The story of Henna is one of those experiences.
This is what’s sure to be a feeble attempt at conveying not only what she brought into our lives, but what she left behind.
The kids had cared for our rabbit, Roosevelt, for over a year and were doing a terrific job. Rabbits are not easy pets to say the least – they’re way more work than a cat, this I now know as fact (here we go with foreshadowing again). They took on the responsibility completely and with aplomb and our rabbit wanted for nothing. He was well fed and well exercised and for the most part, his pen was well cleaned. As pets go, I was pleased our family owned a rabbit.
One evening in April 2010 Winnie had a girl scout event at a leader’s house about 20 miles away. As I picked her up I met the two family dogs, who seemed nice enough. I had always been clear with the kids about my disdain for dogs (they were best out of sight, out of mind, out of smelling range and definitely out of my house as far as I was concerned). As we made the long drive home from the event, Winnie mentioned to me the possibility of raising a service dog. She said we’d only have the dog for a year, all the vet care and training would be provided, and we’d be doing something good for someone else. I’m really not an impulsive person but I remember saying to her that that sounded like a pretty neat idea, and even I could tolerate a dog for only a year. And I wouldn’t have to pay for its care? Bonus! Not to mention what a great experience it would be for her. By the time we reached home it was a done deal in my head and I agreed to talk to Doug about it.
That night I mentioned it to him and in his usual fashion he responded noncommittally with something along the lines of “Hmmm, interesting, let’s give it some thought” which I took as a sign to move ahead full-throttle.
By lunchtime the next day I’d researched groups in our area, found one very close, and submitted an online application on behalf of Winnie, who was 13 at the time. Shortly after lunch Doug emailed me back saying he was open to the idea. Good thing, right?
Later that afternoon I received a call from a representative of the organization to discuss our interest and suitability of our home situation. Fast forward about 10 weeks and we were through the training program and ready to receive our first puppy to train.
“They” say that nothing prepares you to have kids but kids are a walk in the park compared to puppies, *I* say.
Mind you, by this point I’d already fully embraced this new adventure of ours. During the training we’d met so many sweet-tempered dogs that combined with their impeccable training and gorgeous physiques, were simply irresistible to anyone with but the stoniest of hearts. I was every bit as excited as the kids to get our new puppy.
But when Henna arrived that evening in July, I could never have predicted how life as we knew it would change, for better and for worse. And believe me, there was definitely some worse along the way.
Just as with babies, puppies bring with them a lot of sleepless nights. All to be expected with a 9 week old puppy, but an adjustment none the less. And we got along day by day, week by week, with Winnie taking full responsibility for all of Henna’s care and training. We thought she was doing an excellent job.
But that wasn’t universally felt. Winnie’s training and care of Henna was often under scrutiny and criticized. On a good day we left class feeling deflated and defeated, and on a bad day we left on the verge of tears. Winnie loved dog training and was completely committed to raising Henna, giving nearly every waking moment to Henna’s development, but was not finding her way to success. It certainly wasn’t from lack of trying.
Months went by and Henna proved to be a smart, spirited, willful bundle of love. Her bond with Winnie was remarkable and she’d do anything to please her. We had numerous “remedial” dog training sessions and through those, Winnie’s technique improved and she felt better about the job she was doing. She would dutifully practice her training exercises at home and we’d religiously get out for training sessions in the community – a shopping center, an office park, near a farmers’ market – wherever we could find new exposures for Henna.
The passing of the months was punctuated with tears, tears, and more tears. I’d lay in bed at night, sobbing silently from the stress, soaking the pillow feeling bad for myself but heartbroken over what I’d gotten my daughter into. Winnie would sob in the shower. She loved everything that went into raising a service dog, that was clear, but failure was taking its toll. And honestly, when I look back at it, I’m still utterly amazed she went back week after week. Every week we were hopeful things would improve.
They did not.
We cried a lot more.
Henna was still whip-smart and still progressing. But she was also still so high-strung, often barking in class (a big no-no) and was highly distracted by other dogs. This, as you can imagine, does not bode well for a service dog. Every class and extra training session we went to became something to dread. Though dread aside, Winnie still loved Henna and everything that went into caring for and training her, and so did we. And Henna loved us.
I didn’t know I was capable of loving a four legged creature so much. I never saw it coming. Henna didn’t so much give love (which she did, freely) as she expected love. She would sidle up to you letting you know she was ready to be loved. And she’d reciprocate with her adoring eyes, her incessantly licking tongue, or by presenting you with a prized bone or chew toy. Henna never met anyone who did not love her back as she expected, it just wasn’t possible. She just had that effect on people. Quite frankly, I was blindsided. I think we all were.
Deeply abiding love aside, things were still not going well.
On a Friday afternoon about 9 months after getting Henna, I hit a breaking point. Winnie had gone to an extra training session accompanied by Doug, as I’d delivered surrogate baby # 8 the day before and was still in the hospital. Is it clear yet exactly how committed we were to Henna’s development and Winnie’s dog training skills? The session did not go well. Unkind words were spoken. When I became aware of what transpired, I hit my breaking point with what I was willing to allow my child to go through and with what I myself was willing to go through.
Let me assure you, hell hath no fury like a woman who’s given birth only two days prior and who’s 14 year old daughter trying her damnedest has been wronged.
Phone calls were placed. Discussion were held. Arrangements were made. We were out of there.
But not without Henna.
As it turns out, there was another training location in close enough proximity for us to attend class. It wasn’t nearly as convenient to get to (in terms of scheduling, location, or traffic) but these classes were run differently, had a whole different approach and feel to them, and were a much better fit for us. For the first time ever I saw Winnie looking calm, relaxed and confident in class. She was recognized for what she’d achieved all along, doing a fantastic job caring for and training Henna. We smiled. We laughed. And for the first time, we enjoyed the process. We celebrated Henna’s successes. Winnie soared.
She did such a good job in fact that she was given her second puppy, Leila, in August 2011 and had both dogs in her care for a while. My how times had changed.
My only regret is that I wasn’t able to find this truth sooner, for myself and for my daughter. When it came to our failures, I believed it was our fault, which as it turned out, wasn’t really the case. But I had no way of knowing that and more often than I’d like to admit, I was way too harsh with Winnie along the way. It’s still searingly painful for me to think about and to this day I’m surprised she forgives me for the way I acted toward her at times. That alone speaks volumes about her character. I’m not so sure I deserved her ready forgiveness, but I am grateful for it.
Henna was with us for a little more than four months after we switched training groups. Our love for her grew exponentially now that we were able to relax and fully enjoy her, knowing Winnie was in fact doing a terrific job. Just as we hit our groove, Henna was assigned a date in early October 2011 when she was to return permanently to her organization for further evaluation and training.
There really isn’t a way to describe how that feels. It definitely makes you catch your breath and feel a lump in your throat. It’s exciting, but it’s heartbreaking as well. Having baby Leila at home already certainly helped ease the pain, but it’s still a real separation process to go through. That final kiss, no matter what the context, is always wrought with emotion.
It was teary, and it was difficult, to say the least.
And I highly recommend it to anyone.
To Be Continued…