As another Independence Day approaches, I fondly look back over the past six years of time together with Casper. Many people have expressed to me a desire to know what the process of retiring a service dog feels like. Honestly, it is a gradual time period of reviewing the past to come full circle to the present. It is the absolute wonder of a bond that endures endlessly past his life, and even, mine. We celebrate “Independence Day” every year on the fourth of July, but for some of us, its meaning has even more significance!
For me, July is a time where I reflect on how Casper and I have grown each year; it also is the anniversary of my marriage to my husband, Bryan. This year, we took a trip to Asheville, North Carolina to celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary. Much like the vow I made to Bryan on July third all those years ago, I made a similar promise to Casper. To love him in sickness or in health, for better or worse, and to honor him all the days of our lives. As we shared countless memories this weekend, we also realized Casper’s endurance is slowing. I have shed some tears over what is coming, but these are not tears of despair or regret, rather they are tears of joy and utter gratefulness. You see, I have had the honor of being Casper’s partner, and that is a gift I will forever cherish!
The first day of our trip, we drove into the mountains to have lunch. We were eating and the manager of the restaurant stopped at our table, and commented, “Your service dog is the best behaved we have ever had here.” That is a testament to all of the training Jen, Sheri, the PAALS staff, Kershaw Correctional Institute, and Fosters instilled in him. As we were stopped countless times for requests for pictures with Casper and questions about him by other visitors/patrons, I was reminded just how independence truly comes about. It starts with an individual or a parent wanting their child to accomplish tasks their peers without disabilities do. Once you are matched, your life truly changes….your life is not solely your own anymore. Not only are you responsible for another life, but you become more recognized in the community. For some, that is a big adjustment, and the unsung heroes are the families, friends, and significant others in the lives of the clients. My husband, like many of the PAALS Service Dog Clients’ Families and Friends take a back seat as people talk with you about your dog, even on special occasions, and never once has he or countless others complained. That is a gift they give each of us clients, the ability to be independent, and put our needs above their own. Bryan often says, “When you love someone, you love all of them, and Casper is a part of you, so he is a part of me.”
On the second day of the trip, Casper showed me how his skills have truly impacted me. We had requested an accessible hotel room and bathroom. Unfortunately, that is not what we got. Casper jumped in to be my grab bar, my stylist, and my personal assistant. He did the tasks that allowed me to enjoy my trip. Casper does many things few people know about. I fell three months ago in my bathroom; I was home alone and stuck between the toilet and the bathtub. I couldn’t get up, nor use a “HELP” cue. He jumped in the bathtub and pushed my body up with his head, so I was balanced precariously on the toilet. Giant Casper then crawled under me through a tiny space to get to the phone. He then, put his body against mine, so I could balance to call Bryan. He never left my side until Bryan got home. His innate understanding of my needs truly enhances my independence! Independence has different meanings; look at the clients to see just that…Daisy who assists her College Student Partner in getting through USC Semesters, Sammie who assists her high school partner getting around campus and graduating, R.C. who assists her decorated soldier partner in participating in community life, Joyce who assists her elementary school partner in acclimating to everyday activities, Dapper who assists his partner to fly and travel again, Fred who assists his partner in walking and being active again, Roberta who helps elementary school students to grow and engage, and Casper’s brother, A.J., who helps patients at a local hospital receive OT and get healthy again. These are but a few service dogs who enrich lives everyday just like Casper does mine. They are his friends and comrades, and each provides FREEDOM to their human partners and people they serve in the community.
FREEDOM is a word with large impact, and the result of independence! As the trip progressed, it was apparent to us that Casper could not do long days. Last week, I had to leave him home one day while I went to work, as I had a busy day scheduled in the heat. Bryan came home twice to spend time with Casper. While hard for me, it is a promise I made to him when entrusted by Jen and PAALS, Guiding Eyes, and even Casper’s canine mom, Reba to be his partner. So during the trip, we also went back to the hotel and periodically, let Casper rest. Caring for him is part of giving him independence, and that has come in small gestures as well. He now lays his head on Bryan’s lap, and gravitates toward him more. He has been my dog for so long, but in helping him to transition and be more independent while thanking him in return for my freedom, I am letting go slowly and letting him bond with Bryan. He needs to know we will always have a special relationship and strong bond. Bryan loves him, and can have a lasting bond with him, too, as we will be bringing another service dog into our home in the future.
Tomorrow, while we’re enjoying cookouts and fireworks, remember those that gave us our independence, and thereby, our freedoms. For me, that will be members of the armed forces, and the amazing service dogs who have graced my life, and those that I know. Happy Independence Day, Let Freedom Ring!