He comes to my side as I sit swinging on the porch glider. I pet his soft, curly coat and thank him for the greeting. It’s short-lived. He didn’t come to visit me. He turns his canine attention to my front door and I understand our visit is over. Calmly, he lies down on the doormat, nose to the threshold, sniffing as if something on the other side of the door is of interest.
This is Dasher, a fluffball of a Poodle/Dalmatian mix: floppy ears of the Poodle, black-and-white reminders of the Dalmatian. A creation probably never again to be duplicated in nature. But then, that’s how nature is, every leaf unique, one of a kind. At four years old, he still resembles the puppy he had been at eight months when I first met him, which will explain the pose at my front door. He appears to be waiting patiently for someone to appear. I know who it is.
Elsa, a two-year-old Golden Retriever was in training to be my service dog. We had done the required two weeks with Canine Support Teams (CST) in Temecula, Calif. She had learned all the required behaviors. She came home with me to be my service dog. But then she had to bond with me and pay attention to my needs.
My balance and gait had been affected by a neurological vestibular disorder. I staggered around dizzy for several years, waiting for medication to help or for it to just go away. Neither happened. And so it was that I decided to get a service dog with a harness to hang onto as I crossed streets and maneuvered the world independently. I didn’t ask for a Golden Retriever; the organization chooses the dog they believe will work best with you. My heart belonged to another Golden, Holly Go Lightly, who had died 13 years earlier but was forever my dog. Remarkably, the new dog came with the name I would have given her: Elsa, for the lion in Joy Adamson’s Born Free. It was meant to be. Or so I thought.
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Many believe you get a trained service dog and that’s it. They do everything you ask. Wrong. They’re not robots, they are feeling, responding, thinking beings. I worked with her every day and night to hone the skills she had learned. She had to pay attention to me, not nearby dogs or people. She could not veer to the side to inspect the grass. When she wore her harness and her vest, she was an extension of me. When I removed them, well, a whole different dog appeared, one who was playful and disobedient and not working in any sense of the words “working dog.” And she knew the difference.
Every day, I searched for a place where she could run and frolic and live up to her name. It was tricky, as dog parks were a safety problem for this valuable dog; plus, CST’s service contract forbade them. So I played ball in the house and had her run back and forth. I was her only playmate. Then I found a quiet park where it was safe to undo her vest and harness and tossed tennis balls for her to chase until she became bored. I’d notice her gazing with great interest at the occasional dog in the area, but I wasn’t ready to let her run free. We had only been home together a few weeks, and I didn’t feel the bond was secure enough to trust her. Yet she told me in many ways that she wanted a canine connection, a friend, a playmate. I thought that would not happen with a service dog. I felt her canine life was incomplete. It saddened me.
And then one evening, while out for her (unharnessed) bedtime potty walk, she met the love of her life: dashing Dasher. To say it was love at first sight would be understating their attraction. She went crazy over Dasher. Maybe because he was younger, but I think it was just his personality and great zest for having fun. There was no way to deny her his company, and I didn’t even try. At eight months old, he looked like a black-and-white stuffed dog in the toy department, one you would take home and cuddle. But he was quite real. And his good looks were only surpassed by his charm. He had us both. We were in love.
Watching them romping, rolling on the ground, chasing, wrestling, so delighted with each other brought joy to both Heidi, Dasher’s person, and me. Elsa was bigger, stronger, older, but they played like well-matched puppies. Elsa even tolerated Dasher climbing all over her—no, she enjoyed it. He was her guy.
So began their affair. Every night, Dasher called on Elsa, rather like a courtship. At 7:30, Elsa went out on the balcony and peered down through the railing, waiting for her playmate. Heidi walked Dasher around 8 and was usually right on time. As they approached the building, Dasher came to a dead stop outside the condo and looked straight up to see his girlfriend waiting on the balcony. Neither of them barked.
Elsa had been trained not to bark when dogs or strangers appeared (obviously not a guard dog). She was to remain unobtrusive in any setting. Dasher was not a barker either. Yet when he appeared, Elsa became so excited that she’d run to find me in another room. Breathless, tail wagging wildly, she’d lead me to the top of the stairs, waiting for her cue to run down the stairs. She knew she couldn’t get outside without my help. She was communicating in the best possible way: eye contact, tail wagging, mouth open excitedly.
“Okay” I would say, “let’s go see Dasher.” That was the permission she sought as she flew down the stairs and stood in the entry facing the door, knowing he was on the other side. I could hear Heidi reminding Dasher: “Wait, wait,” then “Sit.” I gave Elsa the same instructions. We wanted them calm before their reunion. It was a built-in reward system; they’d do anything to be together, even sit and wait. When we were sure they were calm, I’d say “Okay” and open the door to a mad greeting as they fell all over each other with excitement and, I like to think, love.
This was the nightly ritual. Romeo wooed Juliet, and won her over. We let them run and play. It was dark and other dogs weren’t usually out, so they chased each other around the periphery of the lake near my condo. At times, Elsa ran too far and didn’t come when I called her, which made me nervous. She was out of harness and didn’t think she had to respond to my requests. Her only interest was Dasher and play time. I think this was a release for her after being my helper all day, quiet and well behaved.
I could take her to restaurants and she would slip under the table and lie quietly until I was ready to leave. I took her to the movies once, and she lay under my seat, hidden from view, and made not a peep. She was, in fact, my perfect dog. But in the romps with Dasher, she was a maniac, and all that reserved energy was released. It unnerved me a bit when one night, she followed Dasher right into the lake. Oh no. This was a reminder to me that she in fact was a “real” dog.
The summer nights were sublime for these two puppies. And then the unthinkable happened.
In the middle of the night, I went to get out of bed and slipped off the side of the mattress, which sloped at the edges, hitting the floor and cracking a bone in my hip. Elsa was in Temecula that week having a health issue checked by CST’s vet service, which was both good and bad. I spent two dog-less weeks in the hospital and rehab, then learned that, because my recovery would take many months, Elsa wouldn’t be returned to me. In short, CST reclaimed their service dog. Not only was my hip broken, so was my heart.
Now, four years later, Dasher still stops at my house when passing and looks up at the balcony. He seems to be waiting for her to appear. If only his longing could bring her back. But then, I don’t really know what animals think about. I suspect they live in the moment. I guess my building is a trigger for his memory of his fun nights with Elsa.
I watch his patient, silent vigil at the front door, sniffing and waiting for her to appear. It always worked before. Wait calmly and she will come. Still, he seems undaunted and continues to trust that she is really there, just out of sight. That’s the way it is with memories. None of our loved ones are gone as long as we remember them. They’re just out of sight.
So I remember this love affair and my heart aches with pain and sadness and joy all at once. I feel loss, but with it, a poignant memory of happiness that cannot be denied.
I tell him silently, “I miss her too.”