Amy Hempel and her dog
Photo: Carlos Emilio
"Where in your life are you most yourself?" That was the simple and profound question put to me by a friend. My answer was "With dogs"—true since the first grade and my first dog, a black Labrador retriever. The few years when I did not have a dog are best described by another question, this one posed by Elizabeth von Arnim in her autobiography, All the Dogs of My Life: "How was it that there were such long periods during which I wasn't making some good dog happy?"

Interdependence has long seemed to me the ideal in a relationship. Dogs have always taken good care of me and vice versa. Years ago, I saw a heightened example of this kind of exchange, so vivid and affecting it propelled my love and gratitude for dogs—all dogs—to another plane and called for a response.

I went to a graduation at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a guide-dog training school in Yorktown Heights, New York. GEB has a monthly ceremony to honor the dozen or so men and women who have just completed nearly four weeks of training at the school with their new guide. The occasion is immensely moving, and it is open to the public. I learned there that guide dogs cannot be raised in kennels; they must be home-socialized, and there is a constant need for volunteer "puppy raisers."

I attended the next month's graduation, too, returning the way another person might go to a contemplative retreat—to be reminded of what really matters, to regain perspective, and to see people and dogs at their selfless best. I applied to be a puppy raiser and was approved just after Thanksgiving in 1996. I signed a contract promising that I would raise and train the puppy to GEB standards for a year and a half, at which time I would give the dog up for specialized training—four months with a professional guiding-eyes trainer—and, if successful, a life of service with a blind partner. I brought home an 8-week-old black Lab named Savoy.

What followed were nearly two years of bimonthly classes at GEB and a love affair, because you don't just love the dogs, you fall in love with them. Every moment is intensified because of the impending separation, which can make a walk in the park almost unendurably poignant. Luckily, these pups are hilarious and unfailingly game, and reside entirely in the moment.

Next: The puppies experience graduation

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