The First Changing of the Guard: Dealing with Successor Blues

When I adopted Chimette from the rescue group, I really had no idea whatsoever how much my life was going to change over the next decade. It was going to change, in part, because this awesome tri-color Border Collie Shepherd cross was going to walk me through progression of disability in a way that no person ever would have been able to do. Through Chimette, I was able to come to terms with those things about me, my limitations, that had felt so out of my control before. As I learned through him the pluses and minuses of training strategies, we were developing a bond and trust with each other that would assure our team could conquer whatever came before us. Though I never imagined in my wildest nightmares, the journey he would take me on through vaccinosis, epilepsy, and more- his teachings would change my entire being and beliefs of so much more than life with disability. That all said, here it is to focus on how one lives through the loss of a service dog when living with multiple and profound disabilities.
The evening I rolled away from the adoption center with Chimette on my lap, I had absolutely no idea how big a role he would play in my independence over the years ahead. When I adopted him, it was for a hearing dog. What I got from him was quite literally, to use a cliché, icing on the cake. Met became not only my awesome hearing alert dog, but as my disabilities progressed he took on the roles of guide, service, and medical alert dog as well. This did not all take place overnight but little by little over the years- one more skill, a closer bond, a partnership that moved out of the stage of green and into the seasoned reliance upon a dog that at one point in time, was found in a dumpster- thrown away like garbage. He truly was a treasure that even I had no idea the depths to which he changed my life and gave me freedom from the limitations my disabilities presented me with, until the day he was not there to do that.
When that day arrived, the one all teams dread, the day that I no longer could turn the tide for Met, my world literally was at a standstill. Our partnership became severed and I was left with the vastness of the realization of how much I truly had relied upon him for so many years. The anguish within my soul made the loss of function due to his passing that much more vivid and frightening to me. Aside from the mental anguish, I was left with the realization that it would be years before I felt the independent freedom, I had unknowingly taken forgranted for so long through Met.  

When one loses a service dog, especially their first service dog who has worked for a decade at their side, moving forward with another partnership- another dog is such a personal decision. Timing is everything and patience is a virtue that many easily lose sight of. Though I have not a doubt in my mind, that Thane was meant to be by my side today, the journey we took to get me from that anguish filled soul living through the loss of Met, to where we are today could have played out better when I look back on it all in hindsight. The real fundamental key in such a position is, how does one let go of what they were with their previous dog, and focus on the training of this new dog- realizing that they are an individual separate of the dog that came before them; that they are unique in their own character and style. I can tell you from my experience that I totally flunked *Successor 101*.
Losing a service dog like Chimette was, all those feelings and the way one worked and flowed in unison; in sync with each other to the point that it felt like telepathy- this does not just disappear because a new dog is on the horizon. For those like myself who owner train their service dogs, our loss is compounded by the differences we see before us. This is very much a love hate relationship for months. One loves that this animal is here to heal their broken heart and yet they hate that this dog is here instead of their service dog. They love that new challenges await and yet they have forgotten how much they really had to go through before the previous dog was the dog they so keenly remember in their mind. If one is lucky, this transitory period is remembered with more happy times then frustrations, heartbreaking moments, pity, anger, and the like. In most cases though, it takes a sheer grit, constant work on focus and intense determination for one to move past the previous dog along with who and what they were to allow this present dog to show their own character, style, and eventually skill for the tasks at hand.

There comes a point in this new journey where you just have this feeling you have arrived. You realize that all the heartache, struggles, and attempts to mold this new dog into a replica of the past were all for naught. When you finally relaxed and allowed this dog to blossom under your guidance and teachings, this new dog began a journey with you- to teach you about life, independence, and pursuing happiness once more. Life can be and is beautiful again, but that does not mean that every once in a while, something said, a scent of the past, a passing thought or anniversary approaching won't bring all of this back to you in an unexpected rush. It is through these moments of sudden remembrance, that the gifts bestowed on you through both the past and the present collide in a manner in which the lessons and journeys of the past blend into the lessons and journeys of the present and of the life yet to come.

© 2007 - 2013
by Karyn LaGrange