Spring sprang early in 2014 in the form of a Black and Tan Labrador Retriever ironically named Autumn. On March 16 she burst into our living room and into my arms with the energized affection with which she approaches most everything. She stands out for her unusual markings which come from being that oh-so-rare Black and Tan, but she stands out most of all for her joyful and loving approach to every day.
Of course, some might say she stands out most of all because of her successful journey to become a guide dog. Those first 8-12 weeks with all her siblings and her mom certainly started the journey with quality and caring attention from the staff at the guide school breeding program. I’m told there was a note even then suggesting patience was not Autumn’s strongest attribute! As each pup was ready, they moved to a puppy raiser and Autumn landed with Joan for whom I’ll always be tremendously grateful. For over a year her life was filled with love, learning, and apparently fun given her joyful approach. She learned all the basic rules of obedience with an unrivaled eagerness if she thinks a treat is involved. She also became familiar with a host of different experiences and environments designed to build comfort and confidence–the latter being something she has at supreme levels.
Roughly fourteen months later, she made the journey for her formal training to become comfortable wearing a harness, learn all the guide commands, and develop the judgment to disobey intelligently when detecting safety issues for her handler. A couple of classes came and went without the trainers finding the right match which would best utilize all of the attributes Autumn brought to a team. She was 26 months old before being matched with me. Our pace was upper moderate and the “spitfire” description suggested she could have a high speed mode for the longer stretches I like to take at times. She loved people and I am often surrounded by many wonderful people through the many activities of my life. Best of all, her loving and affectionate nature would quickly win me over through the very real and deep grief I felt from my loss of the Mighty Quinn.
Thus it was that Autumn arrived to me now five years ago. In the early days so much of our work time is spent in building an understanding of what the other is doing or attempting to do in all the various situations. She wants to please me, most of the time, if she can only understand what I want or expect. I want to give her clear communication and support her through the difficult parts while letting her simply enjoy the things at which she excels. All of that is “ancient” history at this point and we are, for the most part, a seamless team. We do almost all of our interactions nearly by reflex and it simply works comfortably. The occasional new or extra challenging situation requires a renewed attention to detail but these are the glory days for sure.
Most studies suggest the average guide dog will work for 6 to 8 years before requesting retirement. They do this by simply not being eager to work on a regular basis. We influence this towards the longer time by making as many healthy choices for our team as possible. I keep her in excellent shape with great nutrition, exercise, and mental stimulation in both work and play. I give her plenty of praise and love with the hope she will want us to celebrate a ten-year anniversary of working together! Even though I know how unlikely a reality that might prove, the fact is that in attempting to give her the best of experiences, I not only keep us working together longer but I make my very deserving girl deservedly happy along the way.
When she wants her work to be done, I will be delighted to have her savor the retired life right here with us and all the rewards she has earned for her efforts. Until then though, I hope there are many more anniversaries to celebrate how fortunate I have been with my five years… and counting… of working with Awesome Autumn! Happy anniversary, sweet girl!