On my knees in front of the file cabinet in my Indiana dining room, I was busy packing dozens of human-animal bond research articles into a box. I always knew I’d homeschool my children, and it was time to start focusing more on their education. I didn’t see a way I could pursue my own career and simultaneously give them my best. I’d already given up my career as the first animal behavior technologist at Purdue University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, in order to accept the mantle of motherhood. I figured this was the next step, letting go of my passion for studying the bond between people and their working dogs. Getting the literature review articles into a box to ship to a childless friend who was an active researcher was my way of setting aside my own pursuits so I could be a better mother.
I was tearful – I’d set my heart on working in the human-animal bond field some years prior, having conducted a pilot study on the attachment of women to their dogs as a psychology undergrad at the University of Montana. I was fascinated by the working relationships I’d observed, growing up with my dad, a K9 police officer and my mom, a volunteer regional search and rescue dog trainer. I’d already had a dog training business for several years in another state, had raised five puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind as a youth and had competed in obedience with my own dogs. I had trained dogs and coached pet owners in a variety of disciplines, including as therapy dogs, as hearing dogs and for mobility work. Dogs had always been a huge part of my life and happiness. Yet, I firmly believed I was to set them aside for this season, to focus on teaching my kids. I was shipping off my research and giving away my dog training library. I was willing to do it, but genuinely heartbroken.
“Dear God,” I prayed, “I am following this clear call to focus on the boys, to be here for them and to ensure they have the best possible start. They are my biggest blessing and I want to give them the best of everything. Thank You for the opportunity to stay home with them.” And then, I asked for the desire of my heart, something I didn’t really need, but simply wanted. “God, if it’s not too much trouble, could I someday have a male golden retriever? Thank you for hearing my prayer.” I wiped my eyes and figured it was a request that might get answered a decade or two down the road. I taped the box shut, got up from the floor and fixed my sons their lunch.
About two weeks later, my dad’s wife called me to inquire for a friend of a friend who had a disabled son. Would I be interested in obtaining and training a service dog for them? My heart lept. Maybe, yes! I thought about it and I figured this was something I could do in the margins, between laundry, shopping, school planning, reading aloud and nature walks. I could just bring the pup along with me and train along the way. I scheduled a conversation with the client.
“We’d like either a Lab or a golden retriever. It needs to be big enough to pull our son in his wheelchair,” they said. We worked out the specifics. I told them I’d start looking for a dog and be in touch.
I put down the phone and went to the computer. I was already familiar with the local golden retriever rescue group, which had a nice website for their dogs. They also had a community service page – where pet owners could try to place their own dogs, skipping the need of bringing them into the rescue organization. On that page, I found a dog named Jimmybaby. His profile read well. He was an adolescent purebred golden retriever and sounded like a nice dog. I called the phone number.
The woman who answered the phone, Lynn (name changed) was surprised. “I put that ad up less than an hour ago,” she laughed. “Well, maybe it’s meant to be,” I replied. “Tell me about Jimmybaby.”
“He’s just too much dog for us,” she said. “He’s 11 months old now. We’ve had him since he was 4 months old. He was previously owned by a little old woman. He’s just a lot of dog. He’s really friendly but sometimes he drags my son around by the sleeve.” “How old is your son?” I asked. “He’s eight… We just don’t have time to train him.”
“I understand; I’d like to meet him,” I answered. I explained the reason for my search and Lynn was thrilled that Jimmybaby might have a noble calling, to help a young man live more independently. I hung up the phone after setting a time the next day for a visit.
I pressed the doorbell and heard a loud, “GARROOOFF!” and the sound of a large beast sliding across a tile floor and slamming into the wooden door. “Just a second,” said a small female voice, presumably Lynn, “Let me get ahold of him.” After a pause, the door opened.
Jimmybaby was standing on his back legs, mouth wide open, tongue lolling, eyes dancing and body wriggling all over in enthusiasm. “A VISITOR!” his body language screamed. Lynn, barely taller than Jimmybaby standing erect, was having difficulty restraining him with two hands. “Let him go,” I said, “I want to see what he’ll do.” She hesitated, “Are you sure?” I nodded and she released her grasp.
The gregarious beast dropped to all fours long enough to launch back up onto me, grabbed my sleeve in his mouth and proceeded to drag me into the family room. “Let’s DO SOMETHING!” he seemed to say.
For the next hour, I ran Jimmybaby through a battery of simple exercises in order to test his personality and working drive. He flew through my tests with ease. He liked all the food. He didn’t mind body handling. The umbrella popping open from around a parked car didn’t phase him. He wasn’t a stellar retriever, but the client didn’t need that particular task and I figured he was certainly big enough to pull a wheelchair. He was extremely enthusiastic to learn and I taught him to sit and lie down on cue in just a few minutes.
I noted the electric collar on his neck and asked what it was for. “We don’t even have to push it any more,” Lynn explained. “Just beep it and he stops doing whatever he’s doing.” I asked about other training, and she told me that they just didn’t have the necessary time, and they had grown tired of living with this too-much dog. I grinned. I saw only his potential.
I wasn’t sure if the dog could be dialed-down enough to be handled by a teenaged boy, but I thought he was definitely worth a try. I asked Lynn if she’d be willing to let me work with him awhile, and get his medical clearances and go from there. She agreed. I called my client to let them know I’d found a prospect. They were thrilled. I brought Jimmybaby home the next day.
The first order of business was to get that mouth under control, I thought. If he could drag me around, what would happen to my boys who were five and two years old!? This dog might be for a client, but he had to live in our home. I needed to ensure my family’s safety. I fitted a head halter on the dog and taught him how to relax with it on. I started him with positive reinforcement, lure-based training, and tried to open his mind to clicker training – the electric collar experience had done a good job of shutting down his creative brain – and ordered a “service dog in training” vest online so we could take him along when we did field trips.
I wrote daily emails to the client, updating them on Jimmybaby’s progress, though they had yet to send their deposit. I stayed in touch with Lynn too. She was overjoyed, and proud that her Jimmybaby was being trained to help someone.
About a month later, I got a surprise phone call from the client. “We’ve decided we don’t want a golden retriever,” they stated. “What?” I said, thinking I’d misheard. “They shed too much and my friend said we really should get a Labrador.” “Oh. I see. Well, since that’s the case, and you still haven’t sent me the agreed-upon deposit, what I think you really need is a new trainer,” I said, “Good luck.”
By this time, I’d fallen hard for Jimmybaby, but not the name. We renamed him Sancho Panza, after the dedicated companion of Don Quixote. I’m not sure what that said about me – but I certainly felt a little nuts, thinking I’d taken on a huge task and fooling myself that this dog would ever be calm enough to be a service dog, anyway. He was, indeed, a lot of dog. I wanted to keep him.
I called Lynn and let her know that the client had backed out. I told her that I’d fallen in love with the big golden and I thought he’d be a good therapy dog, if I continued his training. “Oh, please keep him,” she said. “He’s obviously in good hands with you.”
And suddenly, just like that, God answered my prayer. My hands ran down his shiny buttercream coat and I marveled at the gift. Sancho looked at me and grinned, as if he’d known all along he was my dog.
Within six months, Sancho became a registered therapy dog with the Pet Partners program. He and I earned the designation of “complex environment,” meaning I could take him into any type of facility and work with any population. He was a rockstar. “You guys are the best team I’ve tested all day,” said the therapy dog evaluator. I was tickled. We’d done a lot of work to get to that point and our story was just beginning.
I have many, many Sancho stories. I could fill a book. For now, I’ll say that God didn’t just give me a male golden retriever that day. Rather, He used Sancho to nudge me back into working with dogs, coaching others, teaching classes, starting a second dog training business, creating curriculum and more. I wasn’t done, by a long shot, the day I packed up my canine career. Instead, the simple answer to prayer I received blew open my world and I learned that ,in the margins of my life, in the nooks and crannies around my main goal of homeschooling the boys, within those spaces was tremendous opportunity. I learned that I had enough time to pursue my passion while being a mom. I learned that I could model personal and professional development to my children. And I learned that God can take a simple request and fill my cup to overflowing.
How about you? Is there something you’ve been wanting to do but you feel like you don’t have enough time? What if, instead of thinking “all-or-nothing” as I’d been guilty of doing, you thought, “What CAN I do, within the small spaces of opportunity I have?” Who knows where it might lead you?
Drop me a comment, below, and let me know your story! Meanwhile, here’s a picture of Sancho and me, the day we passed our Pet Partners evaluation.