Farewell to Willa, Hello to Uri

Many don’t know that at the beginning of last summer, my family and I had to say goodbye to Willa, my guide dog of eight years. Willa was a gentle little lady, beautiful and dainty, and incredibly smart. However, she was actually a “reject.” She had gone to a blind guy, who didn’t have very good mobility skills, and Willa would take advantage of him—when he wasn’t paying attention at the grocery store, she’d lead him to the dog food aisle. When he’d command her to lead him to the front exit, she’d take him around in a big circle right back to the dog food isle. He ultimately gave her back to the guide dog school, Fidelco, and she sat in the kennel depressed and, I heard, even got a little overweight. Poor Willa was eating to cope with her loss.

The trainer told me that you had to be on your toes with Willa. What an understatement! At first she would play little tricks like gently veering me off the bike path and, before I realized it, stop at a fence, nose-to-nose with another dog she was dying to meet. Another time, Ellie and I were in a theater and while I remained blissfully unaware, Willa did a sneaky Army-crawl on her belly, under seats, about five rows up; she was lying contentedly under another couple’s feet happily eating their popcorn. At moments like this, I liked to tease Willa I was her last hope. “If it doesn’t work out with me,” I’d tell her, “it’s the tennis-string factory for you.”

Besides being sneaky, she was at first a little tentative too; scared to make a decision and possibly make a mistake. She needed a lot of coaxing and patience, the latter I don’t have a lot of. It also seemed like guiding was the last thing Willa wanted to be doing. When we’d walk through the airport, hurrying to catch a flight, she’d strain her head left and right, back and forth, catching good sniffs from McDonalds. Often, she’d sidetrack towards a restaurant and before I noticed, lay her head on a chair as if to say, “Why don’t you just chill out and take a rest, while I sit here under you and nibble the hamburger bits off the floor.” My solution was making her walk as fast as she could, veering around throngs of slow pokes with their rolling bags, while continually encouraging her with soft words like, “Good girl…keep it going…come on. You can do it.”

I knew I needed to challenge her in a way in which she’d never again have the luxury of boredom or distraction. By pushing her in a positive way, she slowly began to mature.

The day I knew Willa was good came after a movie in the mall. It was dark and Ellie struggled to find our car in the massive sea of a parking lot. Willa weaved and bobbed around thirty cars and finally pointed her nose right to our Highlander. I think she even yawned, as if to say, “and that wasn’t even hard.” At that point, Willa had no more excuses. I knew she was in the genius range for dogs, and maybe even humans. Reminder—Ellie, my human wife, couldn’t find the car.

By the time she was five-years-old, Willa was a seasoned pro. In fact, I took for granted that Willa would step off the airport train, automatically find the escalator, and then cruise right to the moving sidewalk towards my gate; or after dinner on the road, locate my exact hotel room, pointing her nose to the door handle, and the next morning, find the front revolving door in the lobby. Willa travelled so many air miles that she had her own 1K frequent flyer card—unofficial of course. And when I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a strange hotel room totally disoriented, it felt good to know that Willa’s wet nose and panting breath would be the first touch against my hand.

At only ten years old, this always-healthy pup got cancer and the tumor grew massive. After fighting the disease for months, one day, she was very listless and could hardly get up. We knew it was the time to put her down and called the vet who came over to our house, rather than us going to a clinic. I figured if it were me, I’d want to be surrounded by family in a place I loved. As we waited, we fed her all the things she could never eat due to her working-dog status, like bacon and cheese mixed with peanut butter. Then we placed her on her blanket near the railing in the living room where Willa had spent hundreds of hours as the kids drew artwork and built puzzles. Arjun, age 7, and Emma, age 9, made the courageous decision to be there during the procedure. They gently held her paws as she lost consciousness. I thought it was important for them to see this: death coming way too soon but an inevitable part of life, and although it was important for them to be there, that day forced them to grow up a little faster.

Despite her strange little quirks—like collecting Emma’s stuffed animals, Arjun’s socks, and my underwear into a slobbery pile whenever we left her home alone for a couple hours—Willa was a loyal and faithful friend. Few can understand the independence and freedom a guide dog gives a blind person like me who travels around on planes, trains, and automobiles. Willa gave me the world. What do you even say in response to that kind of gift? After her death, I couldn’t contemplate the idea of a new guide for a while. I needed some time to pass before I could begin to look forward.

Well, after seven months, that new day has finally arrived, and I think I'm ready. My new black and tan shepherd, Uri, (named after a Russian cosmonaut, or short for Eureka, or University of Rhode Island—take your pick) arrived yesterday. Within a few hours he was already rolling over on his back, big paws fluttering in the air and tail thumping the floor. The trainer told me that as a puppy in the kennel, Uri would pick up a leaf (one of a thousand leaves in the yard) and prance around with it in his mouth as if to say to all the other dogs, “This is the special leaf. Try to get it,” while they followed behind trying to steal it away. So it seems as though Uri’s personality is as distinct as all my other three guides, the only clear similarity being their stinky breath.

I’ll write more about Uri after we survive our ten days of training together. And, I promise, I won’t send him back to Fidelco.