Most mothers struggling to relate to their teenage daughter would not immediately think that fostering a service dog puppy would be the answer to their problems. Yet, for Sharron Kahn Luttrell, it was.
Having lost their family dog several years ago, Luttrell was suffering from ‘doggie deficit disorder’, but was reluctant to commit to another dog on her own as her two teenagers were about to graduate from high school and ‘leave the nest’. Unsure that she would want all of the responsibilities of a dog that might live for ten to fifteen years would entail, Luttrell decided to become a weekend foster for a N.E.A.D.S. (National Education for Assistance Dogs Services) service dog in training. Enter Daisy, a yellow lab with an infectious smile and goofy disposition, a little ray of sunshine, a bundle of joy.
Luttrell’s memoir Weekends with Daisy documents her experience as a weekend foster for a Daisy, who is raised and trained by an inmate, Keith, in a nearby prison during the week. Through this unlikely partnership between a stay at home mother of two and a convicted felon serving a decades-long sentence, Luttrell explores the nature of compassion, redemption, forgiveness, and kindness with refreshing candor and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor.
Weekends with Daisy is a story about the transformative role dogs play in our lives and a testament to the simple power of sloppy kisses and furry affection. It is the tale of how the love of a pup can break through carefully constructed defense mechanisms and teach us about love, loss and patience.
As the Executive Director of a local service dog organization, Diggity Dogs Service Dogs, I am fortunate enough to see such transformations occur often. Of course, our dogs create such change in the lives of our clients, which is to be expected. However, they also do so for our foster volunteers.
Just last week, I sat watching six dogs frolicking in the grass with one of our fosters, a woman I have known for roughly six months when she began to tell me how much she has learned from the service dog in training that she has been fostering for even less time than that.
I was not surprised by her words, as the transformation in her seemed obvious to me. There was a light-hearted calmness to her that was not there when we first met. She seemed, quite simply, at ease.
I first met this foster when she attended an orientation event our Shelburne Falls training center. (All of Diggity Dogs’ service dogs in training are fostered by local volunteers while being training and anyone interested in fostering one of them must first participate in a three to four hour orientation before they are eligible to be matched with one of our dogs.) It is remarkable that she was there at all, really, as she had spent most of her life terrified of dogs.
However, as she began to work less, now partially retired, she had a strong desire to give back, to help others in some way. After reading an article about our organization she decided that she wanted to do that by volunteering for our growing local non-profit. And so, despite her fears, she applied to our foster program.
Since then, she served as a loving relief (temporary) foster for several of our dogs in training, before finally agreeing to foster one of our “wonderful washouts”, a dog that will not be graduating as a service dog (primarily because of her very high prey drive and attraction to everything that moves.) Amazingly, it was this dog – a dog that required far more patience and effort than any of our other dogs in training – which she credits for teaching her the most.
As we sat on her porch watching the dogs in fading daylight, she explained how the patience and compassion that the experience has instilled in her has had a positive affect on her family too. It has spilled over into her marriage and her relationships with her children and grandchildren.
Her words fill me with joy, as I had suspected that being a foster volunteer for our program had been instrumental in creating the changes I have seen in her. To me, she has become someone who can happily roll with whatever life serves up. She is quick to laugh and seems less anxious, less fearful; more confident. She seems to be enjoying life more, having more fun. Not because she is doing things that are more fun, but because her perspective has shifted. It is subtle but marked difference from the woman I met in late 2014.
I am moved by her sentiments and we watch in wonder as the pups gallop across the lawn.
As we do so, I wonder whether Luttrell’s experiences led to her fostering again or to get a dog of her own. Once home, I Google her name and quickly find her website where I am delighted to discover that she has continued to foster for N.E.A.D.S.. Luttrell has, in fact, fostered a total of ten dogs, five of whom graduated and five she dubs “fabulous flunkies”.
Unfortunately, not all dogs trained in service dog organizations will go on to make great service dogs. It is the frustrating reality of the industry. However, I love knowing that Luttrell’s passion for fostering has obviously not been dampened by this fact, just as I love the fact that our fosters regularly ask for another foster dog once the one they have had with them for the last six to twelve months graduates. Yes, there is usually an adjustment period, as they learn to love their new four-legged friend. They always differ in some ways from the pup they just reluctantly said goodbye to, but they are inevitably won over again by each new dog, as their differences bring new joys, new laughter, new insights into the world and themselves.
My foster’s experiences, and the experiences of the characters in Weekends with Daisy, remind me that life’s biggest lessons often come from surprising sources and that, sometimes, it is when you set out to teach that you actually learn the most.