How You Have Transformed My Life: A Tribute to Nugget, My Previous Guide Dog By Quyn Lê Erichsen, M.Ed., RCC

Quyn2This post is in response to the following article:

http://www.theprovince.com/life/Blind+woman+files+complaint+after+Surrey+hotel+clerk+turned+away+because+guide/10788196/story.html

Many people may not be aware or may not really understand how important a working dog is to a person with a disability. The following is a letter which I wrote in October 2013 as a tribute to my beloved Nugget who was my previous guide dog, now retired. I really hope this post will bring about more compassion and understanding towards individuals who rely on their service dogs to enhance their independence and quality of life.

My dear beloved Nugget,

As tomorrow, Friday, October 25th will mark a very important milestone in both your life and mine – your retirement, I would like to take this opportunity to say “thank you” to you with all my heart. You have been there for me faithfully almost everyday, twenty-four hours a day, in the last seven and a half years. I have been very blessed with lots of love, care and support from my family, partners, friends, colleagues, professionals and even casual acquaintances. But you have given me more than anyone and more than any other dogs ever has in my life. No one can truly understand what you have meant to me…

Born on October 11, 2004, you came from Columbus Ohio in the U.S. When I was introduced to you for the very first time on May 29, 2006, you were about nineteen months old. I was very amused by your name, Nugget. I remember you were very excited and so full of energy. You were sniffing me and licking me all over. But soon you discovered that I didn’t like being licked. Your hair felt so long and wooly, like a black teddy bear, very different from any other dogs I had ever felt before.

That night I was affected by you more than any of my previous guide dogs. You stole my heart that first night of us being together. I was instructed to tie you by my bed. But the whole night you would not sleep and would put your head on the bed and wanted me to pet you.

In the following weeks, we went through the training together. One of the first things I learned about you was your sensitive nature. Unlike my previous dogs where I had to give strong leash corrections for them to respond, you would become very timid and stressed out when I tugged hard on the leash. Soon I learned that you would just respond to a slight correction. I was very impressed by your ability to learn very quickly. After the training in Ohio, then we flew home together to Hamilton Ontario. You were so calm and so well-behaved on the airplane.

However during the first few months, I was uncertain about you. My mobility instructor commented how you would keep looking at squirrels and wouldn’t be as focused as a guide dog should be. A few times we would get lost on the campus of McMaster University. You seemed to lack confidence and would become timid very easily. You would growl at men that you didn’t know.

Then I graduated from my B.A. Soon we moved out here to BC. One of the first things I was very apprehensive about was being able to travel on the skytrain safely. I was somewhat afraid of the train tracks. The doors to the trains seemed to close very quickly. But only after a few lessons, you got it! And since then, we have travelled via the skytrain hundreds of times in the last six years or so. You would often lie by my legs on the train patiently for hours. You were so quiet and so black that people often didn’t notice you. A few times you got stepped on by someone and it hurt you so much that you yelped loudly. But after I comforted you, you would continue to lie down and resume your working mode. People sometimes mistook you for all kinds of things because of your dark body. Sometimes they mistook you for luggage, sometimes a stuffy animal, and once my jacket!

In the following three years, you faithfully guided me around the SFU campuses. We used to travel by transit many times a week in the evenings. Often we would get home as late as 11:00 at night. But with you by my side, I would feel very safe. One time we got lost late at night. I stopped a man to ask for direction. Only when I came close to him did I smell the alcohol in his breath and noticed his slurry speech. Sometimes we were even followed by someone. But in the end, I never got hurt.

During our travels, we had to deal with the rain, the snow and the darkness of the SFU campuses. Sometimes we had to wait for an hour or more outside for the buses to come up the mountain in the snow. The snow was so hard that your whole body was covered with snow like a snowman. Although you were shivering the whole time, but nevertheless you still waited patiently with me. We sometimes would both get sick the following day.

Sometimes we would get lost at night because we took the wrong turn or got off at the wrong bus stop. During those times, often there wasn’t anyone around to help us. We just somehow figured it out together and made it home safely. During the long lectures, you would lie quietly under my feet. We would go to many conferences for me to learn new psychological concepts and theories.

On the day of my graduation from a Masters degree, you guided me up on stage to receive the diploma. You were the only guide dog there on that day among hundreds of other sighted students. SFU gave us recognition by featuring our story in the front page of the SFU News. And on the following day, we were in the front page of the Vancouver Sun. And in the following months, we were featured in the Hamilton Spectator, the McMaster News and the BC Catholic Newspaper.

You were there with me during my job interviews. Then I got my first job at Lions Gate Hospital. Since then, you have helped me navigate around the hospital and the hospice in the last three and a half years. When my clients would cry and be in a lot of distress during counselling sessions, you would comfort them by putting your head on their laps. But at times when my clients had to process very important emotional issues, you would quietly walk away and lie at a corner of my office in order to give us space. And when it was time for them to leave, you would come to them to say “goodbye”.

We used to sit by the bedside to give comfort and support to dying patients. Many patients have expressed how grateful they were to have you around. They would say “Oh, you’ve made my day!” Or “Oh, you are my best visitor of the day!”

I remember there was a patient who was frustrated at the nurses, doctors and staff, and she didn’t really want to talk to anyone. But when she saw you, you stole her heart. She would become animated and would talk to us about all kinds of things. When the music therapist was singing to her, she would sing along, holding my hand and stroking you with her other hand. She had a big smile on her face. And in the end she was lying on her bed unresponsive to anything else around her. When you came to her bed and nudged your cold wet nose on her hand, my coworker described that there were a small smile on her face and her eyes twinkled.

There was another patient with whom we visited a few times, a few days prior to her death, she got you a card and wrote: “Thank you Nugget for making my days bearable…” Yet another patient had you on his bed lying on his chest. He asked his wife to take a picture of you and him together. He seemed very contented. And that same man died a few days later.

Not only have you been there for me, transforming my life, you have also been there for so many other people. You have brought so much joy and comfort to them! One of my coworkers gave us a very kind compliment and said “Whenever you two entered a room, you lit up the room.” I think it mostly applied to you! I will always remember you running around wildly at the hospice and on Seven West at Lions Gate Hospital. You made so many people laugh to see your goofiness, totally different from your role as a guide dog. During rounds, you would go to everyone and visit with them, putting your head on their laps, or pawing them, or nudging your nose against their hands to seek attention.

We have travelled together by ourselves to many places. We took the ferries many times to Vancouver Island. We’ve travelled to Richmond, Vancouver, North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, Port Moody and Coquitlam. We flew together several times. One time when we were on the airplane for ten hours on our way to Europe, I remember you were so good and so patient. You didn’t relieve yourself during the entire flight. We went canoeing. You took me on Grouse Mountain for skiing. You took me to dance lessons. We went on boats and small cruises together.

You were by my side when I did public speaking in front of hundreds of people. When I did my TedTalk speech, you knew I was very nervous with hundreds of people watching us and several cameras were pointing at us. You lied right by my legs and were very calm. You were there with me when I was on the radio a few times doing shows for the Vietnamese community.

Whenever I needed to learn a new place to get to, you would get it after only being taught once or twice. The next time you would get me there without fail. You would turn into the correct buildings. You would help me find stairs, escalators and elevators. You avoided obstacles so well that often I didn’t know they were there in the first place. You helped me cross and navigate the busy streets of Vancouver, often moving left and right quickly to avoid clumsy and absent-minded pedestrians. You have never let me fall down any stairs all the years we’ve been together. I have never bumped into anything and hurt myself. Other sighted people let me fall down the curbs more often than you ever would.

You have always been very patient and steadfast in your dedication to me and to your work. If I had to go somewhere at 10:00 in the evening, you would go along with me. And if I had to leave home at 6:00 in the morning, you wouldn’t refuse to guide me. Sometimes when I was so focused on doing some tasks and forgot to feed you on time, you wouldn’t complain or whine. You would just wait patiently. Only when I heard your stomach growling did I suddenly realize that you hadn’t eaten. Every now and then you would be sick or would have ear infection. Yet if I needed to go out, you wouldn’t refuse my request. Sometimes I am late for work in the morning and was in a hurry. Or sometimes I would be irritable and moody and so I would lose patience with you. Yet you wouldn’t complain and would continue your work as usual.

Of course there is so much more that you have done for me. No words can describe all the things that you did. I wish I could keep you and let you stay with us. I wish I could see you to the end of your life. But I know that another family and in another home, you would get much more attention and stimulation. But most importantly, I know that they would give you lots of love. As long as you are with me, I feel that you could never be completely free as a dog. You would always feel responsible for me. You might also be very disheartened whenever I leave you at home to go out with another dog. I think you would be very lonely being at home alone all by yourself when you had often been surrounded by people.

So thank you so much Nugget my very special companion for everything you have done for me and for so many other people. I wish you all the best in the remaining time of your life. May you be blessed with lots of love, joy and excitement. May your days be filled with stimulation and fun. You will always be in my heart as well as in Hans’ heart. No other dog can really ever replace you.

Goodbye to my beloved guide dog. Although you and I will meet in the future at times, you are no longer responsible for me. Just go and have fun!

Yours with much love and gratitude,

Quyn

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