Back in the early '90s I was teaching obedience classes once a week for Sunnyside Parks & Recreation. I had a spring session starting up, and the coordinator called me with an unusual request.
"I have someone who wants to take the class, but she doesn't have a dog. She just really likes them, and thought it would be fun. Can you take her?"
Sure, I said. She could "borrow" one of my Rottweilers to use in the class. Cubby was our little "special ed" dog, a backyard-bred mini-Rott who'd never quite fit in with other dogs.
And so I met Eloise Lusch. She was in her 50s, divorced, and living a lonely shut-in existence on a disability. But she'd always been drawn to dogs for their unconditional love. She and my little misfit Rottie hit it off famously, and she became Cubby's guardian during the classes for the next eight weeks.
Actually, it turned out to be much longer than eight weeks. Eloise enjoyed the class--and Cubby--so much that she signed up for the next class. When that ended, I arranged for Eloise to be my "assistant" at all the future classes I taught in Sunnyside. While I worked with the other students, I could entrust Cubby to her care. It was a winning combo for everyone.
Over the months that turned into years, Eloise became like a member of the Manning family. She attended some dog shows with me around the state, and she house-sat for us a few times. Meanwhile, she was also taking night classes for her GED. She earned that, and took more classes for clerical-type job placement. She eventually landed a good full-time job at Wal-Mart in Sunnyside, where she worked for several years before retiring in 2005.
But the real story was Eloise's love for dogs--even if they belonged to someone else. She observed dozens of dogs (and their handlers) in the Sunnyside classes, while faithfully babysitting my quirky little Cubby. For Christmas one year, she presented Cubby with a hand-crocheted afghan...but every other dog in our household got one too (four in all), and each was just a bit different from the others.
Cubby died in '99, and Eloise took it hard. She dedicated a portion of her small apartment wall to photos of the little Rottie that had been like a godchild to her. Eloise desperately needed a dog of her own, but didn't think it would be financially or logistically possible. So we worked out a plan.
I had this horrendous monthly task of publishing and mailing a newsletter to about 2000 members of shooting clubs around the northwest. It took five hours to address, stamp, sort, and actually mail, and after doing it for 10 years I was sick of it. So I hired Eloise to do the monthly mailing project for me. In exchange, I'd help her find an appropriate dog of her own, pay the pet deposit, and pay for the dog's vet bills, food, and other expenses.
With Eloise's blessing, the search began immediately. I made weekly trips to the Yakima Humane Society in her stead, looking for the dog I hoped would be perfect for her.
One day, there she was....a little black and tan mutt that looked like a shepherd/corgi mix. She wasn't fancy. She wasn't loud. She didn't stand out at all. But she had soft, trusting eyes that said, "I'm the one." And her time was up. Because she hadn't been a showy dog...because she'd been quiet and plain...prospective families had passed by her cage too many times without even noticing her. No one wanted this plain little dog. She was to be euthanized the next day.
I called Eloise, who rushed up the minute she clocked out at Wal-Mart. She met the dog, who instantly confirmed what she'd told me. She WAS the one for Eloise! She was meant to be chosen that day for this person. Eloise named her Berry...a subtle reference to Cubby (Bear).
At long last, Eloise attended Manning classes with her very own dog. Berry was quick to learn and desperate to please. With her sweet, calm, submissive personality, she was a role model for every new dog that started class. So I had Eloise bring her to countless "Week Ones" of Leadership Classes so I could use Berry as a demo dog. She was just....perfect.
Berry played such an important role in Eloise's life that she became certified as a service dog, aiding Eloise with clinical depression. Berry even accompanied Eloise to work at Wal-Mart on occasion, where the two were front-door greeters. To this day, she is Eloise's constant and dearest companion.
But the story continues. Eloise has now moved to Yakima. One of the reasons? She and Berry have begun regularly visiting a circuit of Yakima nursing homes, where Berry is joyfully changing the lives of these elderly residents, just as she changed Eloise's life.
When I first met Eloise many years ago, she was quiet and withdrawn, reticent among strangers, lacking self confidence, and experiencing great loneliness. Today she's running her own show with confidence, grace and optimism, and coordinating her own therapy dog program. DOGS have done all this for her....particularly one very special little dog named Berry, who's given her a purpose, and a life.