After years of puppy sitting for an organization that provides guide dogs to people who are blind or vision impaired, Devra Fishman decided to raise a puppy for them full time. In October of 2021, she was handed a 10-week-old black lab named Lester. She had a Harry Potter-like cowlick down the middle of her face and smelled like cookies. Devra wrote about her puppy-raising adventures up until Lester went in for her formal training in January of this year. At that time, we had no idea where Lester would wind up or whether Devra would ever see her again.
Now we know how the story ends.
I never expected the grief that hit me after Lester left. Maybe, after 15 months of spending every minute of every day with her — raising, socializing, and preparing her to become a guide dog — I should have. I always knew Lester would leave for her formal guide dog training, and when people asked me how I could ever give her up, I told them – and myself – that it would be easy. She was a project, not a pet. I was proud of what I was doing, and I was sure that Lester had the personality and the smarts to make it as a guide dog and change someone’s life. Looking back, I can see it was naïve of me to think I would not fall in love with her. I always knew Lester was never really mine, but by the time she left, it sure felt like she was.
Lester’s formal training went well at first. According to early reports, she was “an eager learner” and “a sweet girl.” But in the third month, she started barking on her training walks. She also became distracted by other dogs and squeaky toys. An advisor called to tell me Lester was going to be sent back to “basic training” for a chance to reset and calm down, and then would resume her training. But Lester was not sent to me. Instead, she spent four weeks in the home of another puppy raiser who is a dear friend and lives in the next town over.
Just knowing Lester was going to be in the area caused me great emotional distress and confusion. I was told I could visit her but could not imagine saying goodbye to her again. The first weekend Lester was back, my brother called to say he visited her and urged me to. He asked, “If you had the chance to hug someone you thought you were never going to see again, wouldn’t you?”
As soon as we hung up, I called Lester’s sitter and arranged a visit.
Lester must have sensed me before I saw her, because by the time I walked into the courtyard of the house where she was staying, she was at the sliding glass door barking, pulling, and jumping to get to me. I let myself dissolve into that first hug when I could feel her entire body wiggling with excitement as she put her front paws on my shoulders and covered my face with kisses. After a few minutes, she found a toy and settled down nearby while her sitter and I chatted. Occasionally Lester would come over to me for a quick hug or kiss and then she’d settle down again. Leaving her was not as painful as I thought it would be, probably because I already planned to see her the following week and the week after that.
It was the final visit that broke me open. Lester had moved to the home of the advisor who would drive her back to resume training the following day. As Lester and the advisor’s dog played in the backyard, I tried to make small talk.
“If Lester is released from the program because of her barking, I am going to take her to visit patients at our local hospital and hospice,” I said.
“Oh, I doubt she’ll be released,” the advisor said. “If she doesn’t make it as a guide dog they will find a job for her, most likely as a scent detector. She’s got the energy and the inclination for that, and she is so smart she’ll pick it up easily. The barking won’t even be an issue.”
In an instant I knew she was right, and I have no idea how I said goodbye and walked away from Lester that day. Even as I type this I am as overwhelmed with emotions as I was then.
The training reports stopped coming after Lester’s “reset,” and I assumed the lack of news meant Lester was on track to be placed as a guide dog. In late July I received an email telling me Lester was tentatively matched with a visually impaired person and would likely start her new guide dog job on August 16, her second birthday. My first thought was, “I did it. Lester did it. We did it. She is going to change someone’s life and be the fabulous guide dog I always thought she would be.” My husband and I celebrated that evening and shared the news with all our friends who were following Lester’s progress.
It would be a home placement, meaning Lester’s trainer would take Lester to her person and spend a week or two teaching them to work together as a team. I was told that I would have a chance to talk to Lester’s person during that time.
Lester’s trainer set up a Zoom call and told us Lester had some barking and pulling issues that still needed to be worked out. Then she handed us over to Lester’s new person who also mentioned the barking. I tried to be upbeat as we shared funny Lester stories, but during the call I noticed Lester was curled up under a desk and did not seem to react when she heard our voices.
When we ended the call, I felt deflated. Something felt off, and I was concerned about Lester. I mentioned this to my husband who said we can only hope I misread the situation.
“I just thought they would both be happier. Still,” I said, trying to sound more positive than I felt, “I set out to make a guide dog and I did that. I wish them both a long, beautiful life together.”
After that call it became easier to think and talk about Lester. I was so proud of her and knew that even if I never saw her again, we would always be a huge part of each other’s life. I also knew it was time for me to let her go and to move on.
In mid-September I found out that Ace, a guide dog puppy that stayed with us for a week over the summer, was being released from the program and might come up for adoption. He was about 18 months old and super mellow. He had a couple of minor behavior issues that could not be resolved, but nothing that would keep him from being a great family pet. I floated the idea by my husband.
“You know, if we are serious about getting our own dog, we should try to adopt Ace. He’s perfectly trained, and we already know each other,” I said one evening over dinner. My husband agreed right away.
“I will email my advisors to make sure he’s as lovely as we remember,” I said. “I have to say, though, that maybe I am in denial or maybe it is my magical thinking, but I feel like Lester might not make it in her new job. What if we adopt Ace and Lester is released? I would want to adopt her.”
“Then we will have two great dogs,” my husband said. The perfect answer.
I sent my notes about Ace the night before we were scheduled to leave for a three-week trip to Europe. After we handed Lester back in January, a dear friend passed away, and soon after our fairy god dog Boomer succumbed to his cancer. We planned the trip because at the time I needed something to look forward to and to help me deal with my compounding, overwhelming grief.
One of the advisors called the next morning, just a few hours before we were set to leave for the airport.
“I know you want to talk about adopting Ace, but first we have to talk about Lester,” she said right off the bat, “and it is bad news.”
“Oh no, is she alright? Is she hurt?” I asked, suddenly panicked.
“She is fine. There were some problems with her placement, and it just did not work out. It happens sometimes. After much discussion and evaluation, it was decided to retire her from the program.”
“Does this mean she can come home?” I asked. It was the first thing that came to my mind.
I don’t remember much more about the conversation. I remember being asked if I wanted to adopt Lester (YES), and I remember crying and feeling joy and disbelief and a little bit like a failure. I also felt badly for the person Lester was matched with.
“You did everything you possibly could,” my advisor said, trying to soothe me.
“Everyone did,” I responded. “There was so much energy, belief, hope, and love poured into her to help her succeed.”
“Well,” she responded, “as I always say, in the end, the dog decides.”
We said goodbye, and I immediately called my brother who agreed to pick up Lester and keep her until we returned. I knew she would be happy with his two dogs, Phil and Mack, who were like big brothers to her. While we were away, my brother texted pictures and brief updates. I shopped online for pet supplies.
As soon as we got home from our trip, my brother brought Lester over to us. She leapt into my arms, then crashed into my husband as soon as my brother opened the car door for her in our driveway. Inside the house, she seemed tentative, like a foster that had been bounced around from home to home and was not sure if she should get too comfortable. I thought about all Lester had been through since she abruptly left us in January: three months of formal guide dog training, a four-week reset, three more months of training, relocation to her new job that only lasted about four weeks, a week back at the facility, then three weeks at my brother’s while we were away. While in training, she also stayed at volunteers’ homes on the weekends.
Lester has been home for three weeks now and we are all adjusting to our new life together. She seems happy and is more relaxed than in the beginning. She still greets me like she hasn’t seen me in months whenever I turn a corner in the house and come into view. Occasionally she’ll look panicked and jump up and put her paws on my husband’s or my shoulders for a reassuring hug. I have a tiny underlying fear that the phone might ring, and I’ll be told I need to hand her back, even though we have officially adopted her. Occasionally I see a spooked look in her eyes and wonder if she might have a similar fear.
Lester has reunited with her boyfriend, Bruce, who lives around the corner, and our families take frequent walks together. She has finally learned to relieve herself in the backyard instead of on a leash in the street (as she was trained to do to become a guide dog), and she loves chasing down her new Wobble Wag Giggle Ball every morning before breakfast. And she still smells like cookies.
Ace was adopted by my friend who took care of Lester during her reset, and we often talk about how thrilled we are to be pet owners during our puppy playdates.
Lester and I are in the process of becoming an animal assistance team. Once certified, I will take her with me to the local hospital and hospice where I volunteer. I know she will love that and so will all the people we meet.
The only downside to having Lester back, if I can even call it a downside, is the black dog hair, which seems to be everywhere. The other day I saw some in my coffee and on my toothbrush. When we had Lester before she went in for training, I knew the dog hair situation was temporary. Now that Lester is here to stay, I am thinking of redecorating the house in early goth.
She still barks, but I know better than to try to get her to stop. Besides, her barking is what brought her home — where she decided she belongs.
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