The Dog Who Could
Someone once said that God made a mistake when he created dogs because their lives end too quickly. It was June 27, 2011 when I sat in front of my computer to write down my thoughts concerning the previous day’s passing of my hero guide dog, Roselle, who escaped with me from the 78th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Roselle was not the first guide dog or pet I’ve had that I would call a hero or exceptional friend, but she was and is the most famous.
I have been fortunate to have been paired with many good guide dogs, and at least two exceptional ones, over my 55 years of guide dog life #guidedoglife, including #Roselle, of course. The other was her immediate predecessor, Linnie. I’ll have to write about Linnie later. Another dog we adopted from GDB, Panama, was a senior who also created amazing memories during the three years we got to spend with her.
I sit down to write again today, August 31, 2019, because yesterday, we lost Fantasia who may well have been the most exceptional dog friend, teacher and magnificent hero of them all. I say up front that I do not know how long this article will be as I have 13 and a half years of a relationship to share. Who knows, perhaps this will be the start of that long-awaited book people have been encouraging me to write. We’ll see.
In late 2005 while I was employed at Guide Dogs for the Blind (@GDB) in San Rafael, my wife, Karen, and I decided to volunteer to be a breeder keeper for the school. GDB breeds its own dogs for guide work. When the breeder dogs are not engaged directly in creating puppies, the school likes to put them in homes rather than keeping them in kennels. This makes sense as kennel life is somewhat stressful especially if one lives there year-round until their careers as breeders end. I contacted Marina who directed the breeder department and we began the process to be considered as breeder keepers. The evaluation process is a pretty stringent one. One condition which we met handily was that we needed to live within 75 miles of the school. Living 7 miles away was a good start.
In early January of 2006 we were accepted as breeder keepers. Marina and the breeding staff recognized that our situation was a bit unusual as Karen would be the primary breeder caretaker due to my travel and work schedule. Since Karen uses a power wheelchair, the staff wanted to find a dog who would not react negatively to Karen’s chair. We were both invited to come to the breeding department on Wednesday, January 11, 2006 to meet four possibilities. Because our situation was a bit unusual, there was more attention given than what normally took place during the advance meeting between dogs and breeder keepers. In our case, everyone wanted a good match upfront.
When we arrived, we were told that one of the four possibilities was favored over the other three, but we all wanted to see how all four dogs would react to us. Of course, the breeding team would not tell us up front which dog they favored. The second, third and fourth options basically wanted to avoid Karen’s wheelchair. They either drew back when Karen came close or they simply would not interact with her if they were brought to her. We had been somewhat spoiled by the first dog, who happened to be the breeding department’s first choice anyway, as this creature, Fantasia, not only had no fear of the wheelchair, but as soon as she saw Karen she came right over and jumped into Karen’s lap as if to say, “I’m here so let’s go for a ride”. Even more interesting was the fact that whenever Karen, once we got Fantasia off her lap, began to take Fantasia for a walk, this amazingly empathetic dog came right along Karen’s left side, walking right next to her. We learned that Tasia, as we called her, had received guide dog training, but Tasia did not try to guide, rather she simply walked right next to Karen without any fear or concern for the wheelchair or for anything else. We were amazed at how quickly Fantasia, without any prompting, recognized the best way to walk along side Karen. Karen and I felt that this incredible being bonded with both of us, but especially with Karen, right from the start.
Roselle met Fantasia as we left the breeding department and returned to my office, where I fetched wok to take home, so that we could all spend time with Fantasia for the rest of the day. How well did Roselle, Zelly, and Fantasia do with each other? Here is an email I sent to Breeding on January 12. Judge for yourself.
Yesterday was the first full day for Roselle and Fantasia as house mates. For most of Wednesday Roselle was off working so even that day was short for the two of them. Anyway, we came home last evening and loosed the dogs. Roselle’s first task at home every night is to find a toy to play with until dinner is ready. I can’t explain it, but even relieving takes a back seat to a toy. Picture the scene — Roselle has her squeaky toy and out of her crate and the bedroom bounds Fantasia. We learned quickly that Roselle will accept our new bundle of action. When Roselle saw Fantasia, she attempted to push her toy down Fantasia’s throat to get her to play. It wasn’t long before we had a real tug a-going. It wasn’t long after that when the goy gave out, a squeaker dropped to the floor and we had to intervene. No problem, however. We found our best log rope tug bone and they both went at it together. We did get them to stop for dinner and a potty break. Today, the contests have continued when permitted. I think we have the beginnings of a “beautiful friendship”. Thanks to you all. We’ll take good care of Fantasia. I hope she produces lots of good guide puppies. She certainly has the smarts for it. –Michael Hingson
Fantasia was an instant hit with everyone including our cat Cali who had been raised around my previous guides and other GDB dogs we either adopted, or boarded and cared for. We still had Panama when Fantasia bounded into all our lives. Panama left us the next month, but I know she and Fantasia developed as close a bond as they could during the last month of Panama’s life.
When blind people are paired with guide dogs, they end their training period with a graduation at the guide dog campus where they received training. While some people receive in-home training they also are invited to a graduation at the campus where their guides were trained. At these graduations new breeders also graduate. I was on travel during Fantasia’s graduation, but Karen and she attended. Fantasia’s puppy raisers, mother and daughter, came and got to see Fantasia. While Tasia greeted them she pretty much made it clear that she wanted to stay by Karen’s side. When Karen told me about the event she said that Fantasia’s raiser’s mother said at one point, “what am I, chopped liver”? I think that Fantasia’s actions only were meant to say, “Karen is Mom now”. “I like you, but it is time for us to say goodbye and move on”.
Tasia was incredible at giving us her opinions. I remember almost from the start how at 8:30PM she would simply get up and go to her crate in our bedroom. If we didn’t follow soon she would wake up, notice that we hadn’t come to bed, and come out to find and bug us until we joined her in the bedroom. If we did not respond appropriately by following her eventually she would turn her back on us and go off in a huff to her crate. There was no convincing her that we might wish to stay up later than she.
Later in her life Karen began spoiling her by letting her sleep on the bed with us. Even so, she was quite comfortable using her crate until the last six months of her life when she wished to stay close and sleep between us every night. Of course, we were quite ok with this arrangement as we wanted to keep Tasia’s stress level to a minimum and since we wanted to ensure that she never felt that we did not value her.
One morning about a year after Tasia joined us we discovered how intelligent she was. Fantasia was chewing on a Galileo dog bone. This morning Karen snuck her up on the bed. Miss Fantasia was having a good old-time chewing, but the bone kept slipping away from her. Suddenly, she dropped the bone on the bed, jumped down and left the room. She returned in a few seconds carrying a hard rubber doughnut-shaped dog toy called a Gonut. She jumped back on the bed and dropped the Gonut. She picked up her bone and placed one end into the Gonut/doughnut hole and again began chewing. Of course, the bone no longer slipped away from her. How smart was Fantasia to realize how to use the Gonut as a tool?
Another example of Fantasia’s high intelligence and empathetic personality involved how she became a true service dog for Karen. One day late in Fantasia’s first year with us Karen dropped something, a piece of paper I think. As soon as the paper hit the floor Tasia got up and somehow picked up the paper and gave it to Karen. From then on for many years Tasia was Karen’s fetch dog even though she had never been taught to fetch at Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Fantasia was always the clock watcher in our animal kingdom. Breakfast came for all our dogs after I awakened and got ready for work. Dinner, however, always took place just after I returned home around 5PM. If I did not feed dogs quickly after getting home Miss Tasia was jolly on the spot reminding me that human needs were secondary to dog feeding. She was as pushy about this as she was with going to her crate and sleep. Later when I worked from home Fantasia would start bugging for dinner at 4:30 even if she knew I wasn’t going to prepare her feast until 5PM. This habit stayed with her until about three weeks before she left us.
Fantasia was a hit at every family gathering and party. She made sure she greeted every person no matter how young or how old. She was great around babies and she loved being around children who played with her.
While we enjoyed Fantasia’s company she did have a job to do. She was, after all, a Guide Dogs for the Blind breeder. In April 2006 she was called to come in to assume her breeding responsibilities. In June her first litter was born. Her second litter came in 2007. This litter included Africa who became my eighth guide in November 2008. Fantasia had four litters in all which yielded 31 puppies. Over 50% became guides and at least one traveled internationally to breed overseas.
During the birth of her last litter and the time right after in 2009 Fantasia developed a serious case of Mastitis. We learned after the fact that we almost lost her. She did recover although she lost one mammary gland.
After the birth of her fourth litter and the resulting complications, Fantasia retired from breeding. We then officially adopted her. Of course, from Fantasia’s point of view the official adoption took place on January 11, 2006 and I guess it did for us as well. It was nice, however, to finally make the relationship legal in the eyes of society.
Roselle retired from guiding in 2007 due to a medical issue, but she and Fantasia continued to be besties. In 2009 Zelly developed Gastric Torsion and had to undergo emergency surgery late one night. Although Fantasia and Roselle still played, when Roselle returned from the hospital Fantasia clearly grasped that the two could not play for a while. She stayed around Roselle and helped nurse her friend back to health. Roselle was the impatient one to “get back to normal”, but it was a few weeks before real play resumed.
We met Dave and Louise Wilson even before we moved from New Jersey to Novato CA so I could join the GDB staff. The Wilsons were the proud parents of Roselle’s father, Seaver and lived one street over from where we landed in Novato. Less you think that maturity, being a breeder and illness changed Fantasia here is an email from Louise discussing a time in November 2011 when Fantasia stayed with the Wilsons while Karen and I took some time to ourselves.
“Hi Karen & Mike,
Dave said to tell you that he is going to hide Fantasia when it is time for her to go home!! We are having such a good time with her. She is such a love. She loves to climb into Dave’s lap when he is in his recliner – especially when he is reading the newspaper. She climbs in my lap on the sofa when we watch TV at night. She reminds me so much of Seaver. He did all those things – he couldn’t get close enough. Sedona has had such great fun playing with her. They play tug of war for hours and she wears Sedona out, which is good!! Fantine just lays and watches them thinking they are both crazy for exerting so much energy! She has been no problem at all, and we love having her. She is welcome to stay as long as you want. We only have Dave’s family coming for Thanksgiving so she won’t be in the way and the kids would love her, I am sure. I hope you two are enjoying being “childless” for a few days.
Just wanted you to know not to worry about Fantasia and we will keep her as long as you like. Sedona will be very sad to see her go home. Any time you need doggie care for her = we are here and would love to have her.
Fantasia did think herself quite the lap dog whenever she could get away with it. She was around 13 pounds heavier than Roselle, but I remember one day when I sat in my recliner and Roselle thought she should be a lap dog and climbed into my lap. I leaned back in the chair to give Roselle some room. The next thing I knew Tasia also decided to climb into the chair lying on my legs right below Roselle. Both dogs got comfortable and went to sleep. Ah the burdens we need to bear to keep our fur friends happy..
We had to say goodbye to Roselle in June of 2011. Fantasia still had Africa to play with and continued to be the dog in chief of the house. Even though Fantasia was not with us when we helped Roselle cross the rainbow bridge I think she grasped what had happened. She became quite clingy toward both of us and seemed to help console Africa who had been with us and Roselle at the end.
In January of 2014 we were confronted with the most critical crisis of our entire family life up to that time and I hope for any time in the future. Karen contracted double pneumonia and went into Kaiser Permanente hospital where she was put into an induced coma in the ICU. She remained hospitalized for a month during most of which she remained in a coma state. Fantasia kept looking for Karen throughout our house. About a week and a half after Karen was hospitalized I requested permission to bring Fantasia to visit her. When I got the green light, we went one evening to see Karen. The first thing Fantasia did was to climb up on Karen’s bed and lie right next to her. Karen was unaware of this at the time, but fantasia stayed with her for some time, I am sure, sending her healing vibes to Karen. When it was time to leave Fantasia came willingly. I think I took Fantasia three times to see Karen before Karen finally came home. Fantasia spent virtually every waking, or sleeping, hour with Karen until her strength returned.
After Karen’s illness our family encouraged us to move to Southern California to be closer to them. We moved from Novato to Victorville in early July of 2014. Since we could not find a wheelchair accessible house we moved into an apartment and purchased a lot elsewhere in Victorville on which we would build an accessible home. The apartment was not overly wheelchair friendly, but the apartment complex staff did help to make the property work for us. Fantasia, as always, was a hit and worked hard to keep up her visiting reputation.
In December 2016 our home finally was completed, and we moved into our new digs. I am sure both Fantasia and Africa were quite happy to get out of a cramped apartment. By this time Fantasia was over 12 and a half years old. She had no difficulty adjusting again to house living and, as always, was the creature in charge of food clock watching. Somewhere while still in Novato I began giving all dogs some treats at 8PM. Over time, Fantasia began treat pushing at 7:30PM. Karen finally convinced me to change treat time to 7:30. Of course, what did Fantasia do? She began moving up her clock pushing for treats at 7 in the evening. I finally relented and 7PM became treat time. Tasia did try to push up the time again, but I held firm. It became a game for Fantasia to advocate for treats beginning at 6:30, but I think she knew I wasn’t going to give in to another treat time change. There would be some days when we needed to feed dogs later than 5PM. If dinner came at 6 or even 6:30PM Fantasia was Johnny-on-the-spot, pushing for treats as soon as dinner was over.
In February of 2018 Africa retired and went to live with her puppy raisers. This was necessary, as with my travel schedule, there was no way that Karen could care for two dogs when I was gone. Alamo, a black male lab joined the family and was immediately welcomed by Fantasia. By now Tasia was slowing down a bit, but she still held her own with tug games and clock-watching, which she taught Alamo as well.
In July 2019 we noticed that Fantasia’s mouth appeared to be hurting her. In late July she began yipping whenever she opened her mouth too wide. Our veterinarian, Dr. Pierce, put her on a high dose of prednisone to see if she simply had an inflammatory condition. Also, Fantasia was having increased difficulty standing in the morning. After a week and a half Fantasia developed a case of pancreatitis and although her mouth did seem to pain her less we had to cut out the prednisone.
When her mouth pain returned Dr., Pierce decided to anesthetize her in order to examine her mouth and to take some x-rays. Tasia went into this examination this past Thursday, August 29. The results were somewhat inconclusive, but we did learn that the right side of her mouth was quite swollen and the tissue there was hard. Dr. Pierce felt that she either had a destructive bone disease, cancer or perhaps a fungal infection. The conclusion from a board-certified radiologist was vague, but clearly some advancing condition was taking place. Fantasia’s mouth had become quite swollen and painful in a relatively short time.
We decided to take Tasia home Thursday evening. She had not eaten that morning and became insistent on food as soon as we returned home. After giving her a meal, which now consisted of soft food, as she could not eat regular kibbles, she came out of the room with her dish and pushed for more food. We gave it to her. By now she also was not pushing any more for bones at 7PM, but I crushed one for her and sat watching her eat it. Clearly she had not lost her appetite.
On Friday Fantasia could not stand at all without help. Once she was upright she could walk about, but clearly it was increasingly hard for her to do so. As usual, I was up and moving before Karen, but when Karen got up we decided that the quality of life Fantasia was exhibiting was not good at all. We contacted Dr. Pierce and collectively agreed that it was time to say goodbye to Fantasia. She didn’t need to continue to feel the pain she was obviously experiencing. We knew the pain in her mouth was constant both due to her need for soft food and because she constantly was panting and was clearly in discomfort.
At around 12:30 on Friday we were in Dr. Pierce’s clinic where we said our final goodbyes to Fantasia. We wanted her to live forever, but God invented dogs and God knew when it was time for Fantasia to go to where Roselle, Linnie, Panama and so many other dog, cat and human friends were waiting to greet her.
Our house is a bit emptier today. We do have all our Fantasia memories. A wise veterinarian once told Karen and me after we had to say goodbye to a cat Karen had known for fifteen years that getting a new companion should never be viewed as replacing the one we had lost. We would not be replacing old memories, but we would be making new ones when we allowed a new animal to come into our lives. I agree with this. However, having experienced many incredible animal relationships I can say with certainty that Fantasia was not only unique but that she was exceptional in every way. We were fortunate to be the ones she met and chose.
Fantasia, we will never forget you. We value all you gave to us and I can only hope that we can use what we learned from you to show others, animal and human alike, that same unconditional love and friendship that you gave us. Love Always, Mike and Karen