Easter weekend 2012. The weather, perfect. The rarest of occurrences in Virginia. Virginia weather comes in three forms, too hot, too cold, or raining, but for three days out of the year it does none of these things and it is comfortable and preferable to be outside. This is what Easter weekend 2012 was like. My wife had ventured off to Pennsylvania to go to a horse show, Dressage at Devon. I remember when I first met her and read through her online profile on a defunct social media site, Myspace or Friendster or something like that, and thought dressage was pronounced dress-age and had to do with knitting. Once I learned what it was I knew what it was. I’d heard of the Lipizzaner Stallions, the world-famous dancing horses.
The Dressage at Devon event was a few levels below the Lipizzaner Stallions but of great importance to my wife which meant it was of great importance to me or at least her ability to go to it was. The thing was she had received a request for pet sitting from a company she was working for and the client needed their dog walked while my wife was supposed to be in Pennsylvania watching horses dance.
Knowing that her husband had little to no prospects at the moment having lost one job to the recession and in the midst of failing at another due to his ignorance of human nature she offered me up to the pet sitting company as a suitable replacement. Without much time to find a better option they agreed. At this point I’d walked two dogs in my life not counting the ones I’d had as a child as they mostly went out back and if they did get walked my father walked them with me along.
Not only was the weather perfect that day but so was the dog. Maddison was a retired seeing-eye dog. A big chocolate lab built like a black bear. Heavy and low to the ground with a lumbering gait. Happy to take a stroll and have anyone along as long as they went where she wanted to go. In other words, the amount of work required in walking her was minimal at best. She went out her front door, turned right, took you down to the Reston trail system, and 30 minutes later brought you back home. She had developed a propensity to wander which is why she was a retired seeing eye dog and needed a gentle reminder delivered via a tug on the leash to get back on the path or not to linger and sniff too long, but other than that Maddison was the easiest dog a person could walk.
It’s hard to say if it was the perfect weather, the perfect dog, or the combination of the two but I remember feeling on that day that I had found something I could do. I asked my wife what she thought of my walking dogs for the company she worked for. She told me to let her unpack from her trip and she would see if they needed any help.
The legend goes that dogs became humankind’s best friend due to convenience. Humans while still in the hunter/gatherer stage of their development would roam following the hunt setting up camps along the way. Humans are notoriously inefficient eaters and would discard their scraps around their campsites. Dogs being scavengers would wander in and pick through those scraps. Eventually, the dogs followed closer and closer to the human camps until one day a dog wandered in. Why that dog felt the courage to wander in and why the humans choose this creature not to eat we will never know, but suddenly humans and dogs began living closer together. Once humans discovered agriculture and animal husbandry the need to follow the hunt dissipated. The dogs remained and due to the convergent evolution of social skills, they became everything to humans. They joined them on the hunt, fought with them in wars, helped searched for the lost or wounded, and gave aid to those with disabilities.
Maddison had spent most of her life being the eyes for someone that could not see. It is not a straight line from that first dog that wandered into a human camp to Maddison, but it is straight enough that it got us here.
How I came to walk Maddison full time is another story. Lara had been covering for someone during the week leading up to her weekend away. That person had been unable to do the morning and evening walks for Maddison as she was in the process of taking another job. She could walk Maddison on her lunch break and that was it. So the next time Maddison’s people booked a vacation every visit was now mine or my wife’s and they ended up mine because my wife had a job decorating cakes and after my first walk with Maddison I’d decided that’s what I wanted to do full time.
A former seeing eye dog has a few interesting quirks. The main one is she wants to guide. She wants to lead you during the walk and doesn’t much like being led but being a retired seeing eye dog is much like being retired in general. Maddison was far more comfortable laying in an airconditioned house than wondering the Reston trail system during a typical humid Virginia summer. Maddison would pee, poop, and turn for home at her first opportunity. Her favorite type of walk was quick with most of the visit spent with her doing that strange thing chocolate labs do where they stick their head between your knees while you scratch behind their ears. Maddison loved her love and was happy to be around anyone willing to give her more of it.
Another quirk of a former seeing-eye dog is they are trained to poop and walk. It would be quite an inconvenience for the blind if their guide dog stopped whenever they had to relieve themselves. Therefore, the best strategy for picking up Maddison’s poop was to watch for her to have a slight bend in her hips, crouch down, and pick it up as it plopped to the ground least you miss a piece and find it with your shoe.
The second time I walked Maddison after her fully becoming my client I learned one of the biggest risks of this job, neighbors. Maddison’s person had changed locks and left a new key for me under the welcome mat on their back porch. As they lived in a townhouse this was somewhat confusing. I counted how many they were from the end unit knowing it was three when I went around to the back and wondering if it was three or four by the time I got there. This is where the neighbor saw me staring at the back of townhouses counting, “One, two, three. Or was it four? Is this it or is it this one? Or was it two.” So, I did what I thought was best and asked the neighbor, “Is this Maddison’s house here?”
She said, “Maddison? No one by that name lives there.”
“It’s the dog. I can’t always remember the people’s names. She left a key for me.”
“How do I know you’re supposed to be here?”
“Well,” I said trying to remain simultaneously calm and diplomatic, “If there is a key under that mat then it’s where I’m supposed to be.”
“That neighbor recently had a baby. If you’re supposed to be here you’d know the baby’s name.”
“I only know the dog’s name. I work for a dog walking company. We don’t interact with the people much. Just show up where we’re supposed to be and walk the dogs.”
“I’m sorry I can’t help you.”
After this exchange, I quickly went up the back steps. Found the key. And most definitely did not stay for the full scheduled time with Maddison. Getting arrested for a neighbor’s misunderstanding was not on my agenda for that day.
The final time I saw Maddison was a much sadder occasion. Over the years walking her I had gotten to know her people. They sometimes waited to leave until we showed up for the first visit and then snuck out of the house while we were out walking Maddison and they often wouldn’t cancel when they returned home early. They introduced us to their children as Maddison’s friends and I believe we even exchanged Christmas cards once. So, it was no surprise when they called us and told us that Maddison’s condition was rapidly declining and they would like us to come to say goodbye. That Maddison was having a good day and it was best to do it soon.
We arrived that evening and Maddison was indeed having a good evening, So good that she was ready to go for a walk upon recognizing us. When we bypassed her leash hanging on the banister and went to sit in the living room, she grew confused. She would lumber to her leash, nose it, to the door handle, nose it, and then come and stick her head in one of our laps. As her request was denied by each person sitting in the living room she would try the next. Lumbering between us, back and forth, over the white mid-90’s era carpet while my wife and I attempted conversation with Maddison’s people. Until she settled in front of me, with her head stuck between my knees in that chocolate lab way. I dug my fingers into her fur, held on tight, not wanting to say goodbye, knowing it was the last time I’d ever see her. Lara tapped me on the shoulder letting me know it was time for us to go. The already awkward conversation had long since run dry. I leaned over, fingers still laced in Maddison’s fur, rested my forehead against the top of her head, and whispered, “Thank you.”