From Partners With Paws: Service Dogs and the Lives They Change.
Monte and Me
A while back Monte and I were climbing a ramp in front of a school when I noticed a woman watching us from a distance. As we reached the top, she called, “You’ve got a mighty handsome companion there!”
In a futile effort to salvage my fragile self-concept, I shouted back, “Are you talking to me or the dog?” She laughed and waved before walking across the parking lot and up the stairs. We chuckled together and exchanged dog stories while my charming sidekick accepted affectionate scratches and licked her hand in return. As she left, she assured me that I was every bit as handsome as Monte. For some odd reason, I found her comparison comforting.
Something’s wrong when being as attractive as a Labrador Retriever actually improves your self-image, but that’s just one of many revelations I’ve encountered in my adventure with a service dog.
I thought that Monte would do stuff for me, sort of like a four-legged servant who would anticipate my needs and fulfill my every desire. I imagined a combination butler/maid with a cold nose. Instead I got a floor littered with plush toys and a constantly wagging tail threatening anything in its path. I got a tireless retriever who returns a tennis ball until it’s too slobbery to hold. I got a devoted partner who always greets me enthusiastically, never gets angry, instantly forgives my impatience and eagerly performs nearly any task in return for a pat on the head and an occasional crunchy biscuit.
I anticipated a furry, dedicated attendant, always on call, no sick days and no appointment necessary. Monte fulfills those expectations with a comical twist. He may appear sound asleep, but the moment I drop something his head snaps upright. He’s instantly prepared to retrieve: after he stretches and shakes his head, he pounces as though the lost item must be subdued before he can safely return it.
As he transforms the frustration of an unreachable object into an entertaining pursuit, Monte reminds me that most everyday calamities aren’t the disasters I often perceive. I expected a service dog. I received a constant reminder that life can be calm and peaceful, as long as nobody utters the word “Frisbee.”
I wasn’t certain what to expect from a service dog. I’ve always loved and had dogs in my life, but after my injury I had been reluctant to accept the responsibility of training and caring for a pet. However, after reading about these amazing animals and meeting a couple of them, I could see how they enriched the lives of their partners. My wife loves dogs as well and thought a service dog was a great idea.
But I was still reluctant. As I shared my concerns, the staff at Canine Partners of the Rockies told me about this incredible yellow Lab named Monte and how he was perfectly suited to my situation. After some thinking, I decided to commit to a partnership.
I tried to prepare for Monte’s arrival, but I still felt apprehensive as the big day approached. When he appeared at our door, it was clear that he didn’t know what to expect either. He spent a couple of hours hiding in a corner, trying to figure out this strange environment and new people.
Then a simple, magical moment changed everything. A tennis ball appeared. Monte forgot that he was unsure about this new place. I forgot that I was unsure about caring for a dog. He bounded happily after the ball, brought it back, and dropped it in my lap.
I wasn’t a guy in a wheelchair; he wasn’t a timid, uncertain stranger. We were just there, together, having fun. We were partners.
The presence of a wheelchair in public settings frequently creates invisible interpersonal barriers. Others hide their discomfort as they shuffle apologetically aside and try not to stare, while their uncertainties circle in uneasy silence. Children are quickly shushed when they point and ask innocent questions. I’m embarrassed, smiling as though nothing’s wrong while I seek the quickest possible escape. But all of that awkward silliness disappears when Monte’s around.
Dogs forge instant relationships, and service dogs seem to amplify that effect because they appear in unexpected places. Even when I’m feeling self-conscious and wishing I could be a bit less noticeable, complete strangers become Monte’s instant pals, and I’m an automatic member of his social network.
People at the next table in a restaurant become immediate friends. We learn all about their dogs and their kids’ dogs. We listen to fond recollections and bittersweet remembrances of faithful, beloved companions. We laugh as our new comrades imagine the potential chaos if their own lovable but unruly dog were to enter an environment full of strangers and food.
Monte loves carrots. At one of our favorite hangouts, we scarcely reach our table before he is welcomed warmly with a doggy veggie plate. If the server is new, one of the veterans introduces her to Monte. Usually they greet my wife and me as well, but he’s the obvious guest of honor. Other diners giggle at the impromptu entertainment as I violate service dog protocol by tossing an occasional carrot to the star of the show.
Monte’s quiet demeanor in crowded situations always generates admiring comments. Even non-dog-lovers smile and note his remarkable behavior. Whenever we’re together, something in his calm, friendly manner draws people to us. My wife and I frequently chuckle when someone greets Monte, tells him how beautiful he is, and then as an afterthought, speaks to us. We’re clearly just part of his entourage.
I often struggle in the rushed, barren atmosphere of a hotel lobby. Business travelers are on a mission, families are frazzled, and children are restless. A wheelchair signifies an unwelcome complication involving special room arrangements and accommodations that slow the process and require extra effort. It’s easy to feel like I’m in the way, to imagine that people are silently thinking that things would be simpler if I hadn’t appeared. But something about Monte’s presence seems to encourage folks to unwind and slow down a little.
One especially harried check-in clerk at an upscale resort apologetically advised me that I’d have to sign a damage waiver to allow Monte in the hotel. She laughed and relaxed when I assured her that I posed a much greater risk of unacceptable behavior than Monte. In a short time the clerk, the manager, and a couple of weary guests were chatting, smiling, and admiring Monte (and his owner, of course). Each time I saw those folks during the next few days, I felt a bit like I was encountering old friends.
Anywhere we go together, Monte elicits excited grins from kids and warm smiles from adults. Despite his “working dog” label, people are drawn to him. Most folks ask permission to pet him, but many simply cannot resist. The most reserved individuals become puddles of mush, scratching his head as they share the life stories of their own dogs.
There’s something magical about a being that triggers giggles just by showing up.
Monte even impacts the normally reserved atmosphere in church. He usually lies quietly at my feet, garnering jealous glances from those who wish they were sleeping so soundly. A few weeks ago a guest musician was performing, and the service halted when she saw Monte. She stopped singing, ran down from the stage, and knelt on the floor to rub his tummy. Laughter filled the auditorium as he rolled onto his back with legs pointing straight into the air in the immodest pose we refer to as “The Full Monte.”
I love to ride my hand cycle, but cranking with Monte in tow redefines the experience. I might find a familiar path repetitive and unremarkable, but my counterpart renders such terms meaningless. Every corner reveals a new world to explore. Every fellow traveler offers fresh opportunities for interaction and admiration.
My workout partner eagerly anticipates each ride, and it’s impossible not to share the joy as his ears flap in the wind and his tongue lolls playfully. When I ride alone, I too frequently focus on a destination. Monte doesn’t care where we’re going, but he loves the experience of getting there. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he smiles as he romps along beside me.
I think Monte brings a sense of life and connection to an increasingly isolated, sterile culture. In a strange paradox, he seems to make things a bit more human for folks who are too frequently immersed in their own world of iPods and cell phones. He’s certainly a catalyst for interaction, breaking down walls of isolation for an owner who’s too frequently preoccupied with disability.
Monte invites people to relax, slow down, and forget their objective for a moment. He’s totally here and now, and his presence appears to promote a quieter, calmer atmosphere.
The effect is especially evident when he’s at school with me. I teach junior high math, which, for some reason, isn’t every kid’s favorite subject. No matter what I do to create a relaxed classroom environment, there’s often a good deal of stress in the air. Monte seems to calm things down for many students.
Some kids just gravitate to him. They always greet him, pet him, and some just get on the floor and hug him. During a test, if I sense that kids are unusually anxious, I simply move around the room with Monte. His simple, calm aura, along with an occasional lick on the face, seems to help them relax and concentrate.
Before Monte arrived, I feared that a service dog’s constant presence might create disruptions and distractions. I was right.
Monte disrupts my efforts to hide. Life in a wheelchair tempts me to withdraw or try to blend in with the scenery, but I quickly discovered that blending was no longer part of the script. There’s no such thing as “inconspicuous” in the company of an 80-pound people magnet.
He distracts me from my tendencies to lose perspective and to forget to enjoy the blessings that surround me. His jovial eyes and constantly sniffing nose lovingly mock my incessant need to accomplish the task at hand. Life becomes a bit less serious when you always have to keep a doggy treat handy.
Monte transforms the simplest excursion into an adventure and eliminates the notion of a “routine” errand. Whether it’s the reactions of the people we encounter or his intense interest in every sight and sound, there’s always an element of unanticipated magic in Monte’s world. It’s a joy to be part of his supporting cast. –Rich Dixon