I cleared my throat. “Hey, Clarissa.” With the blindfold on, my other senses were heightened. I heard the swish of jeans as she walked closer, smelled a floral scent and something else . . . something animal. I heard the command “Sit.” Suddenly I sensed another presence close to me. With a shuffling Clarissa took a seat near me, then all went quiet.
Clarissa said in a formal tone, “Taylor, I’d like to present to you, in the name of Pets for Vets, this service dog to thank you for your service to your country.” She paused and I heard the smile in her voice. “You can remove your blindfold.”
I tore off the blindfold, and the first thing I saw were two large, soulful brown eyes staring straight into mine.
This was a big dog, bigger than I’d planned on. And formidable. His dense, short hair was as glistening a black as a raven’s wing. He had the face of a Lab and the body of a smaller Great Dane. He looked to be a force of nature, a dog not to be messed with. Part of that impression came from his Great Dane size and black color, but also from the way he held himself, straight, confident, yet with an aloofness I admired. This was no goofball. I felt I could regain my own confidence with this dog.
Yet I didn’t feel that willingness to touch yet. “He’s a good-looking dog,” I said stiffly, sitting erect and still with the same aloofness as the dog.
“His name is Thor.” Clarissa reached out to stroke his long neck and broad back. Her face softened as she did so. “He was named that because of the white lightning bolt on his chest.”
I checked that out, and his white chest markings did indeed look like a bolt of lightning. Thor, the God of Thunder. I liked that, too. I glanced up at Clarissa. She was watching both me and the dog intently. I knew she was looking for signals, trying to ascertain if she’d made a good match.
“We found Thor sitting in a shelter. He was on the list to be euthanized. He only had another day or two at most. When I saw him and looked into his eyes, I knew he was special. He passed the temperament evaluation form with flying colors. He might appear stoic, but he’s actually very social.”
It was hard to imagine that this beautiful dog could be euthanized. “He’s cool,” I said appraisingly.
She laughed. “Yeah, he’s that. And so are you.” She laughed again.
I gave her a look that back in the day might have been construed as flirtatious, but in these circumstances, it was all about friendship and depending on each other for honesty.
“Some dogs always want to be near the master. In the same room, even in the same bed. Some dogs are more independent. They still want close companionship, but from time to time they want to have their own space. Thor is that kind of dog.”
“I thought it might.” She chuckled in self-deprecation. “I spent many long hours choosing not just a good dog for you, but the right dog. Let me tell you, Thor is smart. He not only responds well to commands, but he intuits your needs. There will be times you won’t even have to give him a command. He’ll just know in advance what to do. That quality is rare.”
She pet Thor again, scratching behind his ears. “He’s truly a great dog. He deserves someone to love him. The way I look at it, humans failed him, not the other way around.” She paused, and then looked at me. “You haven’t petted him yet.”
I nodded and frowned, self-conscious. I studied Thor’s massive head, his floppy ears, his broad, muscular shoulders, his gleaming black coat. I liked the dog. He was beautiful and soulful, stoic and smart. What was not to like? But as with all things now, my emotions were bottled up. I hadn’t touched another creature with affection in so long. I’d thought—hoped—seeing the dog would somehow open that part of me up.
“You know,” she said, “from the moment he walked into the room, Thor hasn’t taken his eyes off of you.”
“Really?” I leaned closer to Thor. A lot of emotion lurked behind those eyes. This dog was a lot like me, I realized. He’d been hurt. Betrayed. He held all his emotions in check. Like me, I figured he wouldn’t take the chance. It was a stalemate.
Then, surprising me, Thor lifted his paw and put it firmly on my thigh. I felt the weight of it touch my heart.
Thor’s generous gesture opened the floodgates of my emotions. This dog had showed more courage than I. This great, powerful, beautiful dog was willing to take a chance on me—a broken, depressed, lonely Marine. I took a long, shuddering breath. I didn’t realize I’d been holding it. In fact, I’d been holding my breath for months, ever since the explosion.
I reached out to place my hand on Thor’s broad head. Tentatively at first. The fur was short, stubbly, like my own hair. As I let my hand skim the fur from his head down his neck to his massive shoulders, I looked in his eyes. I could see pain deep in his brown eyes, shadows of his invisible wounds. I could also see the same flickering of hope that I felt sure he saw deep in my own eyes. The hope that I would save him as I hoped he would save me.
“He’s my dog,” I said with conviction, then cleared my throat of the emotion choking me.
Clarissa beamed like a proud mother. I wondered how many times she had made this kind of match. How many lives she had saved.
“If you’re ready,” she said, “I’d like to spend some time to go over Thor’s diet, health records, and to teach you basic training.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.”
“No thanks necessary. You don’t think I’d just drop off your dog and say good-bye? We want to ensure your success. Initially we’ll spend time with basic commands, earning his trust. And you will learn to feel comfortable with Thor as a constant canine companion. You need to learn to understand and ‘read’ your dog, as he must learn your cues, too. The goal is to make you a solid team.”
I nodded. That was what I wanted, too.
We cleared the furniture from the center of the room and began an hour’s basic training. I’d never trained a dog before, never learned to give basic commands. When I made mistakes, Thor gave me a break and complied anyway. He knew the drill. A real smart dog, I thought, and was glad for it. Clarissa had to remind me to lavish praise on his successes. To pet him often. For the first time in months I enjoyed touching another living thing.
After an hour Clarissa determined we had mastered the basics. She presented me with the welcome box, a cornucopia filled with everything I could need—leashes, toys, bowls, food, nail clippers, brushes, beds—you name it.