On April 29, 2009, I met my best friend. My apologies to my childhood friends and college buddies, but yes — my guide dog, Nash, has become my best friend. What do you expect? We’ve gone everywhere together. A doctor’s appointment, he’s there; a trip across country to Los Angeles, he’s there; on stage any night doing my stand-up … well, you get it — he’s always right there with me. I can knock it out of the park, or absolutely bomb on stage, and Nash could care less. As long as there is a belly rub, scratch behind the ears, and a hiney scratch in his future, it doesn’t matter — it’s all the same to my guy Nash.
Over the past five years, Nash and I have been apart for maybe 18 hours. Can you think of any relationship in your life that compares to that? I’m guessing probably not. So you can imagine when someone recently asked me what my plans were when Nash retired, it really got me thinking.
Yes, guide dogs retire, but unlike their human counterparts, there’s no gold watch, no 401(K), and no Social Security benefits. Our dogs are always on call, just waiting for us to tell them where to go. It can be stressful on the dogs psychologically and physically, which is why when our dogs start to slow down, it is time to start thinking about retiring them.
While your dog will no longer be able to accompany you everywhere, his retirement can become his golden years. He might continue to live with you as a pet, move in with a family member, return to the puppy raiser, or get adopted by one of the people waiting on a very long list.
Since I am beginning to think about what the future holds for Nash, I thought it would be a good idea to speak with people getting ready to retire their guides and others who have already retired their guides. I wanted to know what to expect — besides the ton of tears. I hope for Nash and me that his retirement is still a ways off.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind grad Amy Dixon was matched with yellow Lab Elvis a few months before Nash and I were introduced. She will be retiring Elvis in January 2015. “One of the most depressing things to me is that a good friend’s guide dog is nine and a half and still going strong,” Amy says. “Her dog is very enthusiastic about the work. Elvis is seven and a half, and while his pace is still pretty good, his enthusiasm isn’t what it used to be. I’m currently training as a triathlete for the U.S. Paralympics team and I’m doing a lot more traveling.”
Brian Fischler: When did you realize it was time to start thinking about retiring Elvis?
Amy Dixon: In September I was in the hospital having surgery and Elvis was with my Mom in the waiting room. They had just finished polishing the floors and Elvis slipped and fell. He didn’t hurt himself, but the next day when we returned to the hospital, Elvis refused to get off the elevator, as he didn’t want to step on that same floor. We’ve tried lots of things to help Elvis get his confidence back, but shiny floors continue to be an issue.
Will you be able to keep Elvis?
My Mom is going to take Elvis, as his future is something we discussed from the very beginning. Retiring Elvis early has been an unpleasant surprise. Fortunately, my Mom isn’t working as much as she used to, so her life is more conducive to having a dog. My building doesn’t allow pets, which is what Elvis will be as soon as he retires.
I don’t even want to think about it right now, as I can’t even go to the laundry room in my building without him. The retirement is going to be very hard on both of us.
Just look at the way people talk about their pet dogs, but it’s not the same as a guide dog, as your pet isn’t with you 24/7. There’s nobody in your family that spends 24 hours a day with you. The longest Elvis and I have been apart in five years is three hours.
I have started to use my cane a little more, as I need to prepare for the day he is no longer there. We have been through so much together: chemotherapy, me leaving my job of eight years that I was very comfortable at, and 16 surgeries. He has been with me for every doctor’s appointment and every disappointment.
He has been comic relief for me, as he is a total knucklehead and such a dork, but he is so unbelievably smart, too. It’s very hard for you to feel sorry for yourself when you realize there is this dog sitting there counting on you to take care of him. There’s no way I would have survived all of this without him. The next dog will be the next, but he will not have been on this journey with me. I do know my next dog will be great and we will have new experiences — it will just be different.
What are you looking forward to with your next guide?
A guide dog who is always up for anything. I’m looking forward to getting a dog who has patience but also a zest for life. I want a dog who is serious about his work but he also has to be goofy. I need that goofiness in my dog. I thought I wanted a Shepherd, but after five years with Elvis I realized I am a Lab girl, as I love their social nature and how approachable he makes me. I’m a really outgoing person, so I like that the dog almost works as the intro.
Alan Gunzburg retired his first guide dog, Fia, in November 2013, and now is working with his second guide dog, Kili, from Fidelco.
Brian Fischler: How did you know it was time to retire Fia?
Alan Gunzburg: We used to do the same walk every day and Fia began slowing down. We’d take a walk on the beach and part of the beach was blocked off to construction from Hurricane Sandy. Instead of finding a way around the construction, she just didn’t want to work. It was the first sign that it was time. Fia was uncomfortable with the change to the route.
I had a trainer from Fidelco come out, and you can only make so many excuses to why your dog isn’t doing the work; the reality sets in, that maybe it’s time to consider retirement. Everybody eventually slows down. Fidelco did a great job training me with Fia and they prepared me for almost every life situation I would be in with Fia, but retirement is not something you can really prepare for.
What was the toughest part about retiring Fia?
I am very fortunate as my situation allowed me to keep Fia, but when I call Kili to go out, Fia shows up ready to get into the harness. It’s still the toughest part, but I do think Fia is much happier now that she is not working anymore. Fia gave me everything. I felt I owed it to her to let her retire.
It’s a life-changing moment when you are partnered with your guide dog. You are responsible for their well-being. She was nine and a half when I retired her, so she has a lot of enjoyable years ahead of her.
How was going through guide dog training for a second time?
It was much easier. Fidelco does home training, so it was great to be able to have them come out to me and let me plan our training around places that I go to a lot. We trained for 10 days at the subway, grocery store and the beach. It was funny to go through training again but hear you’re doing it wrong. I guess sometimes over the years with your guide you can get in to some bad habits, so to get the reinforcement was good. This time I tweeted through the whole training period; it was nice for my family, friends and Kili’s puppy raiser to be able to follow along to our training.
Are there a lot of similarities between your guide dogs?
No, they both have their own personalities and are such different dogs. Fia was more of an alpha German Shepherd, and Kili is the sweetest German Shepherd and fantastic with other dogs and people. Fia was more standoffish. Fia would never let you see her sweat, and Kili is a tail wagger when someone comes over.
How did Fia react to a new dog in the house?
Kili is young, and she really knew how to start trouble with the other cats and dogs. On the other hand, Fia was completely fine with the new dog coming.
On Fridays Fia works as a therapy dog, as she goes to the local school and is part of the Reading with Rover program. The program helps kids read that aren’t the best readers. They will read out loud to the dog. It’s really a fantastic program, and Fia is a great listener.
What was the biggest adjustment you had to make with a new dog?
Just being bombarded with questions; everyone wants to know and you are constantly asked to talk about the new dog. It’s just like the first time when you were with your first guide dog, as everyone wants to know everything about them. It’s just as good as it was the first time.
Becky Barnes Davidson is the manager of consumer outreach and graduate support for Guiding Eyes, and she’s also a graduate. Becky is now with her third guide dog.
Brian Fischler: Tell us about your guide dogs.
Becky Barnes Davidson: Rowan was a Golden and she worked with me for eight years. Then I had Flyer, a black Lab who worked with me for almost nine years, and now I’ve had Lawson, a yellow Lab for two years.
When you have retired your guides, have you been able to keep them?
I was able to keep Rowan as when I retired him my first husband was still around. Everything worked out fine in keeping him, but on occasion we would have to make arrangements for Rowan to be taken care of when we traveled. The dogs got along great, and it was very nice still having Rowan around.
If you are able to keep your retired guide, it’s great to do, but you really need to think about it and everything it entails before you do it. Flyer is now living with his puppy raisers and will be 14 in December. It’s a major life change and it’s emotional. The decision of whether or not you are able to keep your guide dog really comes down to your lifestyle. You need to think about what is best for the dog and what is practical.
What are some of the options that are out there for a retired guide dog?
A lot of people who can’t keep them will have them go and live with a family member or friend. There’s also the option of the puppy raisers. If neither of those work, the dog can come back to Guiding Eyes, and we have a long list of great people willing to adopt an older dog.
What should someone retiring a guide dog expect?
Your bond between you and your first guide dog is pretty strong. I was clueless as to what I would feel when I retired Rowan. I always tell people there will never be another Rowan, but there will be good times with your new guide dog. Our hearts still have the ability to grow and love a new dog.
It’s inevitable to make comparisons between your new guide and your previous one. The trick is to learn that this is a new dog and he will be doing new things, and it’s OK to make the comparison.
What was it like retiring your first guide dog?
I feel very blessed that both of my guide dogs’ retirements was a slow process — neither of them had to retire for health reasons. Both of my dogs just started slowing down, so I knew it was coming.
Even then, it was very emotional. People who don’t work with a guide don’t understand the depth of emotions we share with them. A pet dog isn’t going to retire. When you say goodbye to a pet it’s one thing, but a guide who has been with you 24 hours a day and has traveled everywhere with you is a lot different.
What’s the best part about getting a new guide dog?
I think for me the best part was having a young strong dog beside me again, and falling in love again.
After spending time with Amy, Alan, and Becky, and taking in all their fantastic information, where do I stand about Nash’s future retirement and my next guide dog? Well, didn’t scientists clone a sheep? How’s that all coming along? I want another Nash in my life!
Okay, so maybe that’s not realistic, and I know that there will eventually be another guide dog in my life, who I am sure will be just as fantastic as Nash. The situation will just be different, and that’s something that I will have to accept — but thankfully not today.
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About the author: Brian Fischler is a standup comedian and writer. He has been seen on The Today Show, published in Maxim Magazine as the Comedian of the Month, and on Top Gear USA on The History Channel. Along with writing for Dogster, Brian also writes for Cesar Milan’s website and magazine. Brian also runs Laugh For Sight, a bicoastal comedy benefit featuring the biggest names in comedy that come together to raise money and awareness for retinal degenerative eye disease research. You can connect with Brian on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @Blindgator.