A Simple Gift of Immeasurable Greatness


For quite a few years now, I’ve had a special friend that I only saw from time to time – Sara Kiss. Sara was a lovely little Chinook, and my friend Sue’s service dog. We usually met at the annual APDT conference. Sometimes, we saw each other in the hallways of the hotel or conference center. Sometimes, I’d be up on stage, preparing for my lecture, and there she was, at the edge of the stage, smiling up at me, waiting for me to notice her there. “Sara!” I would say, and Sue would take off the lead and give her permission to visit with me. She’d run up on stage, and we’d have a happy reunion before she returned to Sue.

Later, when there was time to relax, we’d take a walk or play some games, always delighting in each other’s company, picking up where we left off without a moment’s hesitation as if we were every day friends, as if the year or two or three hadn’t passed without contact. I have many happy memories of walks with Sara in various cities, of games we played in the corner of hotel ballrooms or conference center hallways. Seeing her was always a highlight of any APDT conference.

One year, we had a marvelous session of games centered around a box so big that I could crawl into it. With a fierceness that would have surprised most who saw her in her role as a service dog, Sara grabbed and bit the box, ripping holes in it to “find” me, a game we both found immensely amusing. At one point, I was holding the box by spreading a hand in each corner and jiggling the box around me. Sara chose one corner held by my hands and bit straight through it. I can still see her gleaming white canines piercing the cardboard and closing with crushing strength on my fingers – which I moved out of harm’s way just in the nick of time. Sara of course didn’t realize my hands were there, she was just grabbing hold of the nearest corner, and so had not inhibited her bite in any way. Impressive, the way her teeth met through thick cardboard with a sharp click and then tore away the corner in a single move.

Oh, how I loved the pure dogness of these games we played. These games were always about what pleased Sara, gave her joy, took all responsibility off her shoulders and let her just be a dog. Scent games, hide and seek, playing with her favorite toy – all were our shared joys. Our last game was just the simple act of jogging around a large conference hotel lobby. That year, it seemed to be what pleased her most, as over and over we trotted away from and then back to Sue. Sara was getting older, and didn’t want to go far from Sue, so the longer strolls we’d taken together in previous years no longer appealed to her. Each game was the only gift I could offer Sara in return for the gift of her friendship. I have never understood what led Sara to offer her friendship, but I will be forever grateful and honored. For Sue to trust me with her best friend, I have no words sufficient to express what that means to me except “thank you.”

Receiving the sad news that Sara had died on December 23 did not surprise me. To my dismay, she had been aging quickly the last time I saw her. I had swallowed most of my tears when I said goodbye to her at that conference, suspecting it might be the last time we would meet, hoping that I was wrong, not wanting to burden her with my fears and dread but knowing that time always does its inevitable work. At this year’s APDT conference in San Diego, a mutual friend had hastened to warn me before I saw Sue that Sara had not been well enough to make the trip, knowing that if I saw Sue alone I might make the horrible assumption that Sara was already gone. I am grateful to Mary Lee for that, and glad that Sue and I were able to spend time talking about Sara, about the past and about the time that was left in their journey together. The news was not unexpected, but the tears that flow in the wake of this news are all I have to honor how important this little dog was in my life. “These tears are not praise enough. . .”

Sara was a wonderful blend of brilliance, humor, clarity, devotion and skill in her role as a caretaker for my friend Sue. Watching Sara in her role as service dog, I was always struck by her ability to serve without being servile. Nothing obsequious or servant-like about Sara, ever. She offered her skills and energy and intelligence with generous willingness, unassuming dignity, clear enthusiasm for her work. Yet she remained charmingly individual, an active participant in her own life, and often as opinionated and determined as her partner Sue. Sara was charming, funny, assured, quick and lovely to the eyes and hand, beautiful inside and out.

This little Chinook was amusingly good at negotiating with Sue. One aspect of their relationship that I admired greatly was the conversations they had. Sue would ask for Sara to do this or that (or to not do this or that!), and Sara would counter with her own suggestions for how things should go. Sometimes, Sara’s perspective turned out to be quite wise, and Sue would yield. At other times, Sara would simply make a persistent case for what she preferred. Oh, how I love Sue’s ability to assess her own feelings versus what her dog was feeling. Her understanding of and empathy for Sara’s (and all other animals’) point of view is what makes Sue a remarkable trainer. Sometimes, when it was safe and okay to do so, Sue would find a compromise or just agree with Sara, letting her own original preference or request slide. To watch Sue and Sara together was to understand the real meaning of friendship, of partnership, of relationship.

On so many levels, dogs serve mankind. Some individual dogs do more than their fair share, and Sara was one of those dogs. What she gave every day of her life was her entire being, her very best. Far past what she made possible for Sue, Sara touched many lives. Thank you, Sara, for all you were, all you gave, for the joy of those dancing brown eyes and your splendid smile, for allowing me to be your friend. You will be missed by so many who loved you.

The simple gift of a dog’s friendship cannot be demanded or commanded. It is not earned nor deserved. It is given freely. This simple gift eclipses any performance or work the dog may do. It is a treasure we may hold on to even after the dog has gone ahead to where we cannot yet follow. This simple gift is one of immeasurable greatness, held for too brief a time in the shape of a little yellow dog named Sara Kiss.