The door opened, and in they all ran. We, the class of seven, sat waiting to meet our future guide dogs and from amongst the cold, wet noses that rubbed against my hand came Croche.
She was a cross between black lab and Bernese Mountain Dog. Croche means eighth note, a musical term in French. I loved the name immediately, and loving the dog it belonged to would soon follow.
We were clearly meant for each other from the start, a match set. The trainers needed to observe us walking: her at my left side, me holding the harness in my left hand, leash between my fingers, and off we’d go.
I learned the proper commands to give her to offer direction. We walked back and forth in the kennel and out onto the sidewalk, and soon they had us out crossing streets in the nearby town as challenge to see if we could move safely as a team, trusting each other slowly, or faster than I could have imagined once I had her by my side.
I was 14 years old and about to enter high school when a teacher asked me if I’d ever considered getting a guide dog. Truthfully, I had not. My lack of confidence always told me I wasn’t ready for such grand ideas. My teacher believed I was ready.
Within a few months, we had all the necessary paperwork filled out and soon I was accepted into a guide dog training program. Quebec contained the only school that would even consider taking someone my age. A guide dog is more than a pet. It’s a big responsibility and a commitment of at least ten years.
Before I began high school, my family dropped me off a whole province away from home in Ontario. I would spend an entire month by myself in the guide dog training program, in a class where people spoke French, the language I’d learned in school and still felt ill equipped to speak.
Soon, I met other English-speaking students and I was so busy with training that I no longer felt so self conscious. If I had any doubts about my ability to travel independently, the faith others had in me would simply have to suffice for the moment. I could do this, they assured me. Croche and I would take on the future together, that I knew for certain.
Once we were back home, I was nervous to begin a new school, a much bigger one, and Croche became the answer to my prayers.
She saw me through long weeks of classes and packed hallways, sitting quietly by my feet while I worked and learned to play the clarinet. It was rather exciting for the other students to have a dog walking around school. We were well-known in that building.
Croche would come with me to many places, more than other animals were allowed. She spent a lot of time in hospital ICUs as I received surgery to correct a curve in my spine, and eventually spent even more time lying obediently on the floor beside my bed as I rested. Along with the spinal surgery came headaches and chronic pain, and I would fall into a depression as the pain increased and school became difficult. My days were less lonely thanks to Croche, but my guilt grew ever deeper.
She’d gone from an active, high-energy guide dog, rushing into her harness when I’d hold it up, to a comfort/therapy animal. I was wasting her potential, but she was so loyal that the only place she wanted to be was next to me. Unfortunately, as life too often happens, I wound up repaying the favor in the end.
It started with a few small surgeries to remove cysts and things. Soon, however, Croche had a sore on her foot that would not go away. She accompanied me to only a few classes of my one-year college program before I put down her harness for the final time. I was back to using my cane. It felt like I was missing a limb.
She was approaching her eleventh birthday and I could tell something wasn’t right. She could hardly walk and the vet seemed unwilling to say for certain what was going on. Instead, she sent us to an animal hospital 40 minutes away to be sure of the correct diagnosis. There they broke it to me that Croche had cancer and was likely in a lot of pain.
They suggested keeping her overnight to start her on some pain medicine and we would need to decide where to go from there. We slept in a hotel in the area that night and by morning, I knew what I would do. I would take her home for her final days, weeks—however much time she had left.
During last month of her life, the living room became our bedroom. She would lie on her dog bed and I would be on the couch, reaching my arm down to her any time she needed me.
On her final morning, she was brought in from outside, laid down on her soft bed and had a seizure. I put my hand on her to show her she was not alone and to let her know I would never forget her and then she was gone.
It’s been ten years since Croche died, and on this anniversary, I consider how perfect a team we really were. As time has gone by, I’ve begun to forget the little things I loved about her, like her soft fur and the way her ears would perk up when she’d hear a sound that interested her.
I’ve been asked by many people during these last ten years if I will get another guide dog. Many people do. The choice between a white cane or a guide dog isn’t always necessarily easy nor simple. For me, it needs to feel right. Of course, I still convince myself that she is irreplaceable and that I’ll never find another like her.
I honor her here and now though, in my words. And I still owe her. I owe her for helping me realize my own confidence to move through this world like everyone always knew I could. With her by my side through my teenage years, I was able to show the world what I could do, and her guidance brought the world to me in a whole new way. This enlightenment has carried me through the last ten years, and it will stay with me always.
Regardless of what the future holds, Croche will always be my first guide dog, and she’ll always be unforgettable to me.