He comes to my side as I swing on the glider. I stroke his soft, curly coat and thank him for welcoming me. It’s short-lived. He didn’t come to see me. He draws his attention to my front door and I understand our visit is over. He calmly lies down on the doormat with his nose to the threshold and sniffs as if something on the other side of the door were of interest.
This is Dasher, a fluffball made from a mix of Poodle and Dalmatian: floppy ears of the poodle, black and white memories of the Dalmatian. A creation that may probably never be duplicated in nature again. But that’s nature, every leaf is unique, unique. At four years old he still resembles the puppy he was eight months old when I first met him, which will explain the pose on my front door. He seems to be waiting patiently for someone to show up. I know who it is
Elsa, a two year old Golden Retriever, was training to be my service dog. We had spent the required two weeks with Canine Support Teams (CST) in Temecula, California. She had learned all the necessary behaviors. She came home with me to be my service dog. But then she had to connect with me and pay attention to my needs.
My balance and gait had been compromised by a neurological vestibular disorder. For several years I staggered around, dizzy, waiting for medication to help or just go away. Neither happened. And so I decided to get a service dog with a harness to hold on to as I crossed the streets and maneuvered the world independently. I didn’t ask about a golden retriever; The organization will select the dog that they believe will work best with you. My heart belonged to another Golden, Holly Go Lightly, who had died 13 years earlier but was my dog forever. Remarkably, the new dog came by the name I would have given her: Elsa, for the lion in Joy Adamson’s Born Free. It should be like that. At least that’s what I thought.
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Many believe you can get a trained service dog and that’s it. They do whatever you ask. Not correct. They are not robots, they feel, react, think beings. I worked with her every day and night to improve the skills she had learned. She had to watch out for me, not dogs or people around. She couldn’t turn to inspect the grass. When she wore her harness and vest, she was an extension of me. When I removed them, a completely different dog appeared, one that was playful and disobedient and in no way worked in the sense of the words “working dog”. And she knew the difference.
Every day I looked for a place where she could run and frolic and live up to her name. It was difficult because dog parks were a safety issue for this precious dog. Also, CST’s service contract forbade them. So I played ball around the house and let them run back and forth. I was her only playmate. Then I found a quiet park that was safe to open her vest and harness and threw tennis balls so she could chase them until she got bored. I would note that she looked at the occasional dog in the area with great interest, but I was not ready to let her roam free. We’d only been home together for a couple of weeks and I didn’t feel like the bond was secure enough to trust. Still, she told me in many ways that she wanted a link, a friend, a playmate. I thought that wouldn’t happen to a service dog. I felt that their dog life was incomplete. It made me sad.
And then, one evening when she was out for her (not tense) bedtime walk, she met the love of her life: the dashing Dasher. To say it was love at first sight would underestimate its appeal. She was crazy about Dasher. Maybe because he was younger, but I think it was just his personality and great desire to have fun. There was no way I could keep her company, and I didn’t even try. At eight months he looked like a black and white stuffed dog in the toy department that you would take home and cuddle. But it was pretty real. And its good looks were only matched by its charm. He had both of us. We were in love.
To see how they romped, rolled on the ground, hunted, wrestled and were so delighted with each other, gave Heidi, Dasher’s person, and me joy. Elsa was bigger, stronger, older, but they played like well-matched puppies. Elsa even allowed Dasher to climb all over her – no, she enjoyed it. He was her type.
This is how their affair began. Dasher called Elsa every night, more like an advertisement. At 7:30 a.m. Elsa went to the balcony and peered through the railing at her playmate. Heidi went to Dasher around 8 and was usually on time. As they approached the building, Dasher stopped in front of the apartment and looked straight up to see his girlfriend waiting on the balcony. None of them barked.
Elsa had been trained not to bark when dogs or strangers showed up (obviously not a watchdog). It should remain inconspicuous in any environment. Dasher wasn’t a barker either. But when he showed up, Elsa was so excited that she ran to find me in another room. Breathless and with wildly wagging tail, she led me to the top of the stairs and waited for her cue to run down the stairs. She knew that she couldn’t get outside without my help. She communicated in the best possible way: eye contact, tail wagging, mouth excited.
“Okay,” I would say, “let’s see Dasher.” That was the permission she was looking for as she flew down the stairs and stood in the entrance to the door, knowing he was on the other side. I could hear Heidi, who reminded Dasher: “Wait, wait”, then “Sit down.” I gave Elsa the same instructions. We wanted them to be quiet before they saw them again. It was a built-in reward system; They would do anything to be together, even sit and wait. When we were sure they were calm, I would say “Okay” and open the door to a crazy greeting as they fell over each other with excitement and, I like to think, love.
This was the nightly ritual. Romeo courted Juliet and convinced her. We let them run and play. It was dark and other dogs weren’t usually outside so they hunted each other on the edge of the lake near my apartment. Sometimes Elsa ran too far and didn’t come when I called her, which made me nervous. She ran out of dishes and didn’t think she had to respond to my inquiries. Her only interest was Dasher and the season. I think this was a relief for her after being my helper all day, calm and well-behaved.
I could take her to restaurants and she would slip under the table and lie quietly until I was ready to go. I took it to the cinema once, and it was hidden under my seat, not looking. She was my perfect dog indeed. But she was crazy in the romp with Dasher, and all that reserved energy was released. It annoyed me a bit when she followed Dasher straight into the lake one night. Oh no. This reminded me that she was actually a “real” dog.
The summer nights were great for these two pups. And then the unthinkable happened.
In the middle of the night, I got out of bed and slipped off the side of the mattress, which fell off the edges, hit the floor, and cracked a bone in my hip. Elsa was in Temecula that week and had a health issue checked by the CST vet that was both good and bad. I spent two weeks without a dog in the hospital and in rehab and then learned that Elsa would not come back to me as my recovery would take many months. In short, CST has reclaimed their service dog. Not only was my hip broken, but my heart too.
Now, four years later, Dasher still stays at my house as he walks by and looks up at the balcony. He seems to be waiting for her to appear. If only his longing could bring her back. But then I don’t really know what animals think about. I suspect they are living in the moment. I think my building is a trigger for his memory of his funny nights with Elsa.
I watch his patient, silent vigil at the front door, sniff and wait for her to appear. It always worked before. Just wait and she will come. Even so, he seems intrepid and continues to trust that she is really there, just out of sight. So it is with memories. None of our loved ones is gone as long as we remember them. You are just out of sight.
This is how I remember this love relationship and my heart aches with pain, sadness and joy at the same time. I feel a loss, but with it a poignant memory of happiness that cannot be denied.
I tell him in silence: “I miss her too.”