Dark Chocolate by Susan Mellsopp
The dog that saved my life
‘Chocolate Labrador puppies for sale’ said the small handwritten advertisement on the noticeboard at the opening of the new vet clinic. Borrowing a piece of paper I hastily wrote down the telephone number and tucked it in my pocket.
On a hot and sticky February afternoon as the car was enveloped in a cloud of dust, we travelled to the remote beef and sheep farm to view the puppies. Tense with anticipation, I clutched my purse which held $500, the cost of a puppy. Greeted by an exuberant golden Labrador with soft brown eyes, we were introduced to her human family, then her puppies; seven roly-poly chocolate bundles of joy.
I sat on the soft velvety lawn with puppies crawling all over me and eventually she chose me – one pup snuggled into my lap and fell asleep. Chocolat, as she was quickly named, curled into a tight shaking ball on my shoulder as we drove home. My arm numbed as she listened to my loving and concerned heartbeat.
My vision had been decreasing rapidly due to severe myopia and retinal myopathy. One day my husband had forcefully grabbed my arm and pushed me across the street, almost colliding with a car. This had reinforced my decision to apply for a guide dog. I was unhappy and my marriage precarious. Falling often, stairs and kerbs frightened me. The freedom a guide dog would bring me to navigate the farm, my small country town and to shop independently without the constant imposition of someone who controlled every detail of my life was paramount.
An ophthalmologist’s report showed that I was, as yet, ineligible for a guide dog. The local guide dog instructor suggested purchasing a puppy she could help me train to keep me safe on the farm. I contacted her a few days after bringing Chocolat home and asked if she would come and meet her.
A week later the dirt streaked guide dog van arrived unexpectedly. The instructor looked at the little chocolate ball rolling around on our decking and returned to her van, emerging with a small red puppy cover. Chocolat was to be puppy walked and socialised in the anticipation she would become a fully working guide dog! This unexpected turn of events was not without its trials. My husband thought he knew best, and ignoring the instructor’s rules constantly took charge of my puppy and arranged his life around her. He invariably snatched her lead insisting I was doing it wrong. The few times I was permitted to walk around on my own with her were delightful. Suddenly it was alright to tell people I was losing my sight.
Although pleased with her training progress, the instructor failed to conceal her growing disgust with the way my husband had taken over Chocolat. His insistence that she would be having a litter of puppies made her very angry. In no uncertain terms she told him if this happened Chocolat would be withdrawn from the puppy programme. This gave me the courage to finally stand my ground. My dog became my place of love and safety in a disintegrating marriage of disability disgust and online dalliances.
Late one sultry March afternoon when Chocolat was fourteen months old, a new instructor arrived to visit. A country girl whose life revolved around dogs, she breathed a new spirit into me. We talked for hours, constantly interrupted by my husband to ensure he controlled our conversation.
I left the farm forever two days later, rescued by police amid threats of shooting my beloved dog, suicide, and vicious verbal assault. As I gathered up my puppy, put on her red coat, and ran up the road, he yelled he never wanted to see either of us again.
I had no option but to move in with my ninety year old mother who hated dogs and said Chocolat was ‘disgusting’. To escape her callous sniping and criticism I walked for miles sobbing constantly. I felt desperately alone and wrote in my diary “at least I have Chocolat.” Then a decision was made to take my puppy in for assessment prior to fully training her. Devastated, I cried for hours when she left. Unfortunately Mum’s cruel treatment had predicated a lifelong health issue on Chocolat who became extremely ill a couple of days later with a neurological condition, almost dying. I moved, and she returned so I could nurse her back to health. Major eye surgery for a retinal detachment had left me lonely, depressed and desperate for canine love.
Guide Dog Services soon returned for her. I was told the final training phase might not work as the poly-arthritis which had damaged her hips might prevent her walking on hard footpaths for any length of time. Additionally, the many changes in the previous eighteen months could have damaged her psychologically and working as a guide might prove too stressful.
Chocolat came back in February fully trained. I was instructed not to take her anywhere, she had to be tied to a table leg for the weekend unless needing to be toileted. It must have seemed very strange and she became quite withdrawn. The following week our training began in earnest. Every morning Julie and I went for short walks as I learnt the correct way to hold the harness, approach corners, and stop at kerbs. This was followed by an hour of dog care instruction and rules around guide dogs. Determined to make this work we went on bus trips, to cafes and shops. My afternoons and evenings were spent putting the finishing touches on my master’s thesis. I often worked late, forgetting dinner, but was deliriously happy to have my beautiful friend with me again, forever.
Graduation day arrived. I had taken my thesis to be bound for marking and packed it to be posted. Despatching the precious parcel, Julie and I enjoyed a celebratory morning tea. A final check to ensure I was working safely with my dog and Julie drove away. I burst into uncontrollable tears. I was an official guide dog handler, the thesis I had toiled over for two and a half years was completed, and I was happily single. I was at a crossroads. I applied for jobs, about 70 in total. All the responses were negative, I was too highly qualified. I considered returning to study for a PhD but soon abandoned this thought.
Chocolat and I began to travel the city looking for a permanent home. My friend Sharon found a partially built townhouse down a secluded right of way and I knew this would be our forever home. Approving of my choice, Chocolat and I visited many times to supervise the building process. My guide dog was my priority so I installed good fences and a warm dog shower outside.
Spending our first night in our new home we slept contentedly together. Chocolat soon adapted to a new environment and close neighbours became her pack. She glowed with health and was full of mischief when not working. Visiting my elderly neighbour Jean, Chocolat pulled the lead out of my hand, rushed to the coffee table and devoured a plate of Christmas cake, much to the astonishment of the elderly vicar’s wife who was visiting Jean.
Fond of music, attending concerts and lying in front of my stereo, Chocolat enjoyed everything from Chopin and Mozart to Wagner. At a summer symphony concert where the final piece was always Beethoven’s Ninth symphony and magnificent fireworks filled the sky, Chocolat sat up each year in admiration that this concert was held just for her.
Gaining my Masters with distinction, we attended several days of celebration. The Chancellor spoke at dinner of the sacrifices made to get a good education and told the story of a husband who so disapproved of his wife’s desire to study she left him. When it was my turn to speak I explained I had done this, but had replaced him with a beautiful chocolate Labrador guide dog who I had brought to my graduation instead!
My desire to travel meant I was parted for several weeks from my beloved guide. Boarding with her trainer, I sadly left for Britain. I missed her dreadfully, and on my return Chocolat met me at the airport with such excitement and love that I sat on the floor and cried into her thick brown coat. Tears were also shed by those watching us. A week after returning home I started work at an Anglican girl’s school. Chocolat loved it there, receiving her own ID card which said she was the ‘Assistant Archivist’ and could borrow 20 library books. I continued to travel, on one occasion leaving very upset when told by the new guide dog instructor I would not know where she was boarded and would have to communicate through her. On my return I was met by a very unhappy dog. Eventually a kind friend cared for her as I travelled or I resorted to a house sitter.
Visiting one day my original guide dog instructor looked at Chocolat and said, “I think she’s going blind.” Her eyes were white and empty. My local vet doubted the diagnosis, but three weeks later a canine ophthalmologist changed our lives in an instant. Chocolat was going blind, her peripheral vision was gone. He recommended instant retirement. Sobbing, I rang the guide dog instructor who remarked “we will work this out.” I decided to work with her for three more months, until the end of the school year. I used my cane more frequently, sometimes left her home under the watchful eye of the elderly neighbour, or led her rather than holding the harness. Returning after a meeting in a distant city, the air hostess gave her some biscuits to celebrate her retirement. Last to leave the plane, I was stunned to be met by a guard of honour, including the pilots, as we descended the steps.
On her last day of work she enjoyed the same privileges as other staff and students who were leaving. After a special morning tea Chocolat received her leaver’s certificate and wooden cross from the Principal with her usual aplomb. Accorded the honour of leading everyone out of the chapel while 680 students and their parents sang the leavers hymn, I cried tears of sadness.
Revelling in her new found freedom and the life of an early retiree she walked, ate crackers and cheese, broccoli and chips. Then I received a life changing phone call. My application for a new dog had been accepted and I had been matched with a big rather unruly golden retriever. Chocolat boarded with a friend while I trained with Jay. She reluctantly accepted this interloper tempered by a loud insistence this was her home and I was her Mum. Both were dominant dogs and the battle of wills was intense. Eventually they reached a compromise and began to care for each other. Chocolat, who seldom barked, became very territorial and prowled the fence between my home and the park warning any aliens or possible intruders that she was on guard duty. She always knew when we were coming home, often long before I arrived. As the years passed other medical issues arose; cancer, arthritis, hearing loss and breathing difficulties. She snored incessantly, hogged the heater, and continued to be my loving soulmate.
Epilogue – Chocolat became very ill on Boxing Day 2017. She let me know it was now time for her to leave. Having celebrated her 15th birthday the previous day I vacillated for days but knew she was right. Putting on some beautiful cello music I sat hugging her waiting for the vet. She left me quickly, now pain free. Cremated in her red puppy cover, her ashes sit on my writing desk and I wear her guide dog tag around my neck. I have grieved deeply for the loss of her unwavering love, care and devotion to me. Truly an exceptional guide dog, farewell my beloved friend.
Chocolat on her graduation day
Chocky and Susan