I’ve had the privilege of meeting and collaborating with some great bloggers recently, and today I have another guest post to share with you. This brilliant writer is a woman much like myself; she’s blind, works with a service dog, and has stories to tell. I’ve found a lot of my own experiences echoed in her words, which you should definitely check out here.
And if you just really miss my words, you can see what I posted on her blog here. It’s all part of my sneaky plan to lure you into reading more of Rhianna’s articles.
Today Rhianna has a sad story to tell, yet another one that will someday be my story, too. She’s had to retire her service dog. But when she went online in search of others who’d had this experience who could support her through this painful process, she found silence. People with disabilities are often isolated by sheer numbers; there just aren’t that many of us per capita in any given location. And when you narrow down the field to “blind with service dogs,” the available support pool shrinks to scattered raindrops.
But Rhianna’s a blogger, and responded in kind. Since she couldn’t find the support, she chose to create it for others. Here is her story.
P.S. Grab tissues.
Mid morning light was streaming in through the open living room windows and my 70-pound golden lab cross was curled up on my lap. Tears rolled down my cheeks and landed on his silky head. He didn’t seem to mind though.
He knew I needed him. We needed each other. We knew the moment had come.
John Green said: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep—slowly, then all at once.” This is how I fell in love with Cricket. I’d been falling for him for the six months before I met him, waiting for him to finish training and be matched with me—the dream team. And when he sauntered into my room, licked my hand and lay down at my feet, my heart was truly his.
In reflecting on our two-year relationship from first pet to last snuggle, I’ve realized that it’s the same way with grief. If you’ll allow me a moment, I’d like to share with you the story of Cricket’s retirement.
It was midsummer 2020, and Cricket and I were out for our usual half-hour walk around the neighbourhood. We were five minutes from home, just headed down the hill when, in the middle of the sidewalk, Cricket stopped.
And wouldn’t move.
“Cricket, forward,” I said, giving the leash an encouraging snap.
But he just stood there like a dog statue. “Cricket, forward,” I urged again. No response.
I ran through my mental checklist, trying to figure out what might be wrong. Is he distracted? What is he looking at? Does he need to relieve himself? Is he in pain? I checked the harness, inspected his paws, and found everything as it should be.
“Cricket, forward,” I said again. But there was still no response. Not wanting to frustrate either of us further, I turned around, picked up the harness handle and without a command, Cricket guided me flawlessly (and speedily) back home.
This was not normal, so I reached out to my trainer for help. His suggestions did helped… sometimes. It was hit and miss for the next nine months, and all the while, the question I was trying to keep down kept pushing itself to the forefront of my mind.
Did Cricket want to retire?
No, he couldn’t, I thought. He’s only three. Guide dogs are supposed to work for six to eight years, not two.
In the spring of 2021, the whispers of Cricket’s retirement were growing louder and louder. Cricket wouldn’t work two days in a row, preferring to take a luxurious nap rather than run errands with me. He avoided me when I brought down the harness from the hook by the door. On our walks, he would stop at the intersections and refuse to cross the street. He stalled at the top of staircases and deliberately took me off sidewalks into driveways and onto lawns. It was very unsafe.
And very obvious. Cricket was telling me every way he knew how:
“Mom, I don’t want to be a guide dog anymore.”
The final straw came on April 23. I got up that morning and said to God: “If Cricket wants to retire, I need you to make it clear to me today. I can’t keep doing this.”
Cricket guided me all 15 minutes to the coffee shop with only a couple hiccups. I was feeling optimistic. I drank my iced latte, picked up the harness handle, but rather than a quick 15 minute trip home, we stopped and started every 30 seconds. We made it home 45 minutes later, and I knew God had given me my answer.
Remember that moment in my living room? When we got home, I held Cricket tight and told him, “You don’t have to work anymore if you don’t want to, baby. I want you to be happy, and if retiring is what’ll make you happy, that’s okay.”
This is how it happened with me and Cricket. But every service dog handler’s story is different. In retirement, some handlers choose to have their dogs remain with them at home. Some choose to rehome them to close friends or family, and still others send their dogs back to their training school and have the staff find them loving homes. I knew that in making Cricket’s retirement official, the next question was where he would live.
He couldn’t live with me. I didn’t have the physical space or the financial means to care for him, particularly as I would be applying for a successor guide. After much deliberation and prayer, it was decided that Cricket would return to his puppy raiser, back in his native Michigan.
It’s been almost two months now since I said goodbye to my baby boy. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful and close relationship with his puppy raiser (now mom), and receive frequent updates. Cricket is living the life out in the country, with his doggy sister, Willow and fields to run in.
But me? I’m still waking up every morning, thinking that he’ll be in the bed next to mine. I still do the hand gestures for “forward,” “right” and “left” as I walk with friends. And when my partner guided me to the curb and stopped, I said “good boy” instead of “thank you.” Thankfully, he and I both laughed.
But the grief is still very raw. It will be for a long time.
The grief of retiring a service dog begins on that very first day. You’re overwhelmed with joy and hope and love for this dog that has already changed your life, but you know deep down that eventually, it will end. And when it does, I need you to know a few things.
I know you’re hurting right now. Your heart is broken and you don’t know how or when it will be put back together. After all, the only thing that could heal it has just been taken from you.
I know you’re angry. Why does it have to end this way? Why does it have to end at all? It’s not fair—to love someone so much and have to let go.
I know you wonder if you did enough to make it work. Countless pieces of advice have come your way, from trainers, fellow handlers and complete strangers, and yet, the only thing you want to hear is that yes, you did enough, and you are good enough.
I know you miss him. You think you hear him snoring in his bed but when you reach down to check, the bed is empty. You add dog food to the grocery list, realize you don’t have to buy it, but you do anyway. You cry yourself to sleep because the blankets still smell like her, and you laugh through your tears, remembering how she took up the whole bed.
I know you wonder if you could ever love another dog the way you loved him.
I know you’re not okay right now.
Neither am I.
And we won’t be for a long time. And that’s okay, too.
Writing this post broke my heart all over again. I cried my way through draft after draft, trying to find a way to express the depth of my grief and the grief for the handlers going through it that would do justice to the bond we share with our dogs. Whether I’ve accomplished that, I’ll leave up to you.
But let me leave you with one final thought: During my therapy sessions during and after Cricket’s retirement, I so often tried to minimize my pain, saying that every handler goes through it, that we all know it’s coming someday, and it’s already been two months since he moved.
But my therapist is helping me to reframe that. Rather than set a timeline for healing my broken heart and invalidating my emotions, just feel it. It’s okay to hurt. It’s good to grieve. It’s okay to not be okay. The loss is as real as any other despite what we may think or be told. And there’s no one-size-fits-all for grief. It’s a journey.
So feel every emotion, hug his favourite toy, curl up in his bed, and remember every day what he did for you. He still loves you, just as you will always love him.
Dear Cricket, thank you for everything. You are forever in my heart.