Mr. Darcy: Service Dog School Flunkout

Last August, our beloved fourteen-year-old golden retriever Midas died after a long fight with cancer. Although his death was extremely hard for us, his leaving was a little more bearable because we knew the handsome fellow above would be coming to live with us. When my husband and I found out for certain that Midas only had a few more weeks to live, we began the search for another dog.

We felt a little guilty at first, almost as though we were betraying Midas, but we remembered how lonely we were after Max, our golden before Midas, died in 2007. During the weeks we were dogless, the house was unbearably still. Every random sound made us perk up our ears and listen. Did the dog need water? Did he have to go out? We’d find ourselves halfway down the hall on some perceived doggie errand before we’d remember that we didn’t have a pooch anymore. I would wake up several times during the night, thinking I heard the clinking of a rabies tag against a collar buckle, the usual signal that Max was trying to get our attention. Sadly, I’d realize the noise was just the wind chime on the porch.

Back then, it took us several weeks—and one unpleasant encounter with some unkind people at a golden retriever rescue agency—before we adopted Midas from the wonderful folks at Love a Golden Rescue in St. Louis, Missouri. I don’t want to be critical of the many rescue agencies that do great work. I know they see far too many cases of animal cruelty and neglect. However, more people are reporting that overly zealous volunteers are giving animal rescue a bad name with their impossibly strict standards. A few volunteers may actually be pushing more folks toward breeders, something rescue agencies say they wish to avoid.

Even though my husband and I had thirty years of golden retriever ownership between us when Max died and could document that our animals were well cared for, the first rescue agency we contacted in 2007 treated us with suspicion and disdain. In fact, we were even a little horrified by how a few of the volunteers handled some of the dogs we met. One stern woman claimed to be an adherent of boot camp training and jerked the leash of the golden she was possessively guarding every time the dog barely moved. She scowled constantly and judged us to be too wimpy and unfit to adopt a golden, the gentlest of all dog breeds.

This time, realizing Midas’s days were numbered and knowing it generally takes months for a rescue agency to vet applicants for a new dog (and dreading the prospect of interacting with any unhappy, critical, and strict dog rescue volunteers), we started looking beyond the rescue agencies for a new canine companion. We checked the AKC list of non-puppy mill breeders, thinking that adopting a golden puppy would be preferable to the rescue agency inquisition.  However, we weren’t particularly enthusiastic about all the work that goes into socializing and house-breaking such a young dog. We checked Craigslist and saw a few three and four-year-old goldens who needed to be re-homed for one reason or another, but none of those leads panned out.

A week before Midas passed away, I saw an ad on E-Bay Classifieds for a male golden who needed a new home. The ad indicated he was initially supposed to be trained as a service dog but would be more suitable as a pet. I contacted the owner, told her our circumstances, and she invited us over to her house to meet the dog. We learned that Ciara, the dog’s owner, is an Air Force veteran who worked as a trainer/handler of bomb-sniffing dogs in Kuwait. Now she runs her own business and trains service dogs for people (especially children) who have severe food allergies. I wasn’t aware of it, but smart dogs like golden retrievers can use their noses to detect life-threatening allergens like peanuts, milk, and gluten in foods. Although it sounds stupid, as Ciara was explaining this, I kept imagining a dog running into a room containing peanut butter cookies, shoving the kid to the side with an “Okay, I got this!” move, and devouring the offending snacks before the child knew what was going on. However, it’s a lot more complex and scientifically cool than that.

Ciara was so kind, gentle, and professional that we were immediately impressed with her. Although her work dictates that dogs be impeccably behaved, she is a patient trainer adept at assessing which canines are service dog material and which ones might be meant for less heroic (but still important) work, like lounging around and eating chips and guac with indulgent owners like us.

We fell in love with the dog immediately. He was a little over a year old and extremely smart. He knows basic commands like “sit” and “stay” and possesses boundless energy. He can jump at least four feet off the ground when he tries hard and will retrieve a ball for hours. The reason Ciara had to wash him out of service dog school, however, is that he has a tendency to do a medium-pitched growl to express enthusiasm or excitement. It’s not an aggressive sound, just a “Come on, you guys! Let’s go for a walk, slowpokes!” or a “I’m so glad you’re home! Let’s go play ball!!!” sound of happiness. Still, such a noise is positively unacceptable for a service animal who must accompany his/her companion into public places where any perceived aggression could result in the animal’s being banned from the location.

We brought the new dog home with us two days after Midas died. The first order of business was to change his name. Ciara called him Teddy, but Mike didn’t really like it. All of his other goldens’ names started with an M (Mark, Monty, Max, Midas), just like Mike’s name, so we decided we’d start making a transition to names that begin with a D (like mine). Surprisingly, it was Mike who suggested calling him Mr. Darcy in honor of my favorite literary character. Plus, the name has both an M and D, but we typically just call him Darcy. I’ve also given him a few pet names like Darce, Darce-Dog, and Darce-Dog-Day, when I sing him the little song I made up to the tune of “Camptown Races”:

There’s my little Darcy-Dog,
Darce-Dog, Darce-Dog.
There’s my little Darcy-Dog,
Oh, Darce-Dog-Day.

We’ve had Mr. Darcy for about six months now, and he’s absolutely perfect for us. While we marvel at heroic canines who can perform search and rescue and save children’s lives by sniffing out deadly allergens, our guy makes us happy just being our companion. Truth be told, we can’t be too hard on him for not excelling in service dog school. Mike and I signed up for obedience training classes with Darcy and dropped out after the first week. We were just too lazy to bother. Darcy is already a canine good citizen even if he doesn’t have the diploma to prove it.