By: GDB graduate Joy Thomas
I sometimes find it ironic that one of the biggest gifts I've ever received was given to me by complete strangers. I usually reserve the most valuable, time-consuming presents for my close family members, so the idea that someone would put such great effort into a gift for a stranger is, at times, baffling to me; the idea that someone would prepare such a gift 38 times is downright mind-boggling.
But that's exactly what my guide dog, Roja's, puppy raisers did. They raised 38 puppies prior to Roja. Of course, not all of those became guide dogs and not all of them were long-term raising situations, but from what they shared, they have seen a significant number of their pups graduate as guide dogs. In Roja's case, they actually co-raised her with another family, due to work scheduling issues. The cooperation of two remarkable families resulted in the creation of a very adaptable, calm guide dog, which is exactly what I needed.
My raisers' hours of work and play with Roja resulted in a four-legged angel with a set of eyes that help me move smoothly through life. As if that gift weren't enough, my raisers gave me other gifts on graduation day. They brought a toy they made for Roja, but more meaningful to me, they gave me the words I needed to hear that day. They told me that they could tell Roja was meant to be a guide dog from the time she was a puppy.
Before meeting them, I had been nervous that the interaction would be difficult, that maybe they'd be sobbing over the sadness of saying goodbye to her, as I had heard some classmates describe about their graduation day meeting with their previous dogs' raisers. Such a reaction would have been understandable to me. I know that puppy raisers wake up in the middle of the night with their puppies in the early days, that they spend countless hours working with and training these pups that are constantly by their side and become part of their families. It wouldn't have surprised me nor annoyed me in the least if there had been tears. One classmate told me that his first puppy raiser's parting words were: “She may be our puppy, but she's your dog.” I appreciated hearing the distinction put in those words.
And I appreciated the words of encouragement from Roja's raisers. I think after raising so many dogs, they had learned to detach themselves emotionally, and maybe since she was co-raised, they weren't as attached. But they put a tremendous amount of time and effort and love into a puppy that they eventually gave up for a complete stranger. And then, as if that weren't enough, they drove several hours to send Roja off with a proper farewell, and they offered that same stranger the gift of letting yet another puppy go graciously and with meaningful words.
They later sent me an email, telling me that they both felt that Roja seemed happy with me. They had no idea that at times I had doubted Roja's and my bond at the beginning, so the idea that they would encourage me in that exact area meant so much to me, especially since they had spent enough time with her as a puppy to assess whether she looked happy.
The interesting thing about receiving such a sizable gift from strangers is that there's no suitable gift I can give in return that would be able to convey my gratitude. I gave Roja's raisers framed pictures of Roja and myself, which seemed almost comical in its simplicity on graduation day, compared with the gift that would be leading me home. I can only hope that Roja's raisers received an intrinsic gift as they watched Roja and me graduate. That watching a stranger gain newfound mobility, confidence and freedom as a result of their sacrifice made it somehow worth it for them. I have the sense that this must be true, or they wouldn't have continued raising pups all these years. Even if it's not an equal exchange, however, that's the best part about gifts. When given genuinely, they are given without expectation, even to strangers.