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A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him
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A heartwarming dog story like no other: Tuesday, a lovable golden retriever, changes a former soldier’s life forever.
A highly decorated captain in the U.S. Army, Luis Montalván never backed down from a challenge during his two tours of duty in Iraq. After returning home from combat, however, his physical wounds and crippling post-traumatic stress disorder began to take their toll. He wondered if he would ever recover.
Then Luis met Tuesday, a sensitive golden retriever trained to assist people with disabilities. Tuesday had lived among prisoners and at a home for troubled boys, and he found it difficult to trust in or connect with a human being–until Luis.
Until Tuesday is the story of how two wounded warriors, who had given so much and suffered the consequences, found salvation in each other. It is a story about war and peace, injury and recovery, psychological wounds and spiritual restoration. But more than that, it is a story about the love between a man and dog, and how, together, they healed each other’s souls.
Love and work . . . work and love,
that’s all there is.
Tuesday was born on September 10, 2006, one of four in a litter of beautiful purebred golden retriever pups. No, it wasn’t a Tuesday. It was a Sunday, so that’s one explanation for his name out the window. I have a few others I’ve made up over the years. I met him on a Tuesday, the day of the 2008 presidential election. I like the Rolling Stones song “Ruby Tuesday.” The day was named after the Norse god of war and dedicated to the Hindu god of mischief, and both seemed appropriate.
The truth, though, is that Tuesday’s name is a mystery. He may have been one of four in his litter, but he was also about the 200th golden retriever born over thirteen years at East Coast Assistance Dogs (ECAD)*, a nonprofit in upstate New York that trains dogs for the disabled. The two years and $25,000 of training it would take to turn him into a life-changing companion were paid for by an anonymous donor, so the donor named him and two of his littermates, Linus and Blue. I don’t even know who the person was, much less why they chose Tuesday.
“People used to make fun of that name,” an ECAD employee told me once. “Now everyone loves it.”
I can only imagine Tuesday as a puppy, since I didn’t meet him until he was two, but like everyone else I have seen pictures of newborn golden retrievers, their tiny hairless bodies pressed against their mother, squirming for milk. They have sleek bodies, just right for holding in your hand, and adorable faces that droop around the lips, making them sad and helpless and completely irresistible. Tuesday was more amber-colored than his siblings, and I imagine him as the goofball of the litter, rolling and nipping at his brothers and sister and then tottering off on baby legs to collapse in a bundle of happy exhaustion. Tuesday was a family dog; he loved the constant contact of his siblings. When they lay together in a heap of puppies, with heads and legs and tails sticking out in all directions, Tuesday was no doubt the one you noticed, his orange fur peeking out in several spots from the big yellow pile and his dark eyes, opening for the first time, staring at you with fascination. Even then, I suspect, his tiny brown come-hither eyes were impossible to resist.
But that wasn’t the extent of Tuesday’s early life. Not really. Tuesday was born to be one of the most highly developed dogs in the world—an assistance dog for the disabled—and he began his training when he was three days old, long before his eyes opened, while he was still pushing himself on his belly toward his mother’s milk. Nursing is the most calming activity of an animal’s life, and thus the best reward. Tiny, sightless, three-day-old Tuesday felt calm when he nursed. He felt nurtured and safe, and that was something ECAD needed him to experience with humans. So at three days old, Lu Picard, the extraordinary founder and lead trainer at ECAD, started tapping his feet as he nursed, associating human touch and smell with the pleasure of mother’s milk. Tuesday was so young that his senses weren’t developed. His ears were pinned to his head, his eyes shut. His feet were his most sensitive area. As a newborn, they were his guide to the world.
At fifteen days old, Tuesday’s eyes opened, small and innocent. I can imagine his face: the baby fuzz on his snout, his delicate mouth, his inquisitive brown eyes fascinated by colors and shapes. At the same time, his ears opened and, for the first time, he could sense the world beyond his touch. When Lu tapped his feet now, she said “pa-pa-pa,” then “smk-smk-smk,” like a kissing noise. She was imitating the sound of nursing, offering him the one sound he already knew.
Now that he could sense the world, Lu gently held him back from feeding. Tuesday, like his brothers and sister, whimpered for his milk. It was all he knew; he desired its safety and comfort. But Lu touched him and said “pa-pa-pa, smk-smk-smk,” until slowly, incrementally, he stopped struggling and crying. As soon as he was calm, she let him go to his mother. She was teaching him patience and manners—that self-control was rewarded while pleading and aggression were not.
At five weeks, Tuesday’s formal training began with several hours of leash-walking exercises and an introduction to simple commands. He was also driven to Green Chimneys Farm, a service dog training facility where elementary-school-age children in treatment for emotional and behavior problems—the first of many people Tuesday would help—placed food in his mouth. There was no biological need. Tuesday was still a bundle of fur, barely able to see, tottering and tripping instead of walking, wholly dependent on his mother. The food was a training tool. Puppies start by eating food their mother has regurgitated; the smell of her saliva tells them the food is safe. It is a fundamental biological trust. Tuesday was learning to trust human beings as well.
He didn’t want the food. At least not at first. None of the puppies ever did. They were the equivalent of seven-month-old children, and they were being fed by strangers. So Tuesday closed his mouth. He shook his head. He spat out the food when it was pushed through his lips. The children petted him, encouraged him, gave him more. He pushed it away with his tongue, coughed it out, his eyes pinched shut and his mouth hanging open as his tongue slapped in disgust.
Eventually, he started to lick the food. There was no point in resisting, and besides, he was hungry. The children said “yes, yes, yes,” “good, good, good.” They had been told to reinforce good behavior, but it was their excitement and joy, more than their words, that Tuesday responded to. Dogs love making people happy. They are pack animals; it’s in their DNA. Even newborn puppies, barely coordinated enough to tumble, wag their tail when they experience positive reinforcement.
So Tuesday ate. “Yes, yes, good dog, good dog.” Tuesday happily ate more. The children praised him again. “Good dog, Tuesday, good dog.” They were both learning to focus on a task, to have patience and trust. Instead of acting out for attention, they were discovering that accomplishment was a powerful reward. Tuesday was also learning one of the primary lessons of his life, that there was a payoff for following directions: positive affection and love.
Back at ECAD, he was moved from his whelping box, where newborn puppies were cared for, to a larger indoor-outdoor area where he could totter and roll with his siblings. He was still breast-fed by his mother three times a day, but since the introduction of food she no longer cleaned his messes. Mother dogs never do, once a puppy has eaten solid food, so this was another opportunity. Lu added wood shavings to the larger cage, and Tuesday, already attuned to human desires at six weeks of age, immediately understood the shavings were for poop and pee. Each day, Lu moved the shavings farther from his mother so that Tuesday had to walk farther to relieve himself.
After a few days, a piece of wood and a piece of nubby plastic were placed between the puppies and their mother. Instead of playing innocently in that warm pile, all legs and ears and wagging tails, the puppies now had to negotiate an obstacle course to reach their milk. The alpha of the litter was always the first, tottering across the nubs and scrambling up, then collapsing over, the piece of wood. Once he made it, the others followed. That’s how I know Tuesday was never across first. There’s nothing alpha about Tuesday, which is one reason he’s a great service dog. In fact, most alphas flunk out of service dog programs because they are too assertive. Lu’s dogs were different because, after generations of mating malleable dogs, even her alphas were soft. From Lu, “soft” was a compliment. It meant her dogs weren’t bullheaded and dominant; they were amiable and confident, the perfect traits for a service dog.
In Tuesday’s litter, Blue was the alpha. But I always imagine Tuesday second. Not because he was stronger, although he was always bigger than his siblings. And not because he was assertive, although he is certainly an inquisitive and opinionated dog. Tuesday’s defining trait, for me, is his desire for affection, his need to be touched and nurtured. I was once told there are two types of dogs: leaners and nonleaners. Leaners are always touching you, rubbing against your hip when they walk past, flopping on your feet when they rest, putting their paws on your lap when you sit down. Nonleaners stand a few feet away, lie near you but never on top of you. This is not lack of affection. They are with you, but they want their space.
Tuesday is a leaner. In fact, in the grand hierarchy of leaners, Tuesday might be the king alpha. He craves contact. He needs it like water or air. From the day we met, he encouraged me to touch him, and he is constantly brushing against me or bumping me with his head. That’s why I imagine young Tuesday, his new eyes shut tight with the effort, wriggling his little butt energetically to squeeze under an obstacle or bouncing once, twice, three times, his tongue hanging out and his front paws scrambling, before flopping over on his face on the other side of a barrier. He can’t stand to be alone now; it must have killed him to be separated from his mother as a tiny puppy, even for an instant. I imagine him nearly sprinting, in the lurching awkward way of very young animals, across the knobby floor and then whimpering quietly as Lu held him back until finally, finally, his mind slowed, his scrambling stopped, his breathing calmed, and he waited obediently for his turn.
It was all part of the training. Puppies like Tuesday don’t just have to follow commands; they need a work ethic. They have to understand how to serve people, and they have to desire the rewards of that service. Over the next two weeks, Tuesday’s training increased while his contact with his mother decreased, so by the time he was completely weaned, at about week eight as is natural for all dogs, he was in training four days a week. By then, his bond with his mother had been gradually transitioned to the person that walked by his side, giving him commands and communicating with him through the leash. He received excellent care. He was groomed twice a day; he was fed the healthiest food. He spent time with his brothers and sister when he wasn’t working, so he was physically fit and intellectually challenged. But he wasn’t indulged. He was part of a system, and everything within that system, even the downtime, was carefully calibrated toward creating the ideal service dog. As Lu Picard described it, in her no-nonsense suburban New York City accent: “There’s a lot of affection, but there’s no free love. You work, you get love. You don’t get it for nothing.”
Or as she told me on another occasion: “It’s about the client. . . . I am trying to give my client more independence, more freedom, and more positive interaction.”
Tall and thin, with a wild mop of curly brown hair, Lu doesn’t glamorize what she does. She can talk about dogs like Volkswagens and Rolls-Royces when she’s describing her processes, but even her clipped descriptions don’t fool anyone for long. She isn’t in the dog-training business for the money, and unlike some other people I’ve met in the field, she isn’t interested in public adulation or hobnobbing with celebrities. She’s in the business for the clients, and the love of the dogs, and the memory of her father.
Lu’s father raised her alone after her mother died when she was a teenager. He worked hard, sacrificing for his daughter. He never remarried, but he always planned to travel, maybe move to Florida . . . someday, someday. When he retired, Lu was ecstatic. He was finally going to live his dream. Two weeks later, he had major stroke.
“I was livid,” Lu told me. “I’m not self-righteous, but I will jump you if you are kicking someone when he’s down. If there is a person on the ground and you are still beating him, I’m jumping in the fight, you gotta get off now, you gotta get up, that’s just the way I am. . . . So when my father had a stroke, I was livid. I was, like, this is wrong. What happened to your golden years?”
Unable to walk or talk without difficulty, her father moved in with Lu and her husband. Within a few weeks, he fell into a deep depression.
“I should have died,” he muttered over and over again. “I wish I’d just died.”
Traditional care wasn’t working, so Lu tried something different. She trained a dog. At the time, she was turning young dogs into well-mannered pets for wealthy suburbanites, so she had a veritable kennel in her garage. She built a mock harness with a solid handle and taught one of her best dogs to stand still—a hold, as it’s called in the service dog field, although Lu didn’t know that at the time.
She intended the dog to pull her father off the sofa and assist him in walking around the house. Her father was skeptical—until he tried it. The first day, with the dog’s help, he was able to stand up from the couch. Within a few days, he was walking to the kitchen. More importantly, he was talking, and not in his self-pitying patter. He was talking to the dog. It started as simple necessity, a running conversation of commands and encouragement. But soon it was conversational. The dog gave him freedom, but he also gave him something Lu hadn’t expected: companionship. He started calling the dog to his side and talking to him like a friend. They spent whole afternoons together and, before long, even slept together. As she watched the two of them walk to the kitchen one evening, smiling and happy, Lu turned to her husband and said, “This is what I should be doing with my life.”
“Then do it,” he replied.
A year later, after specialized training at Green Chimneys Farm, the legendary guide dog training facility in Brewster, New York (the place where Tuesday was fed as therapy for emotionally wounded children), Lu Picard founded East Coast Assistance Dogs. Her husband quit his job soon after and joined her. I can’t even begin to tell you how many lives they have changed since then. A boy severely brain-damaged in a car accident. An autistic girl unable to bond with any other living thing. A teenager with cerebral palsy. A soldier with his legs blown off by an IED. I can’t list the names, but I can tell you the effect on their lives. It is beyond profound: it is among the best and most important things that will ever happen to them. It is the answer to their prayer: not the “let me win this football game” prayer, but the one from the bottom of their souls. ECAD has changed the way they live every day. I know, because that’s what Tuesday has done for me.
You don’t create that dynamic with training alone. It’s not simply a matter of instilling in a dog an understanding of people and a desire to please. There’s something else vital to the relationship, too: a bond. A service dog must develop absolute devotion to its owner; it must feel a closeness with that person beyond ordinary life. In order to create that special bond, ECAD creates a need. In the first three months, a dog like Tuesday is never trained by the same person two days in a row. He is taught from three days old to find acceptance and love in humans, but he is never given a single person to bond with. He is surrounded by love, but he is isolated from the ultimate object of that affection: a constant companion.
That’s a little tough for me to think about. After all, I’ve been there myself. I came back from two tours of duty in Iraq alienated from those around me. I cut ties with my family. I lost connection with my fellow soldiers, choosing to live in a fenced trailer thirty miles away rather than on post. I spent two years in New York City, surrounded by humanity on every side, and yet I was completely isolated. It didn’t matter if I spoke with a dozen people, or attended classes at Columbia, or even, as I sometimes did, went to baseball games or concerts with my fellow veterans. Inside, I was unmoored, unable to connect, and empty.
Lu doesn’t buy my worries. “Dogs aren’t like people,” she explained. “They live in the moment. Am I happy now? Am I getting what I want right now, in terms of food and shelter and stimulation? They don’t worry about where their life is going.” They need a bond, biologically, I mean, but they don’t long for it like I did, because they don’t miss what they have never known. “I can’t give this dog every single pleasure in life,” Lu explained. “He has to wait until he gets to the client to realize the grass is actually greener over there.”
I know Tuesday was happy at ECAD. I mean, he goes completely nuts every time we return for a visit. We don’t go often, because the three-hour round trip via public transportation from my apartment in Manhattan to the center in Dobbs Ferry, New York, is psychologically draining, but as soon as we enter the commuter train at Grand Central Terminal, Tuesday knows our destination. I can see it in the way he holds his body and in the way his tail swings so fiercely it pulls his haunches from side to side. He does a good job sitting beneath my seat on the train because he knows I need him to be calm in confined spaces, but as soon as we are in the Dobbs Ferry station he begins to pull at the leash. Often, I have to stop two or three times on the platform and tell him to heel, which he does for a moment before springing back to the lead. That’s not like Tuesday. He knows I need him beside me; he’d never pull me up the stairs. But sometimes, in Dobbs Ferry, he loses himself. In the shuttle van, he has a habit of continually popping up to look out the window, his tail slapping the seat, his tongue out, panting with excitement. This time, when we arrive at ECAD, he leaps over the seat of the van and out the door, a serious breach of professional duty.
But I can’t hold it against him, any more than I can his love of sniffing fire hydrants and watching squirrels. My apartment is Tuesday’s home, but he has a primal attraction to this place. If he were a person, I’d say it was where he became a man. Two years for a dog, after all, is like fourteen years for a human being. His brothers and sisters are long gone, but Tuesday still finds sanctuary in the big concrete room with yellow training lines on the floor. He still loves to see the dogs, even if he doesn’t know them. He watches them walking with their trainers, a twinkle in his eye, as if he were an old sergeant major watching a platoon of promising recruits. It’s not just the joy of seeing your profession well represented by fine young men and women. It’s the atmosphere. The cool breeze on a crisp day, the late-afternoon clouds rimmed by sun, the smell of autumn over the parade grounds, the cadence of boots. This is the world you know.
When I sit down with Lu, Tuesday watches her intently. As we talk, his eyebrows bob double-time, like dancing caterpillars, processing everything. He has an eager sense about him, his neck craned forward slightly, his tongue hanging out so that his lips curl up into his natural smile. Eyebrows up, eyebrows down, head back and forth, looking between us.
When Lu says “my lap,” Tuesday reacts. It’s what he’s been waiting for, and he bounces his front feet onto her knees, letting his momentum carry him forward so he can lick her once on the nose.
“I forgot that about you, Tuesday,” Lu laughs. “I forgot how loving you are.”
That’s a funny admission, because Lu remembers everything about Tuesday. She has placed 120 trained dogs; she can talk about them like cars on an assembly line, if that’s what it takes to explain a concept to you; but these aren’t cars to her. Lu knows the personality and habits, both good and bad, of every dog she has ever trained. She knows what motivates them, what bothers them, and the best type of person to pair them with. She’s a dog lover, after all. That’s why she leash-broke them for suburban housewives; that’s why she’s spent seventeen years training them for the disabled. That’s why, as soon as Lu gave Tuesday the opportunity, he bounced onto her lap and gave her his full-tongued love. He doesn’t do that with anyone else but me. Ever.
But Lu Picard? She’s special. I am Tuesday’s partner. I am his best friend and companion. But Lu . . . she gave him this life. She started him down the path.
She’s also the one who pushed him away. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It seemed like the right way to support a good cause. But in the end, prison wasn’t the best place for a three-month-old, or at least a sensitive three-month-old golden retriever like Tuesday.
“I would have skipped it,” Lu told me, laughing while Tuesday tried to maul her with his great pink tongue, “if I knew then what I know now.”
I understand what she means, but given how the story turns out, I’m not sure I agree.
Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth
until the hour of separation.
Tuesday wasn’t the first service dog to be trained by Puppies Behind Bars. Not even close. The program had been around for ten years when Tuesday joined in 2006. It had its own wing in several New York State prisons, where prisoners trained in its intensive twelve-week program, then lived and worked with a dog for up to sixteen months at a time. It had hundreds of graduates—both canine and human—who had gone on to purposeful lives on the outside.
Tuesday was, however, in the first group of ECAD dogs to be trained by Puppies Behind Bars. The program had recently expanded to providing service dogs for wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and Lu Picard reluctantly agreed to help the cause. It wasn’t that she was against giving prisoners meaningful work, life skills, and the kind of loving relationship that can open their hearts and revive their humanity after decades in the dehumanizing modern American prison system. Those were, of course, worthy goals. And she wasn’t against helping wounded veterans. Who but the most hardened soul would be against that?
Lu simply used a different training method than the prison program, and she wasn’t sure the two were compatible. For Lu, the elimination of premature, trainer-specific bonding was a key ingredient in creating the best client–service dog bond. With Puppies Behind Bars, a professional instructor was only at the prison for a few hours each week. The rest of the time, the dogs trained with one specific prisoner and lived in his or her cell. It was impossible, Lu figured, for longtime prisoners, offered an adoring and affectionate twelve-week-old puppy, to not fall on their knees and give that dog a hug just for being there.
She was right, of course. I saw that firsthand when I visited a Puppies Behind Bars program with Tuesday during the second week of our training together at ECAD. I hadn’t expected to be moved, at least not in my heart, but when I looked around the large concrete prison room where Tuesday had received some of his training, I felt a surprising kinship with the men sitting around me. They were mostly shaven bald, and many had neck tattoos, but they weren’t broken or hard. They were a lot like me and the young soldiers I had known in the U.S. Army.
It’s not that hard to imagine myself in jail, because it’s just one mistake. One night of drunk driving. A descent into drug addiction. Standing with the wrong person at the wrong time. A bar fight goes wrong, someone gets killed, and that’s it. It’s over. I mean, I’ve killed people in my life. I was probably the biggest killer in the room; they just never called it murder. In Iraq, a rifle went off while being cleaned and killed a twenty-one-year-old specialist in our small outpost at Al-Waleed. The shooter, a sergeant, isn’t in jail. Nor should he be. Exhaustion was an official cause, so in my opinion that death is on the generals for having too many objectives and too few men in the field. And accidents happen. Terrible decisions are made. But there are no wasted lives. There remains potential. Everybody deserves a second chance.
- On Sale
- May 3, 2011
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Hachette Books