We sent Porter off for formal training at the Seeing Eye with the highest of hopes, only to have him wash out and return to us for adoption. It seems he just couldn't contain his pent-up enthusiasm during the harness work. They have an official name for it: "emotional urination." Porter is with us to this day, a devoted 8-year-old family companion.
Porter's most important contribution as a puppy-in-training was when we took him to the Rutgers Ag Field Day, where he won a generous "participation" ribbon for obedience. When we toured the hog barn, Porter stopped and reached out to sniff noses with a small piglet that was stretching up to say hi. Betsy was immediately struck by the similarity between pup and piggy. "That's it," she vowed. "I'll never eat pork again." She was true to her word, and within a short time, she'd sworn off all meat. She's a committed vegetarian to this day.
Our next puppy was Velma, a velvet-coated black Lab/golden retriever cross so sweet-natured and reliable that we knew she would make someone a wonderful guide dog. But Velma surprised us, too. She turned out to be too good. Tapped during training as one of the "best of the best," she was selected for the Seeing Eye's prestigious breeding program, where she produced 28 healthy pups in all. Velma has been a great mom, which brings us to Sparkle.
Sparkle, born in January 2011, is a pup from Velma's first litter. She's bright, unconditionally devoted, without being a clingy "Velcro dog," and she has already completed her harness training since she went back to the Seeing Eye in April. Last month, she went off into the world with her new owner, a young, energetic woman from Massachusetts, who characterized their bond as "love at first sight."
Raising Sparkle has been especially rewarding, as I shared her 13 months with us on a Philly.com blog I named "Puppy Steps." It's all there on the blog, from Sparkle's first reluctant steps on the sidewalk in front of our house (captured on video, with a passing motorist slamming on her brakes to stop and coo over her), to pictures of Sparkle masterfully guiding her trainer, Brooke Donaldson, through the traffic-heavy streets on Morristown on her Town Walk demonstration in September.
Looking back, I can say that Betsy and I were quite the tag team. Since I work evenings at The Inquirer, I had Sparkle all to myself in the mornings. Every day, there would be a 50-minute walk, with Porter also in tow.
I'd crate Sparkle when I left for work, but she wouldn't be in there long. Betsy would arrive home from school within a half-hour. Then she would bring Sparkle out, play with her, and care for her the rest of the day. It's crucial for a Seeing Eye puppy to get lots of stimulation and companionship. Ours were never left alone for long. At night, following Seeing Eye procedure, Sparkle slept right next to Betsy's bed, just as she would for her blind owner.
Our mission was not to train Sparkle to be a guide dog, but rather to accustom her to the sights and sounds she would encounter in her career. We took her every place we could think of, from routine trips to the Home Depot to fairs and festivals and city streets. In summer 2011, we took Sparkle along on a two-week minivan trek visiting prospective colleges for Betsy in the Midwest. We went to Purdue, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and Oberlin, with plenty of side trips thrown in. Sparkle took a dip in Lake Michigan and proudly posed with Neil Armstrong's statue outside the Purdue engineering building that bears his name. Navigating Sparkle through the throngs on Chicago's Navy Pier on a Saturday night in August was nerve-racking for me, but Sparkle came through just fine.
On our outings, Betsy usually led Sparkle while I trailed along with the camera. I remember, during our group tour of Atlantic City International Airport, following a line of pups out the arriving-flights door into a full-blown nor'easter. I can still see the pups forging bravely ahead, tails high and wagging, as the trailing humans struggled to hold on to their hats and raincoats. I also marveled at how easily Sparkle tucked herself into the tiny space in front of Betsy's seat on the Boeing 737 that they let us board after we went through the full airport-security screening.
Our time with Sparkle was all about practice and patience. There was no one destination, but everything was headed in one direction. As Betsy sailed through her senior year of high school and began applying to colleges, Sparkle filled out into the very real outline of a Seeing Eye dog. I could see it in her purposeful stride, her attentiveness to everything going on around her, and her willingness to learn.
Not only did Betsy help Sparkle succeed, but our pups helped Betsy with college. Puppy-raising was a strong extracurricular activity for her applications, and Betsy won a puppy-raiser scholarship from the Seeing Eye. Imagine, it's the grown-up pups who are now "paying it forward" by helping with Betsy's tuition.
Every time I snapped on the leather leash and took Sparkle out on the sidewalk, I could feel that eager but gentle pressure pulling me forward, radiating right back up the leash and into my palm. That's love, pure and simple. It would be a truly daunting prospect to be blind and venture out onto a busy city street, under any conditions. With Sparkle in the lead, though, the obstacles would fall away and every successful trip would bring us that much closer together.
Just weeks after Betsy started college, the Seeing Eye sent me an e-mail saying that Velma had had another litter. Did we want a pup? Of course! I instantly replied that I was "interested" and fired off a quick text to Betsy. In her reply, I could sense she was both amused and perplexed. In the next few hours, the reality began to sink in. Without Betsy, we just don't have the time or the resources - not only in raising the pup but in attending the monthly puppy-raiser training sessions.
I realized it would be unfair to the pup as well as to the Seeing Eye program to accept a pup when we could not properly commit.
My wife, Cathy, had a great suggestion: Let's ask for a golden retriever pup for next spring if Betsy comes home for the summer. The next day, I e-mailed our request.
A few weeks later, the Seeing Eye called with a real surprise. Sparkle's mom, Velma, was retiring as a breeder and we could adopt her. She's now back home with us, delighted to chase around with Porter and take leisurely autumn strolls.
I can always find room in my heart for another pup. It's just our tiny family room that is starting to look rather crowded. Come summer, though, it looks as if we'll be getting the old band back together.
George R. Carter is an Inquirer editor. Contact him at 215-854-2410 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow the Puppy Steps blog at www.philly.com/puppysteps .