The dog who needed a new life and a new home.
It was June 2006. Heather, my golden retriever, was in her golden years. At 16, Heather wasn’t getting around all that well anymore. But I was determined and I walked her twice a day, even if it was only to the mailbox or the corner.
About that time, my husband interviewed the people at Guild Dogs about their adoption program for ‘career change’ guide dogs. I already knew about it. I’d heard that it was a long process to get a puppy and could take years. I’m not a naturally patient person.
This time was different. Heather was aging. She was approaching her 17th birthday and her back leg just wasn’t working like it used to. When Michael got the adoption application, we filled it out, figuring, if it took years, that would be ok.
We got a call the next week. After an extensive phone conversation and interview, they made an appointment to check out our house and yard. We passed inspection and we went out to meet Jilly.
I’ve never had a lab but I’ve always had a soft spot for the yellow ones. When we walked in the door, there she was, a sweet, brown eyed yellow lab with a little black nose. We took her for a walk around the grounds and she did really well. I was impressed with her training. After all, she was raised in the Guide Dog training program. But, she was being ‘career changed’ for a reason.
I soon found out that she had a few issues. She liked to play ‘keep away’ which means that she’d fetch the ball but refuse to bring it back. She didn’t come when you called her and again, if you tried to ‘catch her’ she’d play keep away with you, too.
One night, we opened the front door to let a friend in and she bolted out the door. Gone. We searched for hours. Then we went home and sure enough, bouncing happily down the street came Jilly. She found her way home because it was, after all, dinner time. Labs never miss dinner time. It’s happened a few more times since then including a romp in the park when her collar broke.
Now, it’s 2008 and Jilly’s been part of our lives for 2 ½ years. And I’ve been working with her everyday on her issues.
Now she walks over grates without stopping or pulling me off my feet. If a van door slams, she might twitch but she stays heeling at my side. When the front door opens, she goes to her bed and stays. She loves to play ball and now will drop it at my feet, waiting for me to throw it again. But she’s not perfect.
‘Come’ is a dirty word to her. She will not respond to it at all. So, she and I have learned to play a new game called hide and seek. I hide and call out to her, “Jilly, where am I?” She loves to ‘find’ me. She also comes to me when I whistle three times. We’ve been working on off-leash with a ‘follow me’ command. I hold treats in my left hand and tell her to follow me. She does.
I thought that we’d finally done it. I thought that Jilly had gotten over her fears and found a home at last.
The other day, we’d just come back from a lovely, snowy walk in the park; I stomped on the concrete floor to clear the snow from my shoes and off she went. She ran down the driveway and around the corner so fast, I didn’t have a chance of catching her.
So I didn’t. I was so mad. All those months and years of training and she took off just like that. I felt betrayed. I told my husband to forget it. She could just go. I was done trying. I was done training. I guess maybe she was, too. I didn’t know what else I could do.
So I went inside and changed out of my wet clothes, ready to call it over. I’ve always wondered in my heart if Jilly really wanted to be part of our family, or if we were just another place to be ‘trained’. When we went to take her home that first day, she wouldn’t jump into the back of our car. I had to pick her up and put her in. I didn’t know if we’d bonded, even after all this time. And I didn’t know what else I could do to create a bond, then I realized that I was looking for the wrong dog. I was looking for Heather. Two years after Heather’s death, I was still bonded to her. And maybe I always will be and Jilly knew it.
In my closet, socks half off, I started to cry. Yes, I still missed Heather. But, I wanted my Jilly back. I wanted her here, safe and warm with her sweet, yellow head resting on my feet. I even wanted those begging eyes and drooling muzzle next to me at the dinner table. I put my socks back on. I marched downstairs, grabbed my coat, hat, and gloves. My husband grabbed the car keys.
Once I got in the car, I seemed to know where she’d gone. I told my husband to turn left, then right. I could see her in my mind’s eye, she was at the bottom of the hill playing with other dogs. Suddenly, I yelled, “Stop.”
Yes, there she was at the bottom of the hill playing in the snow. I jumped out of the car, ran over to where a woman was standing and told her not to let Jilly go. The woman assured me she wouldn’t and they were trying to figure out where Jilly lived when we pulled up. A man in a house across the street appeared cheering when he saw us. Apparently, he’d tried to catch Jilly and she ran away from him, too. The woman holding Jilly, said she’d been having a great time playing with their dogs in the snow. Rolling and tumbling and snuffling in the soft white drifts.
I grabbed Jilly’s collar and looked down to find her gazing up into my eyes. In those wonderful soft brown eyes, I saw a mixture of recognition, relief and apology. My husband came over with the lease and led her to the car. This time, she didn’t hesitate, she jumped right in. She knew right where she belonged.
I apologized to the people. I tried to explain, it was the sound that had triggered her to bolt. I told them she was a career change dog and I was working with her training everyday. They reassured me, it was ok. They were just glad she was home.
And, so was I. I found Jilly this time. I knew right where she was, because she’s right where she’ll always be, in my heart.