by John Delach
Dear reader, I believe you know about my love of retrievers. You also know that Mary Ann and I adopted Tessie last fall after her partner, Ria M reached the conclusion that Tessie could no longer perform all that is required of a blind person’s service dog. Tessie was Ria’s seventh Seeing Eye for the Blind guide dog all who had served Ria for as long as they could. If you wish to read in detail how Tessie came to live with us, go to my WordPress site and find “Welcome Tessy” published last December. (Using the spelling “Tessy” was my error.)
Goldens and labs are hard-wired to be retrievers. Historically, these working dogs have been bred to fetch waterfowl that their hunting masters bring down into ponds and lakes. On command, they follow hand signals to search out the fallen birds and return them to shore intact thanks to their soft mouths.
When Ria invited us to adopt Tessie, she hoped her loyal yellow lab companion would have experiences beyond those in the realm of a service dog’s life. Ria wanted Tessie to experience play with other dogs and the freedom to be just herself for herself.
Without question, we fulfilled Ria’s hopes and wishes thanks to our then eight-year old – still wacky Golden Retriever, Max, enhanced by our almost anything goes attitude toward our family dogs. When Tessie came to live with us, I told Mary Ann: “Give me a month and she will be a Delach dog.”
Tessie soon found pleasure in her new environment just as Ria had hoped. She checked off a variety of experiences previously off-limits in her mind. The most important to Ria was play. Not a problem as Tessie took to Max and, he to her. They became pals and play mates from the get-go; tug of war, a morning tussle, a post dinner tussle initiated by whoever decided to start a play session.
As the calendar flipped from 2018 into 2019 and winter morphed into spring, we re-opened our New Hampshire house and looked forward to summer.
Tessie had never experienced being in water. Our summer project was to convince a ten-year old Lab that she could swim. The key was to help her break the code that she was buoyant, that it was in her nature to retrieve and that she was engineered with a coat made to protect her from cold water.
We had a few advantages, Tessie loved playing with tennis balls and retrieving them. Another was Max. He is truly a water dog. When he was younger, he was somewhat ambivalent to fetching tennis balls but as he matured his enjoyment steadily increased.
In the beginning Tessie chose to concentrate on the tennis ball offered to her. Fortunately, she didn’t have a problem getting her legs and belly wet. It was only when she felt the beginning stage of becoming buoyant that she rushed back to shore. Our first goal was to make her comfortable. Throw the ball where she could grab it, praise her for retrieving it, repeat, repeat and repeat. A few times we tossed it beyond her comfort zone to extend her reach, but she wasn’t having any of that. This wasn’t a problem as we had Plan B; Max would retrieve the balls that exceeded her range.
Next time out, we tossed more balls into the forbidden zone. Each time we waited as Tessie checked out the distance and measured her options. Soon enough she chose to leap toward those tennis balls floating just outside her reach. She pounced, grabbed the ball into her mouth, made a quick 180 degree turn and quickly returned to safety where her paws found the muddy bottom.
She didn’t know it yet, but we recognized that Tessie had broken the code and was already swimming. Finally, after one otherwise uneventful toss, Tessie, leapt, grabbed and began to circle but then continued to circle realizing being buoyant was a good feeling that she could manage.
Breakthrough achieved, the rest was just a matter of increasing the distance, graduating from tossing the ball to using a tennis racquet to hit her target further and further out into the pond that eventually matched the distance that we were hitting them for Max.
We try to separate the balls, so our two dogs don’t aim for the same one. Even if we miscalculate and both aim for the same ball, neither can mouth more than one so both retrieve the prize they desire.
It is a joy to watch them race out to retrieve their tennis balls then leisurely paddle back to shore side-by-side tennis balls held proudly in their mouths. They are our water dogs who make us so happy.