of the empty spot in our lives. Jon wanted to get another golden retriever. I wanted a black Labrador. I figured the wash-and-wear coat of a Lab was better suited to our country setting. Jon and I can normally discuss matters logically and come to a common decision. On this matter, neither one of us would give in, so we did nothing.

On a Saturday afternoon in June, we went grocery shopping together. Well, actually, I got the groceries while Jon read car magazines. I met him outside the store.

"Come with me," he said mysteriously as he steered my cart to a truck parked two rows away. In the back, a litter of puppies romped. Some were black; some were gold. The sign read "Puppies: Half Golden Retriever/Half Black Lab—$20." Only one was left unclaimed. We had our dog.

With our fifteen acres on the river, I knew this pup would live "The Life of Riley," so that's what we called him: Riley. He had black Lab hair, but the bone structure of a golden.

I liked that he was a hybrid. That meant he probably would not suffer from the in-breeding problems that had plagued Max. I liked that he had lived his first nine weeks in the home of a busy family. He had been very well socialized. And I hoped that his mom would now be spayed. I knew Riley and his littermates were lucky to find homes; many do not.

I was determined to do much better by Riley than I had by Max. Dogs trained to guide the blind had intrigued me since I read a book about them as a child. Someday, I will get involved in that program, I said to myself. For now, I studied the basic guide-dog training techniques and applied as many as I could to Riley. We attended obedience classes. The result was a well-behaved, loving companion. I learned that Guide Dogs for the Blind, based in San Rafael, California, was even using the Lab-golden cross in its program. I'd look at Riley and wonder if he could have been a guide dog. Once again I thought, Someday I should get involved in that program.

A few years later, my mother died. As anyone who has lost a parent knows, it's an event that places you squarely in front of your own mortality. You find yourself reviewing your "Life's To Do" list. On my list was the guide-dog program. Mom probably gave me the book about the guide dog. Mom taught me by example about giving something back.

Someday has arrived, I thought.

I drove three hours north to tour the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. The spotless kennels, vet clinic, dormitory, and other buildings sit nestled among towering fir trees in a rural area east of Portland. I watched trainers patiently and lovingly working with young golden retrievers, Labradors, and German shepherds. I wanted to help.

My enthusiasm spilled over to others in our community and we formed a puppy-raising club. Our job is to take puppies from Guide Dogs' breeding program and raise them for about a year as members of our families. We teach them basic obedience and good house manners. We socialize them by taking them to public places. Riley has accepted the guide pups in our home with the tolerance of a big brother.

The guide-dog program has further opened me to the magic our canine friends can work. I started to volunteer at our local animal shelter, take dogs into nursing homes, and help with pet adoptions.

Over the years, I have met hundreds of dogs. Guide pups. Working guides. Adopted-from-the-shelter mutts. Each one has changed someone's life. Every dog has a story. Now, someday has arrived for writing down some of those stories.

© Copyright 2003-2012. Nora Vitz Harrison. All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced in any format without the written permission of the author.

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