Viva Vegas

Guest post by Elena Arranz Alonso

I hope you didn’t come to this article expecting some glowing yet realistic review of Las Vegas, NV. This is not your lucky day. This article is about a Service Dog in Training named Vegas. This article is also about how he helped us through a global pandemic and all the things he taught me about being human, about being a better human.

Let me take you back to March, 2020. I know, I know, I don’t what to go back either. But here is where our story starts. As the pandemic was quickly spreading through our state, it was becoming clear that we were going to be sent home to stay in for a while.

I probably don’t have to explain that when our jobs sent us home to work remotely, we all thought it would be for two weeks, “four max” we would state at first. At that time, Vegas was a six month black lab who was happily being trained for service dog duties in Boston. His full-time raiser was a college student. My wife works for a service dog training organization and part of her duties are to assist full-time raising volunteers through training and caring for dogs like Vegas. When her college closed its doors and sent the students home to promptly start remote learning, Vegas’s raiser couldn’t take him with her. I can only imagine the pain she felt when she had to let him go, not to mention the trauma of having to run home due to a quickly spreading pandemic. (Read the letter Vegas’s full-time raiser wrote here.)

Vegas came to us at a moment of uncertainty. We were lucky, we had jobs and a home where we could safely weather the storm. I am painfully aware that many were not, and to this day are not, in the same boat. When my wife explained that Vegas would be part of her work from home duties, I accepted the challenge. (Read about training Vegas here.)

In less than a month Vegas will be leaving us for his forever placement. It is time for him to meet his forever person and use all of his training to make their life a bit easier. This is what Vegas has taught me in his time with us:

  1. Learn to go with the flow. You may be a planner, you might always have an alternative route in mind, a plan B, or a plan C, or even a plan Z. There are things in life you can’t prepare for. Learn to accept them and move forward. For example, you may live in a vibrant college campus one day and then be brought to a different home with different people and other dogs. Just go with the flow. Learn to bounce.
  2. Take a nap when you need to. Don’t feel guilty. I am busy bee. Will always find something to do and have something to do. Sometimes, however, it is ok to take a nap or take some me time. Especially when you have been training all day. Embrace that bed for a few minutes. Then get back up and continue the good work.
  3. Lean into others, literally. Vegas is a leaner. He leans his body into you when he wants attention or just to feel close. After so many months of being separated from family and friends, lean into others when you need it. If you can, hug your loved ones, call, send a message, communicate. Connection is more important now than ever. When you need pets, just lean in.
  4. If you do something for another person without being asked, sometimes you will be wrong. Learn to listen to their requests. When Vegas was learning to retrieve objects from the floor, he would pick up items here and there without being asked and just bring them to you. He had to learn that he can’t pick up everything we dropped. Some of us “fixers” need to remember this.
  5. There is always space in your home for one more. Our house is small. We have two cats and two dogs. A family member joined our household to follow the stay-in-place orders. I kept thinking we were pushing it. And yet, we made it work. When Vegas left for a few days to spend some time with other volunteers, the house seemed a bit empty. There is always space for one more.
  6. When you make a mistake, don’t fret about it. Learn and move on. I am one of those people that replays mistakes in my mind over and over. I wonder why I made them or how others feel about the mistake. I blame myself for things going wrong. Vegas taught me that we all make mistakes. One day, we caught him on our shower trying to eat a bar of soap. Big mistake in the service dog world. We reprimanded him and he seemed pretty affected. He has never done it again. However, ten minutes later he was playing with our dogs completely recovered from the shame.
  7. Learn to love those who are with you, regardless of how much time you will get to share with them. Many of us tend to protect our hearts from those who are destined to not stay in our lives forever. We put up walls and try not to love too deeply for the foreseeable pain that is to come when they inevitably leave. I was one of them. Vegas has broken all of the walls I so decidedly built the day he came home to us. I love his playful demeanor, how he leans on you for pets, how he leaps when running if he’s too excited, and how he looks at you while waiting for commands. While being evaluated at NEADS, Vegas’ evaluator reported that he naturally leaned on her during a car ride. Vegas just loves those around him, regardless of how long they will stay around. When it comes to giving love and affection, do not worry about expiration dates.
  8. When duty calls and it’s your time to go, just welcome new adventures and move forward. Chances are you are reading this once Vegas has left our household and we might never get to see him again. Chances are I might be teary eyed right now. Chances are, you are. However, in spite of all the love, and laughter, and leaning, and dog hair, and muddy paw prints covering our floor, it is time for him to go. This house will be a bit quieter, which our dogs will appreciate; and maybe a bit cleaner, which I will treasure. Vegas will be missed, but he is needed elsewhere, and he is ready.

In a few years, when we remember these times, we might talk about how a global pandemic upended our lives, homes, dreams and plans. I will forever remember this pandemic as the time that service dog in training came into our lives and all he taught me about being a little bit more human. Viva Vegas.