A Birthday Tribute to a Great Dog

Kiefer turns thirteen today. This chance will only come once, so I take it. Today, I choose to celebrate Kiefer, look back, look forward, and love my faithful friend.

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Dogs are cool, but I wouldn’t say I’m too much of a dog person. I love them a lot, but I’m not obsessive about it (or maybe this is just how I delude myself!).

Anyway, I met Kiefer just after Thanksgiving in 1994, when he was about to turn two. My dad and I were driving home after visiting my godmother in Pennsylvania when my mom called with the news, “Eric has a dog for you.”

Eric was the trainer at Freedom Guide Dogs, just outside Utica, NY. I had been on their waiting list and was expecting to get a dog in the spring.

Kiefer was my second guide dog, and he was teaching me new tricks within five minutes of his arrival. My first one, Elaine, had been a yellow Lab female. Kiefer is a black Lab male. Females squat when they pee; males lift a hind leg and just let fly! Lesson Number One, check.

At the end of our first training session together, Eric said, “Now tell him to find inside.” I just about fell over, then asked him to repeat what he’d said in case I’d heard wrong. Elaine was good for “Forward,” “Left,” “Right,” and “No!” I would soon discover that Kiefer loved the “find” command, and the more things I taught him to find, the happier he was.

On our small dairy goat farm, Kiefer became a constant barn companion. Milking, delivering baby goats, putting animals out to pasture, collecting buckets from the pastures at the end of the day, unloading wagonloads of hay, Kiefer was there. “Find the gate,” “Find the bucket,” if it needed to be found, we tried it. He even learned to keep a group of goats together in a herd for walks in the fields behind our house.

Elaine had been energetic to a fault. She thought nothing of interrupting our planned route to chase squirrels or birds or anything else, and she must have had fantasies of steeplechase at one time, because I learned to leap over hedges or go charging through them to keep up. Being in high school and a runner, I didn’t mind, but I knew a guide dog wasn’t really supposed to act like that! Needless to say, I kept her on a very tight leash so I could control her.

Kiefer, on the other hand, had only one thing in mind when his harness was on: guiding. Step around puddles, not through them. (At first I thought it was because he loved me, but really he just hated getting his feet wet!) He’d never, ever run with me in harness, and he preferred going around icy patches to going over them. If I slipped and fell, not an unheard-of occurrence in winter on a farm, he needed no scolding. My being in the wrong position (looking up at him from the ground) was humiliating enough, and he’d redouble his efforts to do his job.

From the beginning, Kiefer proved himself to be an exceptional dog. He was just as perfectionistic in his basic obedience as he was about his guiding duties. He and I, perhaps surprisingly to both of us, bonded fast and firm.

My family fell in love with him, too, and began collecting stories about his exploits. Whether it was eating the entire plate of cookies left for Santa his first Christmas with us, or his vigilance after an ice storm while I was taking care of the farm alone, the stories are now part of our family’s trove of legends. We love animals, but we have high standards, especially when it comes to temperament. Some might take Kiefer’s skills for granted, assuming it’s par for the course for any guide dog. But it’s not, and we all knew it.

There was one creature who wasn’t happy about Kiefer’s arrival, and that was Harley, our barn cat. She had it in mind that I “belonged” to her, along with any baby goat still drinking milk. She’d escort me to the barn whenever I went and lead me back to the house afterward, meowing all the way so I could follow her. If I got off the path, she’d throw herself on the ground and roll around, rustling in the grass until I found her, then scamper off in the right direction, encouraging me to follow with her meows.

Kiefer’s arrival was a huge betrayal (not to mention insulting) to her. For weeks, she stalked back and forth across the top of the Dutch door of our goat nursery barn, staring down at him, who was in a sit-stay waiting for me to finish whatever I was doing. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, her tail flicking in disgusted gestures that seemed to say, “You’re just a dog, and I’ll make you look foolish yet! She’ll send you back to wherever it is you came from. Then the human will be mine, all mine!”

It never worked. I never knew anyone more stubborn than Harley. But when Kiefer was in harness, he could resist just about anything. So the poor cat had to settle for a draw. As cats do, she disappeared for a few days to sulk, then came back and took up her usual daily barn escorts like nothing had happened. Maybe she thought the dog needed leading, too.

Kiefer’s adventures with me weren’t confined to the farm. He flew with me to California where I taught and worked at a conservatory in 2000.

In preparation for that trip, Ted and I flew to Baltimore to see how Kiefer would be on a plane. He hated it, just like he hated the car. So any time we flew, I gave him Benedryl beforehand. You’d think that would make him drowsy and lethargic. It didn’t; he was always much too committed to doing the right thing by me to let himself relax.

We also walked all over Albany, solidifying the trust between Kiefer and me. It’s always something of a process to give your trust to a dog, at least for me. I got many object lessons over the years that assured me Kiefer was trustworthy, but it took my falling into a reflecting pool to get rid of that last tiny smidgen of doubt.

Once at the conservatory, Kiefer and I were on our own, managing a large house and exploring. I tried to go swimming in the pool that was there, but Kiefer thought I was drowning and jumped in to save me. Puddles were bad, but this was unbearable! He paddled around for a minute or so, then jumped out and proceeded to run around the edge of the pool, barking franticly until I got out. Needless to say, I didn’t take him with me on my next swimming trip.

Early in our time in California, on a gorgeous warm night just before sundown, we were playing in the yard. I threw a tennis ball for Kiefer, and, leaping into the air to catch it, he yelped. My heart froze. I called him, and he came, walking on three legs.

That night, I worried a lot, but also hoped he’d just landed wrong and that he’d be fine by morning.

He wasn’t. He unwillingly got up for his breakfast, then went and laid down again. Now there was no doubt: There was something very wrong with Kiefer.

I got a ride to the vet I had found before coming out to the conservatory “just in case”. They took x-rays, then called me back into the exam room with Kiefer.

He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament in his left hind leg. It’s basicly the same injury football players get when they blow out their knees. And, if I wanted the possibility of a few more years of working life for Kiefer, they were recommending surgery.

I went back to the conservatory and called my mom. I called Ted. I called my regular vet back home. I called my Grandma. I cried. Elaine had retired at six because of epilepsy. Kiefer was six now, and we were discussing surgery to put plates and pins in his leg so he could keep working, although no one knew for how much longer.

Two days later, I saw another vet, this one a surgeon. I scheduled surgery, went and bought a crate for the three weeks of cage rest they said he’d need before his cast came off. I thought I was done crying, but I wasn’t.

The day of surgery was one of the hardest I’ve ever had with an animal. I stayed busy, tried not to worry. After all, I was at a conservatory, surrounded by music, the passion of my life.

But I couldn’t concentrate long enough to practice piano, or focus well enough to do any work. When the call from the vet’s office came that Kiefer had come through surgery fine, I cried some more. It would be another two days before I could bring him home.

I might have thought, growing up on a farm, that I could just make the decisions that needed to be made for an animal and be done with it. But my heart always got involved to one degree or another. Kiefer was more than any special goat I’d ever owned. He was my constant companion. I knew I was a strong, independent woman, and I also knew that I could function just fine whether I chose to travel with a long white cane or with a guide dog. But even if a guide dog is just looked at as a different travel tool, it’s a living, breathing, loving creature that I was responsible for, by my own choice. We relied on each other. I fed him, walked him, brushed and petted him. He slept by my bed, was there with a gentle nudge and a lick when I needed reminding that I was loved. He kept watch whether he was curled up under the seat of an airplane or standing with me at a street crossing. As often as Kiefer had done right by me, I wanted to do right by him, and I couldn’t wait to get him home.

Kiefer’s cast ran from the tip of his toes to above the hip, and it was bright blue. I learned how to walk with him while carrying his back end in a sling, how to put on and remove an Elizabethan collar, how to give injections. (I already knew this from the goats, but I didn’t like it and always tried to find someone else to do it.)

What I didn’t learn were the symptoms of anesthetic withdrawal. So when Kiefer woke up the first night howling and whining and didn’t stop for hours, I began to have serious doubts about keeping my sanity. If the next three weeks were going to be like this, I didn’t know how I’d hold up. I petted him, talked to him, held him, cried some more. There was nothing I could do except wait for Kiefer to quiet down.

That night, I was torn between immense relief that no one was in the house to be bothered by the noise and desperately wishing someone was there besides me because I was so scared and confused.

If I needed any proof of the bond between Kiefer and me (and by now, I most certainly didn’t), I got it the first time I put him on a down-stay and went upstairs to do something. Stairs, of course, were off-limits for him. He was good most times, but if I took too long … He’d start by whining for me. If that didn’t get my attention, he made the laborious trip up the stairs on three legs, the cumbersome cast dragging along behind. As long as I live, I’ll never forget the sound of his slow, determined footsteps on those carpeted spiral stairs, nor the absolute joy when he reached the top and found me.

I never used the crate and returned it a few days before flying home. And after the cast came off, I had a guide dog with one shaved leg on which the hair was growing back in brown instead of black and the muscles had atrophied.

Never mind. The welcome we got from family was incomparable.

I married my husband Ted the following April. The day after the wedding, I let Kiefer, now fully recovered out into the backyard. Ten minutes later, when I called him back into the house, he came in on three legs. Oh, Kiefer, you didn’t, did you? … Yes, he had, this time on the right side.

The second surgery was so different from the first; no cast, no post-op injections, and he’d done his withdrawal before I brought him home. Again, a complete recovery.

When my husband and I moved into an apartment, Kiefer learned all kinds of new things. I might have seen many things in Ted, but Kiefer saw only one. Now, not only did he have his “mommy,” but he had a “petting machine,” too. Ted swore he’d never feed Kiefer treats. That lasted three days, maybe less. Kiefer discovered that, not only was Ted good for petting, but he could stare at him adoringly, and unlike “mommy,” he’d get carrots or other goodies out of it.

Of course, at an apartment complex, there were plenty of new things to find, like elevators, curbs, cars. I only recall one instance when Kiefer made a mistake. I told him to find the Dumpster, and instead, he made a beeline for my dad’s truck. Either he misheard my command or my dog had a sense of humor.

By the time Kiefer was ten, though his heart was as willing as ever, his body was becoming unable to take the toll of being in harness. Some days, he’d barely be able to get up, and x-rays showed that he had almost no cartilage in his shoulders, so the pressure of the harness was probably excruciating.

I had told Eric at Freedom Guide Dogs that I would need another dog in the spring of 2005, but by late summer 2004, I had to call and say I needed a replacement for Kiefer sooner. Somehow, they managed to find one.

When the new dog, Ecko, arrived, I wondered if Kiefer would get along with him. I shouldn’t have worried. He has retained his position as the first dog, while allowing Ecko to bond with me and take over the daily responsibility of guiding. He’s also taught Ecko that if you sit and stare at my husband long enough without moving, good things can happen (for Kiefer, it’s often a treat, while Ecko gets a romp in the yard).

Another thing that hasn’t changed is Kiefer as my shadow. He still follows me wherever I go, lying behind my chair in my office or under the piano while I teach or at the foot of the bed while I read. In short, wherever I am is where Kiefer wants to be.

Now, he’s teaching me about old dogs. I’ve never had a dog this old. I’m discovering what my vet calls “grandfather’s cough,” unsteady hind legs, fatty cysts that always look like ticks when they first appear, and hair turning silver, then white. He’s slower going up and down the stairs now and would rather stay asleep than take that last walk before bedtime.

Kiefer has taken Ecko under his wing (or should it be paw?), and when we return from trips for recitals in far-off places, he’s delighted to have his buddy and his “mommy” back. He’s allowed Ecko and I to develop our own unique bond and understands that, even if Ecko gets to do all the work he used to do, there’s still more than enough love from me for both of them.

He loves the new-fallen snow, and after burying his nose in it and inhaling deeply until he sneezes, he’ll go on a long, meandering sniff-fest through the yard and might, if he’s not too stiff, even skip around in it a little.

His tail never stops wagging. Even if he doesn’t lift his head from his bed when I walk into the room, his tail starts thumping.

He greets anyone at the door with resounding barks, as if to let them know that they have to pass his inspection before they can come in, and once inside, they must pet him as a kind of toll payment before they can go up- or downstairs.

When I bend over or kneel down to put on my shoes before taking the dogs outside, Kiefer will bury his nose in my hair. And if I’m sitting, not paying enough attention to him or have stopped petting him before he thinks he’s gotten enough, his paw comes up onto my knee. “Aren’t you forgetting something, Mommy?”

He has been an ambassador for dogs in general and guide dogs in particular to countless people. In short, he’s the kind of dog everyone should be blessed with at least once in a lifetime but often miss out on, a dog who has completely stolen my heart and those of my family and friends.

So, on his thirteenth birthday, I wanted to say, “thanks, Kiefer. You’re a good, good dog!”

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9 Comments on “A Birthday Tribute to a Great Dog”

  1. Grandma Says:

    I love you so much Kiefer. Happy Birthday. The Kindom of Dogs was blessed the day you were born. You lifted much trepedation from my heart when I saw how devoted you were and still are to my wonderful daughter. You became the eyes I could not have there for her when she embarked (No pun intended) on her life’s adventures. My heart would be easy when you were at her side. I was not too willing to pass that trust on to Ecko but by you allowing it I see that it is OK for me to also. You and I have our own special bond. I am allowed to spoil you, give you off limit treats, pet you, let you in rooms where I do not allow dogs, and pour unconditional love on you. In your retirement I love having your company when Grandma dog sitting is needed. We are growing old together, and I feel your aches and pains, but you always have that “it’s OK” loving look in your wise eyes. Kisses all over you today and everyday to Grandmas dear Kiefer….and Great Grandmas dear “flipperling”.

  2. halfnotes Says:

    I love how reading things other people write can often bring new perspective to something we thought we understood. Kiefer has a special spot in my heart that no other dog will ever have (they’ll each get their own, I’m sure). Now, give me the grace and wisdom to know that, though the physical season for Kiefer might be short, love is eternal.

  3. Tina Says:

    Heartfelt, touching, truly amazing, you and your beatuiful rendition of your life-long friend. I learned more about you, guide dogs, Keifer and dependance, trust and logyalty in ten minutes than I have experienced my whole life. I pray we all are able to rely on and by relied upon, as you both were able to each other. I often reflected my relationship with Christ, my Savior. Quite honestly, I don’t believe I have fully trusted on a daily basis to Him the way you did to Kiefer. I will never stop trying, or should I say, I will continue to trust to the best of my ability. I am learning the less abiity we have, the more able we are to depend on the Way, the Truth and the Life.

  4. ombudsben Says:

    Congratulations to Kiefer–he sounds wonderful! And thank you for your kind words about our Vinnie. At 18 years and 9 months he lived to be about 130 in “people” years–so some do live well into their teens and I hope Kiefer has a lot more time with you.

    Our Ernie (german shepherd mix) also hates to get his toes wet, by the way. But we have a black lab almost-2-yr-old now, and she loves water!

    Also very good that you have two. They are so social, even more than people–we may be smarter but I think we deal with solitude better. Out of kindness, as their providers, I believe that every dog should have another dog (especially if they are left alone at all during the day).

  5. halfnotes Says:

    Tina,

    Thanks … Just because I trust a guide dog doesn’t mean I’ve completely learned the lesson. I have to relearn it over and over, and it’s easier to trust some dogs than others … oh, well, gotta love ’em all and trust the best you can!

  6. halfnotes Says:

    Ombudsben,

    Yes, I think they do better when there’s more than one! My current guide, Ecko, also a black Lab, is a lot more insecure about being left byb “Mommy,” and he does better if Kiefer’s there with him. And he absolutely loves the water! I bet I won’t be able to take him with me when I go swimming, but it’ll be because I can keep him out of the pool!

  7. ombudsben Says:

    I’ve mentioned we live in Alameda, CA. Every 4th of July the town has a parade that’s grown kind of big. We all know it’s a cornball affair (no floats built of chicken wire & tissue paper or whatever) but it’s good-natured and lots of fun. Kid’s dance groups, marching bands, funny cars, politicians, churches, etc.

    This year, we took Edie for the first time but our normally brave little girl freaked out for some reason, so I put her back in the car with teh window cracked and in the shade. As my wife & I watched with Ernie, a woman dressed like a clown approached and asked a demanding question about “dog have a dog?”

    I really couldn’t understand her and had her repeat it twice more before I puzzled out that she was asking if our dog had a dog.

    So we half explained that Edie couldn’t handle the noise and hubbub, but being mid-parade made any extended conversation or explanation tough. The upshot was that I already completely agreed with her message–dogs are pack animals and really need a group to be content and happy, so our “dog should have a dog”–but her delivery verified how people can be a little more off-putting!

    Dogs do so well in groups because they’re easier to gt along with than lots of people!

  8. Donna Says:

    I loved your story. My mother is a Puppy Walker for the Smithtown Guide Dog Foundation. She has a three for three record, incredible hih!!
    Her first LEX, stole my heart and swore off being invloved. So much for that.

    Our latest Elaine was called in right after Thanksgiving, I was sure she would come back to us. My last update, they love her, . I hope I can bring myself to attend her Celebration Sunday!!

    None the less Lex has been a a star and I have enlightened my heart every time I get news from her companion, Georgia.
    For a laugh, she says when people ask her how she gets around she says she “Drives a LEXIS”
    Oh miss her. I miss Elaine, I miss Florence but when I here great stories like yours
    I remember the answer to the question “Why do I do this}

  9. halfnotes Says:

    Donna,

    We need more people like you! So many people are afraid of making a commitment to a dog they will have to part with, and so many who do take the plunge raise them as pets, even though they’re going to have much more responsibility. Sounds like you have high expectations for these critters, and it also sounds like you’re doing the right thing. From someone who gets one of those “finished” dogs, let me say a very heartfelt thank-you! As for Sunday: Go! It’s a moment you’ll never get to see again. You’ll probably cry (lots of people do), but you’ll be smiling and bursting with pride and joy, too. Hope you keep up the great work; three people will be forever changed because of what you’ve given.


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