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Blessed with a Beautiful Bark

Heaven had a special purpose for Larry, the lab.

Suzy Zabel and Larry

"WOOF!”

My finger flew to my lips. “Larry, sshh!” My husband Don was fast asleep and I couldn’t wait to hit the hay myself.

“WOOF!”

“Larry, quiet!”

I walked over to the window and peeked outside. Everything was fine. “Larry, quiet!” I said again sternly, bending down in front of his open-door crate in the corner of the bedroom. His warm brown eyes stared back at me as if to say, “I’m sorry, I just can’t help it.”

Our eight-month-old Lab mix didn’t bark often, or at typical things— the doorbell, people stopping by, other animals. His barks were unpredictable. But I had to get him to stop. For Larry, even one inappropriate bark might mean he’d never become what I hoped he would: a guide dog for the blind.

I thought he’d grown out of it. We’d just returned from a six-week trip to Mt. Rushmore, Glacier National Park, Zion Canyon, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. He’d hardly barked. A quiet, mature dog enjoying the adventure.

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Now this. I scratched Larry behind his ears. “Larry, go to sleep,” I said. He curled up into a ball and closed his eyes.

I finally got into bed, but most of the night I tossed and turned. This barking had to stop! What if he failed guide dog school? I would feel like I failed him.

Larry was the second puppy I was raising for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. My first, Ginger, had been a breeze. Letting her go after a year was tough but the satisfaction of knowing she’d change a blind person’s life outweighed the heartache. So when Larry came along I thought I had the training thing down.

Don and my kids, Katiebeth and Keith, loved having Larry around, but guide dogs in training need to learn to respond to the commands of one person—that was my job. When I cooked, Larry sat by me in the kitchen. When I worked at my desk, he’d lie underneath it. At church he’d lie under the pew in front of me.

And chasing squirrels or cats in the backyard? Larry wasn’t interested. He had amazing self-control…when it came to everything but pointless barking, that is.

Not knowing what set him off made it harder to correct him. One Sunday he let out a huge “WOOF!” during our church’s choir performance. “Larry, quiet!” I whispered, gently cupping his muzzle.

Just then, another guide dog, belonging to a blind parishioner, let out a bark, as if the two of them were having words. The congregation cracked up. But I was embarrassed and worried. I had never had this problem with Ginger.

Each month I met with trainers from the Foundation to make sure Larry was on track. “He barks,” I confessed to a trainer. “I can’t figure out why.” It didn’t help that Larry never barked inappropriately during his sessions with the trainers. It’s as if he knew.

We’d socialized him and taken him all over—to the movies, a Frederick Keys minor-league baseball game with a fireworks show (he didn’t make a peep!). He rode on a bus, a sailboat, a trolley car and on a cruise boat on Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho. And then, that six-week trip. He’d done so well! Now it was like he was regressing.

The next morning I pulled out my Bible and book of devotions and prayed, Lord, help me teach Larry not to bark. Help him grow up to be the guide dog I know he’s meant to be. You know what a good boy he is. Please don’t let him fail!

The day came when my time with Larry was over and he had to go back to the Foundation for formal training. I hugged Larry tight before a trainer took his leash. “I love you and I’ll miss you very much,” I said, my tears dampening his fur. “Now you go to school and show them what you can do. Be a good boy.” No matter what, I was proud of Larry.

Every few weeks someone from the Foundation called and updated me on Larry’s progress. He was doing great! But one day a call came and the trainer’s voice sounded different.

“Larry’s been transferred out of our program,” he said. My heart sank. It was what I’d feared: Larry had washed out because of his big bark. Before I could react, the man on the phone continued, “Larry’s in training with an organization called America’s VetDogs. We’ve discovered that he has a gift.”

The man told me Larry had been matched with a Marine—an Iraq war veteran suffering from traumatic-brain-injury-related seizures and PTSD. I wanted to contact the Marine right away, but in order to allow him and Larry to bond, I was asked to wait one year.

Not a day went by I didn’t think of Larry and the Marine. As soon as a year had passed, the Foundation gave me the Marine’s name: Master Sergeant Mark Gwathmey. I immediately wrote him a letter. “Hi, Mark. I’m Suzy. I was Larry’s puppy raiser. I’d love to meet you and see how Larry’s doing. Call me if you’re interested.”

A few days later Mark called. “I’d love to meet you!” he said.

Three weeks after we spoke, Don and I drove to Mark’s house. His wife, CeCe, opened the front door. Larry bounded out, running right toward us. Then he stopped in his tracks, looked at our truck and trotted over, sniffing it all the way around.

When he was finished, he darted back over to us wagging his tail so excitedly that his entire backside shook. He remembered us! “Hi, boy!” I said, rubbing his fur. CeCe showed us inside.

“I can’t thank you enough,” Mark said. “I don’t know what I’d do without Larry.”

“And I can’t get over that deep, loud bark of his,” CeCe added, a note of amazement in her voice.

Oh, no… “I’m sorry about that,” I said. “I worked hard to get him to stop.”

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“Sorry?” CeCe said. “His bark is a lifesaver.” I asked her to explain.

“One week after Larry came to us, Mark was sitting in his recliner with Larry sleeping on the floor near him. Suddenly, Larry woke and began whining. I asked Mark if he felt okay. He said he was tired so I took him to the bedroom and Larry followed.

"Once I got Mark comfortable, Larry gently tugged on my hand. I turned the way he was pulling and Mark was having a seizure! Larry jumped on Mark’s bed and started barking his big, deep bark.

"After the seizure, Mark fell asleep. I went into the kitchen and 15 minutes later, Larry came down the hallway, stopped at the kitchen and started to whine again. I followed him back to the bedroom. Just seconds later Mark had another seizure! Larry is incredible. I can’t imagine life without him.”

CeCe said that she couldn’t tell me how many times Larry’s bark had alerted her that Mark was about to have a seizure.

“Never, not once, has he given us a false alarm,” she said. She told me about the time she heard Larry barking and found Mark seizing on the shower floor with the water pouring on his face, or the time Mark was cooking and would have fallen on the stove without Larry’s distinctive bark.

“At first I wasn’t sure I deserved a dog,” Mark said. “But I’m incredibly grateful for Larry. He’s totally changed our lives. Before, my TBI and PTSD made me feel like a prisoner in my own home. The seizures made it worse. Now I can do almost anything—especially the simple things I missed the most, like going out to dinner with CeCe and to the movies.”

Because of Larry, CeCe can work her job at the U.S. Marshals Service knowing that if a seizure hits, Larry will be there. “He’s the other caregiver in our family,” she said.

In fact, Larry comes to Mark’s aid even when Mark is coming out of an episode. “Larry licks me and helps bring me back to consciousness,” Mark said. “Sometimes he’ll lie on me, or next to me. He’s awesome.”

Before we left that afternoon, I gave Mark a scrapbook of pictures from the year Larry lived with us, showing him all the fun things we’d done together. He loved it! Mark gave me a big bear hug, tears pooling in his eyes. My eyes welled up too. I thought back to all those times I’d shouted, “Larry, quiet!”

“Thank you for training Larry and for giving me my life back,” Mark said.

That’s when it hit me: I wasn’t the one who really trained Larry. All along another Trainer had been at work. The One who knew Larry’s purpose, and knew just what to do with his big, deep, beautiful bark.

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