I woke up knowing that my new puppy’s name would be Gabriel. My husband was well into the process of finding me an animal that he could train as a Service dog to help me with walking, stability, and balance. We chose an Airedale terrier from a line of Performance Airedales. These were dogs that wanted, above all else, to have a job to do. The 10 week old puppy came home to us during one of New England’s very cold winters. I was literally bowled over by the enthusiasm of his first sight of me.
Gabriel’s first Christmas was a joyous one for us all. He was easily housebroken although the bitter cold meant we kept boots, hats, scarves, and gloves at every door where we might scoop him up and take him outside. We were in an ideal setting otherwise, with plenty of room for him to run and space in which to be trained. It was an exciting new chapter in our lives.
We all drove South for a couple of months of respite from Winter. We fell in love with a Florida neighborhood where we rented and made a plan to re-locate when we found the right space for the three of us. In the interim, we had a home to sell in Oregon and Gabe was a gem on his first plane ride, sleeping peacefully for the seven hour flight. Ten months of his upbringing, and much of his training, took place in Oregon. He proved to be an outstanding learner, a proud and happy prince!
When a home was found in our chosen neighborhood, Gabriel made his first long road trip. From running on the Bonneville Salt Flats, to playing ball alongside the Mississippi River, to long stretches in the car – Gabe was patient and a fun travel companion.
Splitting our time between Florida and our lakeside home in New England, life with Gabriel was an unfolding adventure. When our son died in 2016, we could not have made it through those agonizing first months without Gabe’s unconditional love and affection. At age four, he was at the “top of his game” as a Service dog and was a constant helping presence in our lives. Gabe’s vocabulary of commands went way beyond Sit, Stay, and Come. He knew how to Wait at a street corner, Heel steadily at my side no matter what, and Leave It, whether that was food, another dog, or a friendly human. He navigated gracefully around my strange handicapped devices – canes, walkers, scooters, elevators, and chairlifts. When we put his vest on him, he recognized the clear signal that he was working and always brought his A game in restaurants, theaters, ballparks, and many other venues.
Gabe made canine and human friends in both our neighborhoods and was a genuine ambassador of goodwill. His best friend in Florida was Dexter and through their playdates we forged a strong bond with Dexter’s “two-leggers,” Ann and Scott.
It was a joyous Friday when we took the two dogs for their first weekend at “camp” together. We stopped for lunch on the way to the kennel and the dogs greatly enjoyed “pup cups’ of custard. We took lots of pictures as they embarked on this adventure together.
Early Sunday morning, as we were reporting to a Conference two hours away, I received a text that Gabriel had gone missing from our trusted kennel. He had not been found by the time we were on the home stretch of the Interstate. It was us who found him by the side of the road. We had a few moments to weep and say our good-byes before Animal Control took away his body. Suddenly, as we had had to do with our son’s death, we were using words like Cremation and Memorial. You must do this while in shock and terrible grief. We had some comfort from a miracle as we sat in the car at that roadside. I looked through my windshield and saw a cloud in the distinct shape of an Airedale terrier.
Pet loss is a disenfranchised grief in the sense that society as a whole does not recognize the depth of the bond between pet and owner. Most condolences are perfunctory and unsatisfying. Sudden and traumatic pet loss is worse for the “pet parent” and no better in terms of the help available to deal with the grief. As a Service dog, there was no place that Gabriel could not go with us. Our relationship with him was closer than with any other pet we ever had partly because of the job he performed for me and the training bond with my husband. Once again, there was before and now there is after and we often feel lost and disoriented.
I believe Gabe didn’t suffer as his spirit left his body behind but, as with all death, those of us who loved him dearly must somehow find a way to go forward without that wonderful, loving, presence. Rest in Peace Gabriel.