William Wordsworth said, “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” And I think that’s true of all beautiful and powerful writing, not just poetry. But today, I don’t have the tranquillity. I’m not recollecting powerful feelings. I’m drowning in them.

I’ve lost a pet before. But a service dog is not a pet. Even a service dog that has entered into an honorable retirement is not just a pet. The connection a service dog has with its handler is deep and profound and amazing.

Of course, Kudzu wasn’t my service dog. He was my child’s service dog. My child had a variety of unusual neurological impairments that made a lot of usual tasks and activities profoundly difficult. I did a lot of research. I talked with service dog trainers. I talked with service dog handlers. I talked with my husband. We thought, we talked, we prayed.

And we decided that a service dog for our child was the way to go. It would be a specialty service dog, so I’d have to learn how to be a dog trainer, on top of everything else I’d had to learn as a mom to children who weren’t entirely typical.

We decided on a breed. We decided on a breeder. We talked with the breeder about exactly what we needed in a dog. And one day, almost 13 years ago, the breeder called. “I’ve got your dog.”

When we got Kudzu, he was still tiny. I could hold him in two hands. He rode home from the breeder on the lap of this child who was to become his handler.

But a service dog for a child bonds deeply with two people. The child handler. And the person who has to train both the dog and the child on the tasks the dog will perform. That was me.

The relationship between a dog and his trainer is one thing. But the relationship between a service dog and his handler is different. It is mysterious, beautiful, powerful.

Kudzu went to school with my child. He went to ball games. He went to the ballet. He went to movies and restaurants. For a time, when there was a nearby mission that allowed it, he even went to church.

He allowed my child to practice skills and to have experiences that wouldn’t have been possible without him. He made difficult things easier. He made impossible things possible.

And at least once, maybe twice, he saved the life of his handler, of my child.

But, over time, as my child grew, and developed, it became clear that Kudzu’s services were being outgrown. And part of that growth and development, it seemed, could be attributed to the work Kudzu had been doing.

And so the time came for Kudzu to retire. He had worked for just a few years. But they were transformative years.

The first day my child went off to school without him was beautiful and sad. My heart sang as my child went out the door, independent, ready to face the world. But as my child’s world grew, my dog’s world shrank. Kudzu and I both saw that, that morning. He would no longer go to restaurants and movies and school. He would stay home. He would take on a new role. He would become a beloved family pet.

But he was always more than a pet. He was never a substitute human, of course. He wasn’t our fur baby. He was a retired service dog. And a service dog is different, and more.

He’s an old dog now, and full of years. As is common with large breeds, his hips have become arthritic. He doesn’t romp the way he did as a young dog. But lately he was having some difficulties that went beyond his arthritis. The vet called us last night to deliver the news. Cancer.

And so tonight, after work, we will go and say goodbye to this wonderful, beautiful, amazing animal that has been part of our lives for almost 13 years. He will go through a door this time, and leave us behind.

I’m not sure when I’ll be able to recall the strong emotions in tranquility. I don’t know when I’ll have the words to say what I want to say about this amazing and beloved dog. I know the time will come.

But, oh my, how I will miss that dog.

Read More

Service dogs and church: Some Orthodox churches deny access to service dogs. It’s legal to do this in the US. If you use a service dog, read this to understand the issues and find an Orthodox church that will welcome you and your dog.

Hello, Goodbye Dog: A Review: A beloved pet goes to school and learns how to be the reading dog at school.

Disability and special needs: People sometimes feel uncomfortable around people with disabilities. It doesn’t have to be that way. These tips can help you welcome everyone to your church.

Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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