In 1996, my father entered a contest through a farming magazine called “The Great American Farm Dog Contest.” Actually, I should note that my mother ‘encouraged’ him to enter the contest about why he felt he could use a service dog.
Perhaps it would be best to give a little back story to why my father would enter such a contest. In June 1986, my father was involved in a motorcycle/car accident on his way home from work. A car failed to stop at a stop sign and ran directly into my father, who then flew off his motorcycle and into a nearby ditch. The accident left him a paraplegic. Never one to be told he couldn’t do something or be held back from something he loved to do, he continued to farm once he got out of the hospital for the last time in February 1987. Through creating and adding various, and at first quite crude, lifts onto many of the farm machinery and equipment, he was back in the field within a year. Of course there were things he relied on other people to help him with but, for the most part, he adapted to his situation.
Fast-forward to 1996 and the contest, my mother thought he had a chance to win. Of the hundreds of applicants, my father won. The grand prize was a three-week trip to Independence, Pennsylvania to have a service dog trained and assigned by Independence Dog, Inc. If you are wondering how a dog would assist a person with a wheelchair, I found the following description:
Wheelchair Dogs are trained to assist a person with strong upper body function who uses a wheelchair. They are taught to pull their partners up ramps and to support their partners as they transfer from a wheelchair to another chair, car, or bed. They can even help their partner get back into the wheelchair after a fall. Since dogs are not color-blind, they can identify objects, such as books or clothes, by color. These dogs are also trained to open heavy doors, pop wheelchairs over high curbs, and carry packages or books in their specially constructed backpacks.
My family went to Pennsylvania and were set up in a house where the dog training facility was located. The dog assigned to my father was Belle – a golden retriever. Our family had always had dogs but we never had a golden retrievers. Belle was the typical golden retriever with a quite and calm demeanor and soft, fluffy fur that one could use as a pillow (and blanket!) on those cold nights. Most of the time we were there, the trainers would work with Belle and my father. Soon they became quite the pair as Belle identified her new master. We would go on day trips together so Belle and my father could adapt to different environments together. The three weeks went very quickly and soon we were on our way back to Minnesota. On the plane ride home, Belle said on the floor of the plane next to my father’s seat.
Once we were home, Belle enjoyed the openness of the farm and took an avid interest in the pigs. Luckily, she ignored the farm cats and soon they ignored her as well. My father and Belle were quite a pair as she sat next to him in his Kawasaki Mule and even in the combine and enclosed tractors.
One time, my father was feed in the pigs and as he was pushing up the small hill to the house, he slid on ice and tipped over. At the time my sister and I were in the house, suddenly we heard Belle barking – she never barked. We looked out the window to see her in the front yard looking at us and barking. She would then run towards the barn and back to the house, barking the entire time. We knew that something was wrong. After getting on boots and coats we headed to the barn with Belle leading the way. If she had not informed us that he had fell, who knows how long my father would have been out there on the snow and ice.
In February 2005, Belle passed away of cancer. As she got older, my father ‘retired’ her from her service dog duties but never as his faithful companion. It is always difficult to say “Goodbye” to our furry family members, but saying it to Belle was heartbreaking. She epitomized the saying “man’s best friend.” Since my family had Belle, they have since had/have mostly Golden Retrievers (with the recent exception of Louie). And all have been rescues. Belle still has a special place in the house as seen in the photographs. Her ashes, collar and Service Dog harness along with photographs of her and my father are positioned throughout my parents’ house.
Belle was “The Great American Farm Dog” and we still miss her dearly.