A Guide Dog Laps Up Retirement

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IT was Good Friday, and the longed-for rain penetrated the ground with a dreary, cold intensity. He was retiring. It was his last day at work, and he seemed to sense that something was happening. Ormon, my husband's Seeing Eye dog, had done his job well. Ten years ago he replaced the free-spirited Pete, who 10 years earlier had replaced Brian's first guide dog, Fax. It seemed like yesterday that Brian returned from The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey, with the 21-month-old Ormon, and now he was calling it a day. A best friend, who remembers all the special occasions with style, sent a retirement card to the office. The sentimental words concluded: ``Now you'll have time to do the things you've always wanted to - like sleep late, or roam around at leisure, chase sheep in Vermont, find a girlfriend, hang out with the other dogs, and visit Baskin Robbins. And, best of all, no more boring meetings.''

The sun was shining the next day as Brian packed his bags for a three-week training stint at The Seeing Eye, the foremost dog guide school in the world. Suitcases usually mean Vermont in our household, but Ormon hadn't heard the familiar words that he loved: ``Do you want to go to Vermont?'' He knew something was up, and it didn't include him. He moped and stayed close to Brian.

We left Ormon at the front door with Jim and Lyla, our cats, and reassuring pats. ``See you later, Ormon. Be a good boy.'' I kissed him on the nose. Brian spoke private words to him as I started the car.

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When I returned home later that afternoon, Ormon and I went for a walk in the woods and then spent a quiet Saturday night together. He seemed content, and he ate his dinner with gusto. We watched TV together, and occasionally he stood up and smiled at me - a smile being that certain look that German shepherds are so good at executing: ears back, the corners of the mouth drawn back just a little, eyes gazing adoringly. So far, so good.

Orman had guided Brian through the streets of White Plains, into elevators, restaurants, and offices, and once, donning a big, white bow, he helped escort a bride down a church aisle. He never missed a beat. The years, however, were catching up with him. It was time for retirement - and all the benefits that senior citizens look forward to.

On the third day of retirement I opted for a walk overlooking the Hudson. My favorite walk there takes just an hour, including time out for admiring the view.

I hoped Ormon was getting as much out of this retirement as I was. It was good to have an excuse to slip off for a bucolic walk. With a demanding work schedule, I need to remind myself of the importance of walks in the woods and snatch those moments greedily.

Tuesday we walked around our neighborhood with the former bride and our grandson Andy. Ormon lagged a little, thinking, no doubt, that we were heading for the office, which lately had become not his favorite place. Increasingly, I had noticed how slowly he moved on his way downtown with my husband, and how rapid was his return. As soon as we rounded the bend indicating that we weren't headed downtown, Ormon's pace increased.

Barbara (the retirement card friend) left a message for Ormon on my answering machine on Tuesday. ``Hi, Ormon! How would you like to go to Baskin Robbins for an ice cream cone?''

Ormon seemed to be enjoying his new life. He stationed himself at the front door and barked at squirrels, cats, joggers, dog walkers, school children, Brendon the mailman, the UPS man, and the Con Ed man. He loved barking. We made about four trips a day to the woods just to smell the leaves.

Everyone asked if Ormon would be jealous. How would he react to the new dog? Would he mind? Frankly, while I was saying it would be OK, I had doubts.

Meanwhile, back in Morristown, a new star was rising. Seventeen-month-old August, another German shepherd, was introduced to his new master, and a new relationship was beginning. Along with other students, they learned to work together, just as Ormon - and Pete and Fax - and Brian had done. Young August bounded along, mouthing Brian's hand with sudden affection when praised for good performance. A bonding was taking place.

Those three weeks are a period of adjustment and hard work. Obtaining a guide dog is not like buying a new car. The dog has been emotionally tied to a trainer for several months and now has to adjust to a new master. The days begin at 5:30 a.m. when each student feeds his dog, who is with him night and day, before taking him outside. Breakfast is served at seven. Eighteen students are then divided into three groups for training, and at 8 a.m. they leave in vans for downtown Morristown.

Two days before the training concluded, Brian attended a Rotary Club meeting in Morristown with August, accompanied by a Rotarian who was the just-retired executive director of The Seeing Eye. As they left the dining room, Brian said, ``Let's give him his head and see how he does.'' August pranced to the door, crossed the lobby, headed for the same door he'd entered earlier, bounded across the parking lot, and headed straight for the car. This dog had proven himself. He would be a fine guide dog.

August and Brian came home on April 13. I went in the house first, put a leash on Ormon and brought him out. The two dogs nosed each other briefly, one wiggling wildly, the other acting like the gentleman he is. Ormon greeted Brian with calm happiness. ``Oh, so you're back! How grand to see you again!'' He reminded me of Churchill. Dignified. Regal. In command. Most important, he displayed no jealousy.

It was a blustery April afternoon, and after a bite of lunch, we sat by the fire. Now it was the cats' turn to meet the new interloper. They stuck their heads around chairs and love seats to get a better look, and finally Jim approached head-on, which is typical of Jim, a stray who found us one cold, November evening. The night he arrived, he marched into our kitchen without batting an eye at Ormon. He approached August the same way, rubbed up against him, and explained, I guess, the rules of the house. Lyla, on the other hand, wasn't quite as forward, and she is still impressing August with hearty hisses.

We decided to get to work. Brian harnessed August, and we headed out. I took Ormon on leash and planned to follow Brian, watching for necessary corrections. Ormon, who has slowed down considerably in recent months, maintained a pace so fast that I did a double step to keep up. August performed beautifully, stopping at each curb, listening and watching for traffic, acutely aware of everything around him. A squirrel scrambled past him and up an oak tree. He looked - it was so tempting - but he ignored it, as he had been trained.

The same friend who sent the retirement card insisted on bringing dinner in honor of our new family member - shepherd's pie, of course. Another friend brought baggied and bowed jumbo-size dog biscuits for both Ormon and the newcomer, and another brought not only biscuits and a welcome to the neighborhood card but also treats for the cats, who might feel neglected with all this preoccupation with dogs.

And so a new chapter begins. August follows in the footsteps of his predecessors - Fax, Pete, and Ormon - and Ormon calls it a day.

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