By Karen Walasek
Finn has “officially” been my medical assist service dog since May in 2011. In broad terms what that means is he helped me with my physical health concerns in ways that no human can. His relatives have been known to smell diabetes and cancer. They can be trained to respond in ways that save the lives of people in their care. They provide the blind with mobility. But for me, the most amazing feat was Finn’s undying focus (on me and others in need) and his drive to respond as he saw fit. As my relationship with Finn grew he took on responsibilities beyond the narrowly defined physical aspects of my personal well-being. Long before his death he became a ritual maker, time keeper, and guardian of balance extraordinaire, tuning into the needs of those within his chosen sphere of influence in ways that eventually taught me to mostly just sit back and watch. I say mostly, because Finn had a way of pushing the limits that caused me to question my own unexamined mistaken loyalties to the propriety of sacrilegiously protected social constructs. All that barking at the Bread and Puppet theater threw me for a loop, I never saw him do anything like it, but Finn knew disruption when he saw it and the need to seek balance.
Finn didn’t care if you were a professor lecturing a class after running a marathon who needed a lick on the leg because your muscles were threatening to cramp, or a student teacher who needed to be reminded to take your meds. He didn’t care if I knew why he had decided to jump up from beneath my seat, bark and paw at a student until the student responded. His sense of purpose was unshakeable. Afterwards he would sit with what I came to know as his official stance, head tilted up slightly, sitting proudly with a look on his face that could only be seen as satisfaction with a job well done. To be sure, I would be embarrassed often, trying to honor the special privileges a service dog owner is supposed to respect, but when human after human would confide in me what service Finn provided for them I learned to accept that Finn chose his service in ways that were beyond my ability to comprehend and I learned to let him take the lead.
When I was a graduate student at Portland State College classes which were held in circles with all the chairs pushed back leaving the center open, became an invitation for Finn to begin and end our gathering with a ritual roll on his back. It became such a known ceremony that students would ask him if there was a problem if he refrained. Class just couldn’t begin unless Finn did his roll, and it wasn’t over until he said so. Before long people began thanking me for bringing Finn and the best part of sharing my life with him became listening to these stories. I would be pointed at on the escalator of a mall by a teenager yelling proudly, “I know that dog!” Finn as service dog to the world was a teachable moment for children to learn about service dogs and to learn they should always ask first before you reach to touch a dog. They also learned that animals should have their sovereignty respected when I would ask Finn if he wanted to say “hello”, and sometimes he would turn his head away in an obvious “no”. He was the ambassador for veterans with PTSD who would randomly walk up to us in a book store to ask about getting their own service dog. Struggling high school students needing individualized learning plans, elderly couples who recently lost their dog, travelers nervous about flying, unruly teenagers who needed to be told rough housing is for outdoors only, I have lost count of those he touched.
All the while Finn never lost track of me. He filled the cracks and crevices of my life with love and devotion, tucked under my desk, the dinner table, a restaurant booth, at my feet during a cross country flight, I was never alone. He was always there, watching out for me. What this did for me was allowed me to become healthy. Finn willed me to get better. I went from being someone who could barely get in and out of a car to someone who does farm chores. I went from someone who felt defeated by my health to someone who knew no fear to find the next step whenever I reached a plateau. Wherever I went, whatever I needed to do, I could regain my sense of courage and feel safe.
These things will always be with me, even as I am constantly met with the places where Finn is no longer there. No need to ask if my buddy-buddy needs to go out, no need to make sure the water bowl in the bathroom is filled in case he wants to get a drink in the middle of the night. It’s the mundane empty places that hit me unaware and I uncontrollably grieve his loss. I expect that. Finn taught me that, who cares what rules might claim different. Needs must be met; all rules be damned. How could I not? On his last day I only left him once to go to the barn to milk the cow. He had been on the back porch so that he could take in the fresh air of his farm. Though he could barely stand, when I returned he had managed to make it to the edge of the gate closest to the barn so he could keep an eye out for my return. In his last hours he wanted me close, never to lose physical contact so that I sat in my chair with my foot pressed against his side never to allow for a break in touch. I read to him, Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community by Sobonfu Somé. Somé told tales of the specialness of each child being born in this world, each with a special gift to share, it made the most sense to read. When it was time to put the book down, and I placed my hand on his head, Finn was ready to let go. Like it or not here I was once again, following his lead. What service does your dog provide? Hell, I don’t have a clue; I don’t think I will be ever to fully answer that question. Ask Finn, I am sure he knows better than me. Don’t worry; I talk to him all the time. He doesn’t mind. And when you are done listening to what he has to tell you with his presence, he will get that look on his face, head tilted just so, all-knowing, with the satisfaction of a job well done. Finn will always be service dog to the world and beyond.
Finn 1/7/04 – 9/25/18