It's the second day now that I'm not myself. How can someone be so sad about passing of a dog that was not even her own? Let me tell you the story of Reggie the guide dog.
I first met Reggie and his guidee Peg in August 2016, when I moved to my new teaching job at a small college in Pennsylvania. Peg was my colleague and our offices were across the hall from each other. You would never tell that Peg had a genetic vision condition that nearly blinded her completely, that's how well adjusted and highly functioning she was. To this day, I'd tell her, pointing at something, "You see?" and she'd just plainly reply, "No, I don't, but tell me like you see it." Best exercise for giving good descriptions.
Reggie was one of the reasons Peg was so high-functioning. He was an excellent guide dog that would warn Peg about an obstacle or danger, find his way to basically anything and lead Peg there, and communicate his own needs to her. Peg would proudly tell everyone that Reggie had saved her life at least a couple of times when they were crossing the Queens Blvd during her visits to New York City.
I'm pretty sure Peg and Reggie had a secret language and body connection. They were like a well-synced tandem, with Reggie being very attuned to Peg's movements. Guide dogs go through special training for that and learn how to almost literally become an extension of their guidees. It was a wonder to watch, especially because I never heard Reggie bark or talk. He'd sometimes growl quietly in displeasure or softly whimper like a puppy when he asked for something, but never barked or showed his anger in another way. Kids loved him and our students often used him as a therapy dog, as it turned out, as well.
Reggie and I quickly became friends. Peg would take his leash and harness off when she'd reach her office, which gave him freedom of moving around. He'd never stray too far but a lot of times when Peg went to the radio station or the restroom and came back, she'd stop by my office, "Is Reggie here?" Most of the times, he was.
He'd stroll into my office unnoticed, put his big beautiful head into my lap, and look me in the eye, "I'm here! Hi, how are you?" I'd pet him behind his ears, kiss him on his forehead, and talk with him. He had those incredible loving and all-understanding eyes that would melt your heart. He also loved all sorts of treats and knew that I always had some interesting foods in my office. He'd always sniff them out. There's a reason Peg's daughter called him "a naughty food surfer."
"Don't overfeed him," Peg told me when I asked what he was allowed to eat. "He is already a little overweight, needs more exercise. And never feed him chocolate, it would kill him." To me, a dark chocolate connoisseur, the piece of information that dogs could die of chocolate was a shocker. I was glad Peg told me before I ever attempted to treat Reggie for chocolate. She also explained to me that as a Labrador mix he missed an enzyme signalling to his brain that his stomach was full. Reggie would eat everything you'd give him. He'd just gobble it all up.
Soon, we developed our little ritual: Whenever Reggie came to visit, I'd have some fruit for him, such as a banana, pear, or apple. He loved them all, but apples were his favorite. I'd take him to our kitchenette, wash and slice an apple, and feed it to Reggie slice by slice. He'd just lick it off my hand and gobble it up, a lot of times without chewing it.
"That's it? Bud, you shouldn't just down it in one piece. Chew on it, savor it!" I'd say, feeding him another slice.
He'd simply tilt his head to the right and lick his lips, "Have some more? I want some more!"
When the fruit was gone and I'd say, "That's it, Reggie, you are done! I have no more apples," I swear he'd give a big sigh, like "That's it???" Understanding that our little break was over, he would shuffle his paws back to Peg's office, with his shoulders drooping and head down.
"I don't know if he loves me or them apples more," I'd joke to Peg often.
"I'm sure he loves you," Peg would respond, "apples are just a perk."
Peg, her husband Jim, who is also a guidee for a handsome dog named Greyhound, and I became close friends in a really short time. My son and I would visit them often, and spend many holidays and weekends together. At one point, I found myself between rental places and they hosted me for almost two months at the end of the semester. We became one big family of humans and animals (at that time Peg and Jim also had three cats, in addition to their two guide dogs).
When I was staying with them, I'd take Reggie for a walk in the local park almost every day (we didn't like walking in the rain). He absolutely loved those walks because there was so much to explore and sniff out in the park! Once, noticing that there was no one around, I took his leash off and let him run around a little. Oh, how happy he was! He rolled himself in the high spring grass, ran back and forth to the little canal and fetched me sticks. And then, he came back with a dead bird in his mouth, put it at my feet, and proudly looked at me, "See, I can bring food too!"
It took me a second to realize what it was. "Eww, Reggie, where did you find it?" He showed me the direction with his head, "There!" Still very proud of himself. As a child of the 1970s who ran around wild in my grandparents' village, I could tell the bird was long dead as it had the signs and smell of decomposition. "Eww," I said again, "Reggie, you shouldn't have put that in your mouth!"
I took a doggie bag out of my pocket and bent to pack the bird for trash, but Reggie snatched it quickly and stepped back, "This game is mine!" It took a lot of stern talk and semi-angry commands on my part (I don't think he ever took me seriously when I tried to give him commands) for Reggie to put it down, very reluctantly and with a big sigh. When we came back from the walk and I told Jim and Peg Reggie had found a dead bird, they both laughed and said, "That boy had so many weird things in his mouth, you wouldn't even want to know!"
That same year of the pandemic, before I went down south for the summer, Peg decided to retire Reggie. He would have turned 10 that August, and he spent 8 years of his life working. So Peg decided it was time for him to simply enjoy his life. Dogs of his Lab/Retriever mix usually live to 12-13 years, so he'd be able to just live out his days happily, having a relaxed life in a loving home. I suggested that I'd adopt Reggie but then I moved to a place that did not allow pets and Peg decided to keep him at home. She also applied for a new companion from the Guide Dog Foundation. Anna arrived early summer with a trainer from the Foundation and Reggie, being the sage of the animal part of the family, accepted her and shared his wisdom with her.
A year later Peg took what she thought would be early retirement but in fact landed her a job at another school, and several months later they moved further away from me and closer to Peg's new job. Reggie and all other animals quickly adjusted to the new house and environment. I came to visit whenever I could, and even though it wasn't as often as I'd want to, I still took Reggie for walks. He also slept with me in the guest room, setting himself next to the bed and snoring and laughing in his sleep. I just loved his presence in the room, it felt safe, warm, and protected.
Because I didn't visit too often, I could see how Reggie was getting older with every visit: his face would get more gray hairs, he started to drag one of his legs because of a hip pain, and got several fatty tumors. Even though they were benevolent I tried to bypass them when I brushed his still luxurious shiny black coat. Reggie loved being brushed, he would just lie at my feet and murmur with pleasure when I did it.
In a couple of weeks, Reggie would have turned 13. I was away for most of the summer on a research trip and will be going back to Pennsylvania this weekend. One of the things I was looking forward to was taking Reggie for a walk again, brushing him, and kissing him on his forehead.
Last week, our mutual friend Shel posted that Reggie got sick and asked for prayers for him. I was hoping it wasn't anything too serious and he'd recover. But then on Monday, August 14, Peg called me in the morning and said, "I'm calling you because I didn't want you to learn this from a Facebook post." My heart sank. We cried on the phone together and Peg promised me a vile with Reggie's ashes when he gets cremated.
I still can't believe Reggie is no more. That I will not be able to look into those big brown eyes, bottomless wells of empathy and love. Or take him for a walk where people would complement Reggie's handsomeness and I'd proudly tell them that he was a retired guide dog and even though he is big and may seem scary, he is actually a tender loving old boy who is incredibly good with kids. I have learned so much about dogs, their guidees and the Guide Dog Foundation thanks to Reggie, Greyhound, Anna and Peg and Jim. My life has become a lot richer with them in it.
If there is reincarnation, I hope one day Reggie returns as another great dog or even a better human. But not too soon, as Peg said, she'd like him to spend some time in Heaven and be their guardian angel.
If you liked this story and were inspired by Reggie, please consider donating to the Guide Dog Foundation. The organization's website also has a lot of information about how guide dogs are trained and how they help people with low to no vision.
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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters