And I Always Will

(Author’s Note: This memoir about my guide dog won first place in the 2021 Memoir category in the Ozarks Writers League Writing Contest. Jemma touched many lives while she was with me. Unfortunately, she died of cancer on her eighth birthday.)

Time stretched as I sat in my dorm room at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan, waiting to meet my freedom and independence.

I want my dog. Bring me my dog.

I sat on the mat where he or she would sleep, so my scent would be near. I fingered the nasty chain to attach my dog to the wall overnight, making sure I knew exactly how to release the clasp, even when barely awake. I couldn’t understand why my guide had to sleep six feet away, tied to a wall, instead of beside my bed, tied to me with her leash.

Their house, their rules.

And Leader Dogs had a lot of rules. No toys, no furniture, on-leash at all times, even in our rooms, chained to a wall overnight and when we left the room.

After almost three hours of waiting, finally, a knock. I leaped up and sprinted to the door.

“Are you ready?” Amber asked.

“Are you kidding?”

“Do you want to know your dog’s name?” The gigantic smile that lit her voice and face told me how much she enjoyed what Leader Dogs calls Dog Issue Day.

“Yes.” I’d been waiting well over two hours and was obviously the last in my group of four to receive my dog.

For the love of all things holy, BRING ME MY DOG NOW.

“It’s Jemma.”

“A girl, I presume?”

I got a dog with a COOL name YAY!.

“Yes.” Amber stretched out the agony.

“What breed?”

“You’ll find out in a couple of minutes.”


“That’s me. Hand me your leash.”

I handed it over. Two days ago, stiff, but now pliable. I had worked that leather in every conceivable direction until my hands hurt. Jemma would start to know my scent before we met. The next time I held it, MY dog would be at the other end, at last.

My mom, who lives next door to me, wanted me to have a blonde girl. She likes female animals better, and blonde dogs photograph better than black ones, which tend to come off like blobs in pictures. Mom used to teach photography and had won numerous contests. Photos aside, why it mattered to her, I wasn’t sure. We’re neighbors, but I don’t live in her house. Would Mom get her wish?

Thunder and Molly, my first two guide dogs who I trained myself, were dark girls. I didn’t have a gender preference. Molly’s black coat glistened brightly. Thunder’s cattle-dog-like appearance fooled people, as she was a pure-bred smooth collie with mostly black, brown, and blue merle colors. I hoped for short fur. I wasn’t a huge fan of goldens, so even though I didn’t tell them I wouldn’t take one, I hoped for a lab of any color or my top choice, a golden-lab cross.

It would be so cool to be able to say, “My dog is a goldador.”

Amber asked me to go sit down to receive my girl and suggested I turn off the music, just for the beginning while she was talking to me. She left the door unlatched for ease of entry. Since she had told me to keep things low-key, as my dog would find that more comforting, I had prepared a playlist of quiet music. I had been playing said songs since coming back to my room after lunch. The calm tones hadn’t stopped me staring down the door, yearning for my new guide dog.

But hopefully, this would help Jemma feel everything would be okay. The soothing sounds put a nice ambiance into the room. The energies of the songs, smells, and emotions had to be right in order to support my new fur baby, who had been through so much in her short life.

I sat on the floor. I wanted to be right on her level and not at all intimidating. She had been through a lot of changes within the last few months and was going to be nervous. Three minutes stretched into three hours, at least in my eager mind. Soon, I heard another set of click-click-click steps with a human handler, then a light rap on the door, and my new girl with Amber, still out of my line of sight, stepping inside.

“You can call her name as soon as I let go of the leash.” Amber spoke softly, setting the tone.

Would Jemma be a black lab? Yellow lab? Golden retriever? Goldador?

“Okay, I’ve dropped the leash,” Amber said.

I tamped down my exuberance and quietly called Jemma to me.

A golden girl trotted into the room, tail low. She glanced at me, put her head down, and sniffed everywhere. Her breath came in loud, rapid pants.

Poor stressed-out puppy.

“Come here, Jemma.” I reached out my hands for her. She dashed over to me and kissed my face with rapid licks. Most people believe when a dog licks your face right away, it means they love you. Dog language is different. That behavior means “Please, don’t hurt me.” It’s a sign of fear.

This was not the choirs of angels singing and the dog immediately bonding to me that I wished to experience. And since I’m an animal communicator, I knew her thoughts and not just her body language.

My hands brushed her briefly, then she skittered away and sniffed around. I wanted to cradle her in my arms and tell her she has her forever mommy and her forever home now, and that everything was all right. I held back tears. I would need to handle my fragile little girl with patience and loving encouragement.

What have they done to her?

My brain clicked a puzzle piece into place.

Tight-lipped as Amber had been about my “Juno,” the generic name Leader Dogs uses before you know your guide’s actual name, she had told me something important. Jemma was a prison puppy. I had imagined that her being convict-raised along with the grooming tools they gave me, which were better suited to short fur, meant I would get a lab or goldador. Labs are steady by nature. Goldens, more empathic.

They put sensitive, emotional goldies in prisons?

Jemma came back to me. I extended my hands for her to sniff, then stroked her silky ears. “I’m your new mommy, Jemma. I promise to take good care of you. You’re okay.”

Jemma went back to scrutinizing the tidy dorm room with her nose. Knowing whomever I received was a teenage dog, potentially apt to chew or carry things around, I left nothing but my cell phone and the TV remote on my nightstand.

Okay, Amber, you gave me my dog, now go away and let us settle in and start to bond.

The trainer sat in a chair. “She’s a golden retriever.”

“Yes, I can tell.” I called Jemma over again.

Still stress-panting, my new guide once again rapid-fire licked my face. I grabbed the leash to keep her with me for a moment. She sat in front of me, facing away, while I gently scratched her neck.

Poor baby. You’re so afraid, but I promise you have a forever home now.

I let her tether go so she could explore. Her tail kept wagging in the low position.

“See, Jemma girl, everything’s just fine.” She was so beautiful.

“She was born February twentieth of 2014, so she’s 17 months old,” Amber told me.

Our instructor kept talking to me, but most of it came across like one of Charlie Brown’s teachers… “Wha-wha-w-w-wu-WHUH…raised by a prisoner at Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. Waw-WU-w-w-wu-wu-WUH.”

Only a few phrases made it through the dog-induced haze. Something about trimming her feet. Something about people in the hall. We’d be training together every day but Sunday for three more weeks. I could catch up on anything I blurred over later.

I patted the floor. “Come settle beside me, Jemma,” I encouraged. She sat with her back to me.

“Her tail is always going, and she is a curious dog. Loves to explore.”

“Were you her trainer?” Just because I was in Amber’s group didn’t necessarily mean she was the primary instructor of my dog.

“I’ve known her since the beginning, and yeah, I was her main trainer. Her sponsor was my mentor.”

My anxious dog panted hard and trotted all over the room. I grabbed her leash so she would come and let me help calm her.

“Goldens are strong mommy or daddy dogs,” Amber explained. “She’ll settle in well with you within a few days, but at first, she’ll look to us.”

“You’ve been working with her for a few months, so that’s to be expected.”

My poor baby kept stress-panting and pacing the room with her tail wagging low. I needed to get her calmed down, and that would take a little time.

“What’s her weight?”

“Currently, she’s fifty-four pounds.”

“That sounds low to me for a teenage golden.”

“She was a little pudgy when she first came back. They over-dieted her.”

On her next pass, I gently explored my new dog. “She’s awfully thin.” The xylophone of ribs beneath my hand alarmed me.

You starved my dog. You stressed her out, and you starved her.

“She’ll put on weight while she’s here.”

Don’t act so nonchalant, Amber. You were her trainer. You shouldn’t have let a growing dog get that skinny.

All school-trained guide dog puppies I’ve ever known have been shuffled around a bit before meeting their human handler. They start their journey with the person or family who keeps their mother, then at seven or eight weeks old, they move to a puppy raiser, around their first birthday, they go back to the school for evaluation and training, then a few months later, if they make the grade, they get paired with their blind handler, then off to their new homes.

“When you see the vet in a couple of weeks, she’ll give you a goal weight.”

How can they know what’s best for her adult weight when she’s only a teenager?

“We like everyone to keep your dog trim.”

“That’s my plan,” I assured Amber.

I don’t want a moving hassock, but she shouldn’t be a fur-covered skeleton either.

I pushed down my anger about her being so emaciated. I didn’t want to make this any harder for my dog. The anger was certainly not at her. And in a year, she would be one hundred percent mine, not the school’s anymore.

Jemma got up and went exploring again. My poor, stressed girl continued to pant rapidly. I beamed love at my beautiful new guide. My trainer droned on about… whatever.

Amber, please go away now so I can get to know my dog.

Some of the instructions made it through the fog. “No human food. We check their poop every few days, so we’ll know if she gets something she shouldn’t.”

The poop police are watching. Do they have in-room surveillance, too?

Amber continued, “Keep her attached to you at all times until we tell you it’s okay to let her loose in the room with her leash on. And clip her by the collar to the wall anytime you leave to go to the bathroom, do laundry, or whatever else without her.” She pointed to the chain in the wall by her sleeping mat for emphasis.

I understood perfectly well the importance of keeping your new dog tied to you every minute for a while. I call it the Great Leash-Up. It teaches them to be connected to you and ensures they don’t get into trouble. A crate seemed a much better option than chaining a dog to the wall, though. I imagined that’s how she had slept up until now.

Jemma, I need to do it here, but I will not chain you to a wall when we get home. Promise. I will attach you to a table or bed sometimes, but it won’t be a chain.

Leader Dogs gives every student a metal tie-down. I put mine in the far corner of the top shelf in the closet, where it stayed. I would not even bring it home with me.

More Peanuts teacher wa-wa, then, “We’ll call everyone out in about an hour to have you start working your dogs in the hallways.”

“Will I need the harness?”

“Not today. We’ll just work on basics like heel and sit."

After what felt like the whole hour but was probably only a couple of minutes in real time, Amber left us alone.

I talked soft assurances to my girl. “You’re safe, and everything’s fine, my beautiful girl, we’re going to have a wonderful life together…I’m your mommy forever.”

Once Amber had left, Jemma’s tail wagged higher as she darted around the room. Her panting slowed some, but I knew from her behavior and thoughts that she still felt terrified. Also, as an empath, I also felt her fear. And she kept telling me not to hurt her. My heart ached.
As before, I had to grab the leash to get my girl to stick with me for more than a second.

Jemma went to investigate her new harness, which hung by the door. She reared up and sniffed it.

“That will be yours soon.”

I turned the dog day-playlist back on. The wondrous music box, otherwise known as my cellphone, fascinated Jemma. Wagging her tail high, she sniffed it, looked at me, then sniffed it again.

“Is that a magical singing box, my Jemma girl?”

She licked my chin. With Amber gone, she settled with me better. After a few minutes, she stopped stress-panting, and her explorations became less frenetic and more simple curiosity. I can’t blame a dog for checking out a new space, but it hurt that she felt so wary and afraid. When she came over, I stroked her soft fur. The whole time, I spoke reassuring words to her.

Then, I started singing along with some of the songs. Jemma sat up and stared at me. I supposed she didn’t hear much of that in the prison.

“I can’t help falling in love with you.” I sang. My girl stared into my face, slurping me occasionally, through several songs. She especially loved that one.

Jemma nestled beside me of her own free will. Soon, she rested her head on my lap.

I altered the line in “Love me Tender,” to be, “Oh my Jemma, I love you, and I always will.”

Her soulful eyes drifted closed at last, and she sighed.

Share this
Continue Reading
About the Author

Rev. Dr. Ronda Del Boccio is an international speaker and best-selling author who has won awards for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoir. Although Ronda is mostly blind, she doesn't let that stop her from doing what she wants to do. She has also won awards for her art, photography, and cooking. Ronda is the current president of the Ozarks Writers League.