Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Eulogy for a Guide Dog

By: Todd Smith
She was whelped on September 30, 2004 at the San Rafael Campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. She was the third of six pups, all Black Labs. She was in the “R” litter, so she was named “Roanna”. She spent her first weeks in the GDB kennels with her siblings, being cared for lovingly by the staff and volunteers.

When the time came, she was placed on the “Puppy Truck” and sent to her raiser home in Camas Washington, and her co-raiser home in Wilsonville Oregon. There, she learned her basic obedience, was potty trained, and was prepared for her life as a working guide by being socialized in many different venues. Roanna took trips to the local stores and restaurants, went to school with her raisers, enjoyed movies at the theatre, walks in the park, and rides in the car. She even flew with her raisers to San Francisco where she rode the cable cars, walked the Golden Gate Bridge, and saw the seagulls and sea lions on the piers. Her raisers taught her well, and she had lots of fun playing with the family pets and just being a dog.

When Roanna was around 16 months old, she returned to the Boring, Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind to begin the guide task training. There she learned how to be the eyes for someone who could not see. She had to learn many things that do not come ‘natural’ to dogs, such as looking up for overhead objects, stopping at curbs and steps, and keeping her handler from running into objects that she could simply duck under. It took a long time with many different training sessions in many different venues, but she learned it all and made it through the 10 phases of training to become a real working guide. Now all she needed was to be matched to the right person.

She was matched to Candy on August 12th, 2006, and from then until August 26th, Candy and Roanna spent all their waking and sleeping hours together. They learned about each other, how to ‘read’ what the other was needing, and began the formation of themselves into a symbiotic team. On August 26th 2006, they ‘graduated’ in class number 127R at the Boring, Oregon campus. From that day forward, they were always together.

It wasn’t always easy. Newly-placed guides will sometimes ‘test’ their handlers to see what they can get away with, and Roanna was no exception. She was sometimes stubborn, strong willed, and not always ready to work. Candy was concerned that Roanna would never ‘bond’ with her, because Roanna seemed so uninterested in being with her at times. But Candy persevered and by the time the six month ‘anniversary’ of their teaming together came about, things were starting to smooth out.

 Then came the day that Roanna went blind. Roanna had an issue with demodectic mange, and Candy had taken her to the vet for treatment. The vet prescribed medication for the issue, but the dosage had been incorrectly labeled on the bottle, so Roanna had been given an excessive amount of the medication, causing a negative reaction. Candy was at a seminar entitled (of all things) “Living With Blindness”, which had been facilitated by the Oregon Commission for the Blind at Fish Lake Resort, Oregon. Right after dinner on the first night of the seminar, Candy was returning to her cabin for a short break before the first session began when Roanna refused to move forward. She just stopped dead in her tracks halfway to the cabin. Candy tried to see if there was something Roanna was alerting her to, but nothing was there. She commanded Roanna forward, but she would not move. Candy reached down to touch Roanna to try and figure out what was wrong, and noticed that Roanna was trembling and shaking uncontrollably. Roanna would not move forward at all. Candy called me to her, and I took a look at Roanna to see if I could figure out what happened. I could not see what was going on with her, so I picked Roanna up and carried her to the cabin. When I set her down, Roanna just stood where I put her, shaking and trembling. We called the emergency number for the vet, and after talking with them we were able to figure out that the incorrect dosage of medication had been given to Roanna. We left the seminar and drove home that night. When we got home, Roanna refused to go into her kennel, and this dog always loved her kennel. If she was not on tie down, she would go and kennel herself because she favored her kennel over anything else, but this night, she would not go near it. She slept on the bed that night, still shaking and trembling. The next morning, we took Roanna to the vet for an examination. The vet examined her and found that she had been rendered blind by the over dosage, however it was deemed to be a temporary condition and that Roannas vision would return to normal in a week or so after ceasing the medication. That was a long, worrisome week for Candy and me. Roanna slept on the bed, was hand fed her meals, and spent every hour close to Candy. The next week, she was taken to the vet where her vision was tested and discovered to be ‘normal’ again, and Roanna resumed her guide work. But what a difference in her personality! The stand-offish, stubborn and strong-willed guide who did not want to ‘bond’ with Candy was gone, and in her place was an affectionate, loving and attentive ‘velcro’ dog that never wanted to be away from Candy if at all possible! The world’s first blind guide dog had made a comeback. A positive corner had been turned.

That is how it was for the next years of the team. Candy went back to college and Roanna was there to guide her safely through her classes, all the way through to her AAS degree in Human Services. Vacations and fun times were had with Roanna always there to guide, even with the most mundane of tasks such as grocery shopping or visits to the dentist. Roanna was ready to go whenever the harness came out, and happily worked as long as Candy needed her to. If ever there was a "perfect" guide dog team, they were it. Along the way, we decided to ‘give back’ a little, so we became puppy raisers for GDB. We knew what it was like having a guide dog which gives a sense of safety and independence, so we wanted to try it from the other side by raising one from a pup. Roanna was all for it. She helped mentor all the pups that came in to our house, “showing them the ropes” and leading by example. From Wally, our first pup (who made it to be a guide), then Vicki, who became a K-9 Buddy, then Jerianne, who became a breed dam, then Victoria, who also became a K-9 Buddy, then Lasso, who is in training now and finally, Oprah, who is Jeriannes daughter. Roanna has helped us raise all these pups.

 Then in December of 2012, we noticed that the tip of Roannas nose was starting to turn "up". A visit to the vet in January of 2013 gave disturbing news: malignant fibrous sarcoma. No surgical option for removal, and expensive medication for treatment was no guarantee that the cancer could be slowed down. After discussing the situation with our vet and the vet techs at Guide Dogs for the Blind, it was decided to retire Roanna and keep her as comfortable as possible for the time she had left to be with us. She became a much loved pet and happily settled into her new role. The cancer grew and swelled, pushing her nose upward until it was level with the top of her snout. Roanna could still eat and drink, she adapted quickly. But we knew it was only a matter of time. The sarcoma grew, and got to the point of becoming infected and bleeding, with no relieving effect from the medications given. Soon it got so big that the blood supply could not keep pace with the growth, and tissue began to die off. Gangrene soon followed, and at our vets suggestion, we helped her cross the Rainbow Bridge on Saturday, August 17th, 2013 at 1:00 PM. She no longer hurts, and can run free and wait for us to meet her there someday, along with Mariah, who crossed in April of 2013.

Roanna was a special girl who overcame a lot in her short working life. Both Candy and I have been truly blessed to have been able to share part of our lives with her.

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