I have been a planner all of my life, but there is one lesson that I am finally learning: “life happens” and not necessarily according to your plan. The past six years have presented one surprise after another, usually unwelcome and ill-timed. It began with the sudden loss of my husband and my mother, followed by open-heart surgery and a move across the country that was disastrous. Nothing like bad outcomes and decisions to shake your self-confidence and focus. I headed back to California: my home. I needed stability and a safe place, so I returned to Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue where I was a long-time volunteer. My other constant was my nine-year-old Golden, Bacchus, who has been my confidant, navigator, and best friend through so much. He was always up for an adventure as a lover of people, dogs, and food; not necessarily in that order!
To help fill the void, Bacchus and I started to work with Lend-A-Heart, a pet assisted therapy group in Sacramento where we found kindred souls who wanted to share their dogs and love with others. Volunteering at Homeward Bound, I found myself drawn to certain dogs who needed me. One was a sweet two-year-old Golden named Luke. A goofy boy, he needed lots of training but loved people and attention. With a congenital heart problem, he was less likely to be adopted. It is a condition that can lead to early and sudden death and for which there is no medication or surgery to repair at this time. Weeks went by and handsome Luke’s life without a family weighed on me. If I adopted Luke, could I handle another loss? If I didn’t adopt Luke, and he died without a family, could I handle that? Ultimately, I decided that I was strong enough, knowing I had Bacchus to help me through it when the time came.
And so Luke came to live with Bacchus and me in August 2014. He was unsure of everything and everyone. Leash-walking was a test of strength and dog encounters were perilous while vacuuming caused him to run for cover. Slowly Luke gained confidence from Bacchus’ example. His big brother showed him how to sit quietly in front of me when another dog or person approached so both could earn a treat. It may not have been great for their waistlines, but it kept peace in the neighborhood. Luke loved being with Bacchus.
Several months ago, Bacchus developed stomach issues. Tests were inconclusive until I had to rush him to emergency several days later. There they were finally able to determine the source of his problem: Bacchus had a large tumor in his heart. The tumor, which was on the verge of rupturing, would put him into convulsions and immediate death. Sadly, I had to make the terrible and heart-wrenching decision to let my special boy go. My faithful friend who had lent such comfort to me and others as a therapy dog was not supposed to die at only nine-years-old. Life had happened again, and not according to plan.
My heart hurt; I was crushed by the loss. Luke was equally sad and lost without his buddy and big brother. My friends from Homeward Bound and Lend-A-Heart were amazing. They saw and felt my pain and understood that I needed a positive focus in my life. They suggested that Luke be evaluated as a therapy dog. Although I knew Luke was sweet, I doubted that he was up to the task. Rose, a friend whose husband -“Uncle Matty” is a professional dog trainer, asked him to evaluate Luke’s potential as a therapy dog. Matty and Rose thought Luke had the right stuff.
To believe that Luke could fill this role and return me to the group and clients I had come to know, and love with Bacchus was exhilarating. On the other hand, the reality of getting Luke ready for the evaluation was sobering. We had just ten weeks. Beyond the basic commands, Luke needed to navigate a variety of locations including schools, nursing homes, hospitals and more. He would be required to visit fragile and compromised people without jumping, pushing or shying away. My once-skittish boy would need to deal with wheelchairs, canes and walkers without fear – while dealing with loud and unexpected noises, strange smells and sights. It as a tall order for any dog, but especially so for a young, inexperienced dog who was suddenly without his brother mentor.
Everyone pitched in. We practiced in busy public places and on frequent outings. Our friends from Lend-A-Heart and Homeward Bound met Luke and me for lunch at outdoor cafes and parks and cheered me on with pep talks and training stories of their own. Luke was stepping up to the training and learning with amazing speed. He enjoyed the attention – and the treats! While I knew that the evaluators were pulling for him, he would get no special treatment. He needed to earn this based on clear standards.
Luke’s evaluation came almost exactly one year after I adopted him. We had an early appointment, and I was determined to keep my nervousness in check. Easier said than done! Luke was picking up on my jitters. My friend Ralph checked us in. He kept me talking to and calming Luke until we were called for the evaluation. Just before we entered, a hint of calmness appeared. Thank God! The forty-minute evaluation was a blur. Luke was doing well. Although not perfect; he showed no signs of fear, distress (I had enough for both of us), or aggression. He appeared to gain confidence with each exercise. When we completed our final exercise, I breathed a sigh of relief. We left the room to await the verdict. It seemed like eternity until, finally…”Congratulations!” We passed! Luke and I were now a Lend-A- Heart therapy team. He also earned the privilege of being an official greeter at an upcoming Homeward Bound event, taking Bacchus’ place. I think that Bacchus’ spirit was with us that day. I am so proud of my boy representing Homeward Bound and Lend-A-Heart – not only as a rescue dog – but a rescuer for people in need.
Luke continues to amaze me. We visit schools, nursing homes, and mental health facilities; we attend special events, and Luke is now a Boarding Area Relaxation Corp (BARC) member at the Sacramento Airport. He deals with the baggage claim carousels, elevators, trams, and security checkpoints while handling all of the sounds, smells, and crowds that an airport terminal presents. Last month, we were at the Red Cross Evacuation Center in Jackson, CA bringing comfort to those displaced by the devastating Butte Fire.
Luke has stepped up and taken in stride any and all situations that I have presented to him. What a dog! What a change in the inexperienced and scared dog I brought home a year ago. I am so grateful that we found each other through Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue. Luke rescued me as much as I rescued him.
I haven’t forgotten Luke’s health challenges. We still have that to face together. We have an upcoming appointment with the Cardiology Department at U.C. Davis Veterinary. There are some new and promising results from surgeries performed on dogs with Luke’s condition. I am hopeful that he can benefit from the procedure, but I am finally learning the lesson he, Bacchus, and life have taught me: I am not planning. I am cherishing the present while praying for the future. ~ Carolyn Unger