It has been a year since the puppy, Slider, I raised graduated from service dog training at K9s For Warriors. Last December, I wrote an essay to express the emotions I experienced during Slider's graduation. This piece has not been published - until now. I've heard Slider and his warrior are doing well, which brings me so much joy. If you are reading this and live within 50 miles of Camp K9, please consider becoming a puppy raiser. It is not easy... but nothing worthwhile is.
“I don’t want to say goodbye,” he said with a trembling tone in his voice. We knew this day would come, and although it was a beautiful experience, it didn't make it any easier. “Mason, we can do this,” I said to my nine-year-old son. “No,” he said. “I can’t… I'm too sad!” He reached for my hand and with a sharp jolt, pulled me back, trying intently to avoid the scene we were striding to - service dog graduation. I stopped in my tracks and took Mason in my arms; then, from one of his sparkling, blue eyes escaped a large, iridescent teardrop. My heart skipped a beat, and I began to reflect on every moment we shared with Slider, our temporary, furry family member.
Many months ago, I told Mason about a rare volunteer opportunity, time we could donate together for something truly beautiful. He honestly didn’t seem too interested until I said the word puppy! Suddenly, he jumped up with unsurmountable energy. “I’d love to get a puppy,” he said. I explained that there was a catch: the puppy wouldn’t live with us for long. Temporarily, we would care for a puppy destined to become a service dog. I emphasized that we would be giving the dog back to K9s For Warriors (also my place of employment). The objective of this experience would be to help a veteran battling the invisible wounds of war heal. Our foster puppy would save this veteran’s life, helping the disabled hero reintegrate back into civilian society. Mason’s interest grew. I communicated that getting attached to the dog would be imminent, and giving him up would be agonizing. However, there was something bigger than ourselves here… a concept so pure and simple - helping others gives us a purpose and enhances our lives.
I asked, “Can you take care of this dog for a little bit, then give him to someone else to keep?” Mason replied, “I know I can.” Within a week, we took Slider - a surrendered, seven-month-old black lab – into our home. Mason bonded with the spirited retriever quickly. The next five months were a kaleidoscope of sentiment. Each moment, a different color emotion cascading into the next. The times we brought him into public were riveting. We’d slip on his red training vest, so he could accompany us to grocery stores, school activities, restaurants, and community events. Each day was a new adventure and learning experience. Our times at home with Slider were our favorite, though. In the evening, we had a routine enriched with love, laughter, and amusement. Mason and Slider would playfully chase one another until they were worn out. The night would conclude with Slider sleeping in Mason’s room, on the floor next to his bed. I would often awake to find Slider on the bed, cuddled up to Mason. It was a sight for sore eyes and a remedy for a broken heart.
I pulled myself back into the present moment - graduation day - reminding myself that my child was still visibly distraught. “Slider is a service dog now, and you helped make that happen.” He loosened his grip on me and said, “I know… let’s go. I want to see him one last time.” We walked down a long path leading to the graduation ceremony. Slider was at the side of his warrior, Navy veteran Jason. Suddenly, a smile appeared on Mason’s face. His tears dried up, and his anguish melted away. The lesson made sense to him now. After the ceremony, Mason respectfully asked Jason if he could say goodbye to Slider. "Please do," the veteran said. Mason wrapped his arms snuggly around the newly certified service dog, and for a moment the world stood still. “Thank you, Slider, for teaching me how to put others before myself. I will never forget you,” he said. The intense Florida sun surrendered to the somber night sky. Slider looked up at his new owner with affection and purpose. Jason returned the meaningful gaze to Slider. Mission complete!