A Schipperke’s Story
I had never had a dog, and “Nittany” was just simply amazing from the day I brought her home until I lost her. I suppose that in order for you to understand the insanity that Nittany’s life was and what necessitated her being tossed into it, I need to start with a little background on myself. I was Nittany’s two-footed mama and it was my life that dictated hers.
My name is Autumn, and I come from a very unique family. During WWII, my family fled Germany after my great-grandfather wouldn’t fire the Jewish personnel who worked for him. Evidently, the first time, the Nazi’s asked. The second time, they ordered, and the third time people were shot or beaten and hauled off to camps. My great-grandfather disappeared into Dachau, never to be seen again—not even to be properly buried. So, the rest of the family left Germany for the US where they would be safer.
When they arrived in the States, my grandfather, grandmother, and her brother all volunteered with the US military. My grandfather and great uncle served as translators, and my grandmother was a nurse. My great-uncle died serving with the Army, but after the war, my grandparents settled in Amish country up north. My grandmother continued to work as a nurse at the VA until she was in her late seventies, never leaving her soldiers who needed her. My grandfather started the largest dairy farm in the area, providing milk for a three state area.
My mother and her siblings were raised there with a heavy ideal of patriotism, and the knowledge that freedom isn’t free, and that we all owe a debt. My mother, after nursing school, joined the Navy before she could be drafted, and she served in an evac hospital in Vietnam. My father, as well, was raised the same way, and he joined the Sea Bees straight out of Williamson before he could be drafted. He went on to serve three tours in Vietnam, and was even there during the Tet Offensive.
My mother went home after her tour in ‘Nam, and while serving in the Naval Yard, lived at home with my grandparents. As the first grandchild, I was doted on and spoiled, but I was perceptive enough to understand that there was stress with my father still away—although until I was ten I didn’t truly understand it. I thought everyone lived like my family; three generations under one roof, with parents who were in the Navy and frequently gone. It wasn’t until I was fourteen that I knew differently.
Education was demanded in our family, and anything less than perfection wasn’t accepted. My grandfather had been an opera singer in Germany, with a modicum of fame before he fled. So, he was multilingual, and through music, introduced me to the true beauty of language. By the time I was six, I spoke English, German, and Italian fluently, because they were spoken in our home. I was taught to read before I started kindergarten with the Nuns at age four.
I was like a sponge, I couldn’t learn enough fast enough—there was just so much out there! By eighth grade, the Catholic school let my grandparents know that by ninth grade I was going to need special schooling because they couldn’t keep up with me. They had three Nuns who refused to teach me anymore because I had upset them with my questioning of what and how they were teaching. The Monsignor helped my grandfather find and get me into the only school in the area that offered the program I needed. It meant high school in the morning and university in the afternoons. University also offered the vocal instruction I would need since I had inherited my grandfather’s gift and was already singing opera in a clear colatoro soprano voice.
The only problem I had with public school was being a year younger than my peers. I couldn’t do all the things they were doing and sometimes I felt left out. I had to take a language in school in order to graduate, but since I spoke German fluently, I was forbidden to take it. So, I had to choose between French or Spanish. I chose French because there were novels in my grandparents’ library that were in French and I longed to read them. Like all the other languages I already spoke, I picked it up so quickly that by the end of my sophomore year I spoke and read it fluently as well.
During my junior year, shortly after I turned sixteen, a tragedy hit not just my family, but our country as well. My uncle was killed while he slept when the Embassy in Beirut was bombed with no warning. I remember feeling like all the air had been sucked out of my body, and the ground beneath my feet shook. I knew what the cost could be for serving my country to pay the debt of my freedom. But my uncle was the first close loss I had experienced.
While it devastated me, it also galvanized me. One of the prerequisites to take part in the school I was attending was that you had to be made an emancipated minor at the age of fifteen because you were required to travel from the high school campus to the university campus daily, and that way the school wasn’t responsible for you.
I knew that I would be graduating halfway through my senior year, so I took my ASVAB test and scored nothing lower than a ninety-five on all portions. All branches courted me, and I listened to them all. One afternoon, I went to the Marine Corps recruiting station and signed my contract. I was put in the delayed entry program until I graduated and turned seventeen. When I got home that evening, I quietly put my signed contract on the table during dinner and told both of my grandparents and my parents that I would do my service before furthering my education.
I had enlisted in the Marines and would be leaving for boot camp after graduation, instead of university. My mother shocked me—she told me I was an ass and left the table. My father, on the other hand, looked me in the eye and asked me why I chose the Marines. I looked at him and told him I saw no reason to settle for second best. I watched as he swallowed impish mirth before he told me that it was okay. Nothing more was ever said.
So, three weeks after I turned seventeen, I left for boot camp and began my Marine Corps career. Halfway through boot camp they found out that I had a strong gift for language, and began the background checks for my security clearance. At the end of boot camp, I had a Secret, Top Secret, and was waiting on a Category One.
By the end of my first school I not only had my Cat One, but was now being sent to immersion school for Russian, and on to Intel school. In less than a year I was an Intel Linguist. I spoke three languages already and was finishing immersion school for the fourth. After school I was sent to a duty station close to my husband’s, and learned very quickly that any time there was a conflict in any country where one of my languages was spoken (or was allied to one that did) and where we had boots on the ground, I was deployed to a grunt unit there to serve as translator and to gather intel.
There were things I saw, things I experienced, things we did that no human being should. I was so young and so much of it haunted me, but I said nothing. At twenty, I watched the CH-46 carrying my husband go down, pilots and crew all perished. I escorted his body back to the States, and then on to his family home. After the funeral, I requested and was granted a humanitarian transfer closer to home. I think the Corps had been waiting for an opportunity just like this. Within weeks, I had Yankee White and Eyes Only clearances added and found myself at the Pentagon.
We affectionately called where we worked at the Pentagon, the War Room. A dungeon room, no windows, no brightness, where we spent our shifts intercepting, translating, and decoding messages, then assigning them the importance they afforded and made sure they went to the right desks. I quickly became the go-to because of the number of languages I spoke and my ability to pick up dialects in those languages. Because we were there, it didn’t change the frequent deployments to hostile theaters. And by the time I was twenty-six, I was leaving three children with my sister when I left.
When I returned from Iraq for a third time, Desert Storm had really started becoming a full-scale war, and I was greatly changed. I started being unable to handle life; I wasn’t sleeping, I couldn’t leave base (thankfully, I had a house in base housing), and I kept looking for where the next danger was coming from. I lost a lot of weight and I wasn’t able to take care of my children the way I needed to. In short, after fifteen years of hostile theaters, the Gulf War, and Desert Storm, I had full-blown PTSD.
A few months later, we also found out that I had breast cancer. My career with the Corps came to a screeching halt. My Godfather, a Vietnam vet himself, took stock of what was going on with me and gave me the greatest gift I was ever given. He knew that with PTSD, an illness, and losing my career and the safety of everything I had known, I was going to need help. So, calling a breeder and the training classes necessary down here, he put everything in place, never saying a word to me.
He bought me a Schipperke pup and arranged for her delivery, and paid for the classes for her to be my service and therapy dog.
I received a call from the local pet store one day in early spring. I didn’t understand why they would be calling because I had not bred my Siamese, so they had no reason to call. So over lunch, two of my younger Marines and I ran out to the mall where there was not only the pet store, but also the store that was engraving plaques and specialty gifts for a retirement ceremony that was upcoming.
When we made our final stop at the pet store, the girl went into the back and came out with a small, round ball of black fur with the brightest eyes I had ever seen. Under her arm she had a rather bulky folder. When she went to hand the animal to me, I backed up and asked her just what she had and why she was giving it to me. I had never had a dog and had absolutely no idea why she wanted to give it to me. My Corporal reached out and took the pup so that the girl could talk to me and give me instructions.
When she opened the folder, on the very top, was a letter from my Godfather. He had explained that he was giving me a service dog to help me because he loved me. The last thing he wanted to see was me falling apart and losing everything like so many veterans. I sat there stunned, trying to wrap my mind around everything.
The veterinarian who worked with the pet store sat down with me and explained everything he thought I needed to know about the breed, what to expect, and how to work with her. The paperwork had the pup’s papers from the breeder, the records of all her shots, and her physical. The other paperwork was all of the instructions I would need for her to attend classes, not just for service dog training, but also therapy dog classes. The catch was that I had to attend the classes with her. Just listening to all the information and taking in all the responsibility was overwhelming. I could feel myself starting to panic.
I looked at the puppy my Corppral was holding. She was so tiny—small enough to put in the cargo pocket of Cammie trousers. He was talking to her and it looked like she understood everything, every word he said. In all the chaos and noise, she was calm and aware. I reached for her, and the moment I held her it was instant love. She cocked her head, looked right into my eyes, then she just snuggled into my chest.
I dropped her off at home on the way back to work, snuggling her into the large kennel I had for my cat to sleep in when she’d had a litter. I lined it with soft blankets and laid her down so that she could sleep. When I got home a few hours later, I was surprised to find my female Siamese curled up with the puppy, and looking very annoyed when I woke them to take the pup out to potty. For the first two weeks she followed me around, meowing and nervous chittering while I carried the pup around.
On first sight, my children had mixed reactions. My boys picked her up, looked at her, and handed her back, walking away. My daughters, on the other hand, were enchanted, squabbling over whose turn it was to cuddle her, sing to her, and dress her in old doll clothes that hadn’t seen the light of day in years. It was difficult to explain to them that the pup was going to be a working dog, not a pet for them to run around with or have in their rooms.
The discussion about a name for her was similarly heated. My boys had no interest in naming her. Their consensus was that she was too small to even be a good playmate. They kept telling me that if I was going to buy a dog, I should have gotten one big enough to play with outside. I let them know that she had been a gift. I hadn’t bought her. This, however, made no difference. My oldest son looked at me and told me to call her “Beans” because she wasn’t worth a hill of beans, and he left the conversation.
My youngest son told me to just name her “Spalding,” since she wasn’t going to be any bigger than a football, and he left the conversation as well. But my girls were having heated discussions about who had the perfect name that I should choose. Being in high school and middle school, they were both avid readers, and names from classic literature and modern prose flew around the entire ninety-six while we were all home.
Finally, late in the evening the day before I was due to be back on duty and then back to school, while we were watching a movie and there was a rare moment of quiet, the baby got her name. My youngest daughter wasn’t paying attention to the movie. Instead, she was looking at the logo sticker of my university mascot on the top of my laptop. She asked quietly if we could name her Nittany Lion.
“Nittany” was the name of the American Indian princess that my university had chosen to represent their courage and bravery, which would be fitting, considering she was destined to be a service dog. I was intensely aware that all four children were now looking at me, waiting for me to accept it or shoot it down, at which point my boys would tease the “mickie” out of their sister for what, in their opinion, was a dumb suggestion.
“Nittany” was the name of the American Indian princess that my university had chosen to represent their courage and bravery, which would be fitting, considering she was destined to be a service dog.
Looking down at the pup sleeping happily on my lap, I thought about it. I told her that the pup had no tail and little round ears that didn’t even stand up. She looked more like a bear cub. With squeals of excitement exploded, both girls at the same time were yelling, “Nittany Bear, Nittany Bear.” I picked the puppy up and looked in her face, asking her how she liked the name Nittany Bear. She cocked her little head sideways and looked at me with those bright, inquisitive little eyes and seemed very content. Looking up, I told the kids that Nittany Bear it would be. The squabbling was over and the baby now had a name.
Nittany was already housebroken. So, it was other commands she had to be taught and it was surprisingly easy because she picked up everything so quickly. In the meantime, Nittany’s ears came up, her snout started to lengthen and slim down, and her pretty little face took on the beautiful fox-like appearance. She was looking more and more like a dog every day. Nittany, however, wasn’t like other dogs. She didn’t bark, didn’t chew anything up, never had accidents in the house, and was so calm and quiet that I would have to look down in order to make sure she was still there.
We bought her tons of toys, but she really didn’t play with any of them. She picked out a small, squeaky bath toy that looked like a frog, and it was funny to see her trot around the house behind me with the frog hanging out of her mouth. It was almost as big as her face! She must not have liked the squeaking sound because she chewed one of the eyes off so that it wouldn’t make any noise.
Nittany was in my daughter’s room one afternoon and stole the stuffed Hammy from Toy Story. She didn’t chew on it, she slept with it. I now had a dog who had a teddy bear complex. Wherever she went to sleep, she had Hammy with her. I made sure that she had a bed in every room because she followed me everywhere, from room to room, no matter what I was doing.
If the cat was already in the bed she wanted, she would look at me and cock her head sideways, looking for reassurance and to make sure it was alright. And after I nodded, she would simply crawl in beside the cat, snuggling up with her. The cat would grumble a little, move over some, and then start washing Nittany before going back to sleep beside her. Often, there was a puddle of seal brown Siamese and thick black Schipperke fur in one of the beds, making it impossible to know where one baby began and the other ended.
I only kenneled Nittany for the first couple of days. Once I was sure that she wouldn’t have accidents, she slept in my bed with me. She started out with a pillow for her to sleep on, complete with a baby blanket to cover her. In just a few nights, she was snuggling up against me, with only her head on the pillow and her body under my covers. It was like having a new child.
When she was six months old, I took her out to meet the trainer who would be teaching the classes she was scheduled to start the following week. The instructor was nice enough, explaining what to expect and answering my questions. Meanwhile, his wife loved on Nittany and measured her for her service dog training vest.
Nittany was calm, but I could feel myself getting overwhelmed with everything I was being told was expected from me and all that I was going to have to do while going through the classes with her. Not to mention all the homework that I would be taking home for my children and myself!
The first day of class, I walked in with Nittany heeling on my right side with a pretty purple harness and leash set that my daughters had bought her for her first day of school. Nittany was so proud of her “pretties,” chest puffed out so that everyone could see. When I stopped to sign-in, she sat down by my foot, waiting quietly for her next command, and took stock of everything and everyone around her. I was worried that she would take off towards the other dogs wanting to play. But she never moved. She just calmly waited for me to give her a command.
One of the younger instructors walked over and asked if he could help me. I looked up from the forms and told him who I was and that Nittany and I were there for the class. He laughed in my face and told me that Nittany would never be a good service dog; she was just too small and high-strung. He told me that she would never graduate and it would be better to get a refund before the class picked up.
I looked at him, a man who was more than a foot taller than me and out-weighed me by more than a hundred pounds, and calmly informed him that he was wrong. She was no less than the larger dogs. After all, when I had stood on those painted yellow footprints on Parris Island, the drill instructors told me that I would never be a good Marine. I wouldn’t even make it through boot camp. They had been wrong and so was he—and we would prove it!
The stipulation of my total involvement in her training proved to be a genius move on my Godfather’s part. Not only was Nittany learning what she needed to learn in order to become the service dog I needed, I was being retrained as well. I was extremely focused on what I was doing. I tuned out everything that wasn’t pertinent to what I was doing. And for the first time in a long time I wasn’t dwelling on anything that would upset me and set me off, causing an anxiety attack.
Nittany had no fear, and I used to wonder when she was going to decide to go play with the Shepherds, Rottweilers, Boxers, Dobermans, and Great Danes in the class, resulting in injury or her becoming an hors d’oeuvre for the much larger dogs in the class. Thankfully, she never did. She always stayed by my side, watching, and would occasionally sleep while the instructors were instructing us, explaining and demonstrating exactly what they wanted and needed the dogs to do. I noticed that most of the dogs did the same thing Nittany did. But once we stood up, all the dogs were up and at attention, ready to go. Nittany was so intent and eager to please, she learned the commands within the first half dozen tries.
The classes were intense and long, but Nittany stayed right on top of everything. She not only learned verbal commands, but hand commands as well. This meant even more learning, not just for Nittany, but for my children and I as well. I had to make sure the kids were using the proper terms and hand signals so that Nittany wouldn’t get confused. Thankfully, the kids were good about taking the time and worked hard to make sure that they didn’t cause any problems, setting us back.
I had planned on putting in an electric fence. However, before her official classes started, the kids were teaching her basic commands and walking the perimeter of our yard every time they took her out so that Nittany would know where her boundaries were when she was outside playing with the kids. With the training classes and all of us working with her at home, reenforcing what she was being taught in class, it wasn’t necessary to put in any type of fence.
After the first two months of her training, I was told that she was to go everywhere I went and always in her vest. She understood very quickly that if her vest was on, she was working. The hardest thing for me was getting across to strangers that she had a vest on. She was a working dog, please don’t touch her. It was amazing how rude people were, especially those with small children who wanted to pet her and pick her up. Nittany was very good with that, she would sidestep closer and “chuff” the people under her breath. No barking, growling, or anything threatening; just that soft chuff, letting them know the child had crossed the boundary—please pull them back.
Since a majority of my time was spent at work, I slept on one of her pink baby blankets, so it would smell like me, and placed it in one of her smaller beds. I took her into the office when the only ones there were the Officer of the Day and the Staff Duty, both of whom made rounds to all the barracks in the area.
I figured that this would be the best time to give her a tour of the building and let her inspect my office. I placed her bed with the blanket in it in the cubby hole beneath my desk. This was the ideal place for her to be. She could see and feel me, and she could see everyone who came into my office. As long as I was calm and not getting upset, she stayed there quietly. The moment she felt me tightening up, she was assessing the danger and keeping me on an even keel.
She had been coming into the office with me for over a month, and anytime I walked out of my office for anything, she was right with me. One afternoon, I was headed down the hall to get a cup of tea and we passed my Executive Officer. We were going in opposite directions, and right after he passed us he asked rather loudly, “Why is there a potbellied pig in his building?”
I struggled not to laugh and told Nittany to sit. She sat down and fixed him with that bright, inquisitive look as if she were saying, “A piggy? And I don’t get to see it?” I politely informed him that Nittany was my service dog. I knew he had received the memo about her being here, because he had signed-off on it just as everyone else had. He asked me just how long she had been coming in with me, and I told him that she had been coming in with me for the last seven weeks or so. Looking at me, he shook his head and wanted to see where she had been. Taking him back to my office, I told Nittany, “Bed.”
My XO walked out of the office grumbling about hidden potbellied pigs in the office. I had to sit down and laugh while Nittany looked at me, wondering what was so funny. Unfortunately for her, the nickname “Piglet” stuck and it was what everyone called her! As it goes to show her easy-going nature, she never minded or even answered to it.
My contract was up before she graduated from therapy dog school. When I got out, my Command not only honored me, they remembered Nittany as well. During the ceremony, Nittany stood at my left side very still. But unlike the normal formations, this lasted a lot longer and I was afraid she would get tired and antsy, or worse, lay down. But she didn’t. And after I was handed my plaque, the Commanding Officer said some nice things about Nittany, then pronounced that Nittany had been an asset to our unit and gave her an honorary rank.
The Lieutenant came down and knelt in front of Nittany. Nittany looked up at me and I nodded to her. My Lieutenant opened a box, and inside they had made her own set of dog tags. When he hung them around her neck and scratched her behind her ear, she smiled at him. He looked up at me and asked if she was going to bite him. I giggled and told him that he was safe. She was simply smiling. She wore those dog tags on her collar until she passed away. I buried them with her.
Even though Nittany was well-trained, she could let her ornery side out every now and then. My youngest son, Bubba, who was in sixth grade, turned himself inside out trying to teach her to play fetch. Every time Bubba threw her ball, or any of her toys, she would sit there and just look at him. You could just hear the wheels turning in her head and the thoughts that she was trying to get across to him. It was, “Okay, you just threw one of my toys waaaaaayyyyy over there and you want ME to go get it? So now there is something wrong, not just for me but for you as well. Now, will you please go get my toy. Otherwise, I will have to tell Mom.”
I felt so left out at first, until it dawned on me that Nittany was training Bubba!! Unfortunately, he didn’t learn very fast and she would get frustrated and lay down with her muzzle resting on her crossed front paws, grumbling under her breath and watching Bubba until he got back. As soon as he got back with her toy, she would be sitting up, eyes bright, ears up high, and her head cocked to the side.
As soon as he looked at her, she would pull her front paws up to her face and pull them downwards until they reached the end of her nose in frustration. And as amusing as it may well have been (and as sad as it may have been), I must admit that when it came to this matter, Nittany learned must faster than Bubba did. Nittany had proven just how smart and ornery she could be when she wanted to be.
She finished her classes for Service Dog. She earned her Service Dog vest and was now working on graduating Therapy Dog classes. The class for therapy dogs was much more crowded than the one Nittany had just graduated. From the minute I got her, Nittany seemed to have known that she was destined to become something special. She more than rose to it and she far exceeded all the expectations, expectations that a lot of her classmates weren’t able to master and so they did not pass. Out of the twenty that we started with, four were “dropped” in the first few weeks because they couldn’t keep up with the rest, and three more “washed-out” when they had to take the final test.
I had a brief but important conversation with the instructor more than once when he decided that all of my commands for Nittany had to be in German. I refused. Nittany had been given all of her commands in French since “day one” when I had first brought her home, and I, of course, saw no reason to confuse her.
Nittany was so quick that she was prancing circles around the big dogs in the class. So, my oldest children went to the owner of the training program, and with her help, they ordered Nittany a vest in pink camouflage and presented it to her on Graduation Day, complete with her patches sewn on it. No dusty tan vest for Nittany! And boy, did she rock that pretty pink against her beautiful black coat!
Not two months after she graduated, she got to prove herself. My oldest daughter’s adoption was finalized, so I took all four children to Hershey Park while we visited my parents to celebrate. We survived two days at the amusement park, with Nittany keeping me calm and focused and not panicked in throngs of people. As curious as she was, she stayed right by my calf and was tolerant when I explained to parents that Nittany was working, please don’t let your child try to pet or pick her up.
Nittany and I settled into a routine once I’d processed out of the Marines. I was finishing my degree for teaching, so it was classes at university and being involved in my children’s lives with dance and scouts.
I was lucky enough to find a daycare that allowed me to work with Nittany by my side. After the initial excitement, the children accepted her as part of the classroom. Nittany just loved the hustle and bustle of a preschool classroom. She was the instant “boo boo” cure if any of the kids fell or bumped into anything. She would sit by the baby’s side and look up at them with those huge brown eyes, and nuzzle a hand with her nose while I checked the boo boo. Nittany was definitely in her element.
When 9/11 happened, I was recalled and I told them that they better reserve a seat for Nittany as well. Nittany and I found ourselves back in DC, but this time there was a lot of chaos—and a lot of mourning. She definitely felt it from me as I struggled to get settled back in. She made friends with the mascot at 8th & I. Nittany was given an honorary rank of Sargeant, and chevrons were sewn onto her vest.
When 9/11 happened, I was recalled and I told them that they better reserve a seat for Nittany as well. Nittany and I found ourselves back in DC, but this time there was a lot of chaos—and a lot of mourning.
When I got Nittany, I was stationed in North Carolina. When Nittany was about three years old, I was called back into service because of 9/11, and Nittany went with me. Nittany was not only my service dog, she went into combat missions with me, and Nittany had her own bullet-proof flight jackets.
Nittany was trained to clear buildings. She was trained to go into buildings in holes that were too small for the larger dogs, and she would go in at night when no one inside would see or hear her and come back out through the same hole. When she came out, she would sit in front of me. Then she would go and sit in front of another marine, and then another. When she laid down, they knew how many people were inside the buildings. At first, some of the other marines would look down on her because she was so small. But after they got to know her, she earned their respect. Nittany was worth her weight in gold.
I was so proud of how well she did. It wasn’t the kind of chaos she was accustomed to. There were long days, and there were flights to other places where we were needed. Nittany took it all in stride. In fact, when we were sent back to LeJeune, there were hops from one base to another. I would strap in and put her on my lap to buckle her in, and she was asleep before I’d finished. It was two more years before I was to be released to settle back in at home, and I was so grateful. I think Nittany was as well. Those two years when she and I were recalled had been a huge adjustment, so it was wonderful to go home.
At first, some of the other marines would look down on her because she was so small. But after they got to know her, she earned their respect. Nittany was worth her weight in gold.
I took a position working with autistic children, knowing that Nittany would do well with them. My kids were now involved in sports, drama, ballet, and cheerleading. Nittany was right there watching them. My girls loved it when they had the dance studio to themselves. They would dance with Nittany in front of all the mirrors, with a lot of laughter and silliness. My oldest two graduated that year and left for university. I knew Nittany missed them as she would sit by their bedroom doors and pout.
Nittany looked forward to the fall when school started for my youngest two. She loved football and wrestling seasons when Bubba played. Nittany never took her eyes off of him when he took the field. She would sit with her back resting against my leg, and her front paws prancing up and down while he was running play. And if you listened real close, you could hear her mumbling under her breath. But she never barked and she never moved from my side.
During Bubba’s junior year, I started writing to a fellow Marine. But before he even returned from Iraq and we met face to face, I informed him that if Nittany didn’t like him or had a problem with him spending time with me, it just wasn’t going to work. I am sure that she knew his smell all too well from all the letters and packages he’d sent. When he stepped off the bus and walked over to me, she waited. Once he stopped and hugged me, she walked over to him, sniffed his boots and cammies, looked up at him, cocking her head sideways, then rolled over so that he would scratch her belly. He was given a Nittany stamp of approval, and we were married on Christmas Day a year later.
My youngest daughter graduated that year and left for Georgetown University. Nittany was beside herself and started checking constantly to make sure that Bubba was still there. All of her young humans were leaving her and she wasn’t handling it very well! During Bubba’s senior year, he was captain of the football team and I was still team trainer and team mom. The year before, Bubba had started putting silver and blue hair paste in Nittany’s ruff to show her team spirit, and it is a credit to her temperament because not only did she tolerate it, but I swear she just puffed her chest out with pride.
Bubba shared with me his favorite memory with Nittany. During Homecoming his senior year, he was preparing to walk out onto the field to shake hands with the other team’s captain when Nittany gave me that look that said she wanted to go with him. I looked at coach, and he nodded. So, I bent down and undid her vest and told her to go ahead.
She was right on Bubba’s side, and what a sight. My six-foot four son in full pads, mohawk stiff, helmet under his arm, and Nittany, tiny little black dog with team colors shining brightly on her ruff, grinning from ear to ear, keeping up with his long strides. By the time they reached centerfield, I could hear coach chuckling with laughter and the bleachers behind us erupting in cheers, clapping and stomping with approval. And I swear Nittany was prancing like a Lipizzaner stallion all the
In April of that year, we received orders to go to Boston. So, we packed up, settled Bubba in with his sister for the last two months of school, and set out for Boston. Poor Nittany kept trying to see everything, trying to make sure she didn’t miss anything. But, alas, it is a long, long drive from Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, to Boston, Massachusetts.
We ended up having to stop for the night because pulling the car behind the truck was not only nerve wracking, it was exhausting as well. Unfortunately, there were no animal-friendly hotels, so we knew we were going to have to smuggle Nittany inside and up in the elevator. Tony put her in the big canvas bag that held our clothes and toiletries. While waiting with another couple in the elevator for it to open on our floor, this little black muzzle and pointy little ears peeped out of the top of the bag.
I whispered, “No,” and it vanished just as quickly. The woman looked at her husband, leaned over, peered into the bag, and just dissolved into peals of laughter. They were the only ones who knew that Nittany was there.
I had already secured a position at a small university, and Nittany made herself right at home in my classroom. The novelty of a service dog on campus wore off quickly as my students adjusted. She and I settled into a routine, and with her help, I got comfortable teaching and living as normal a life as possible.
We flew home to see Bubba graduate, and tried to convince him to come to Boston with us. He chose to stay in North Carolina though, with promises to come visit for holidays. Nittany kept looking back at Bubba when we got to the airport. He was her favorite, and here we were leaving him behind once more. She whined and pouted the entire flight back to Boston.
October brought all kinds of excitement for Nittany. It snowed. Nittany had never seen snow, let alone played in it. The only difficulty was that she had to wear protective booties to prevent the chemical used to melt the snow from making the pads of her feet bleed. She definitely didn’t like them. The minute she got outside and saw the snow, she was amusing. The snow was deeper than she was tall! The maintenance crew shoveled the sidewalks, the doggie potty area, and parking lots. Instead of walking where they had shoveled, she jumped straight up and into the drifts of snow. All you saw was snow flying up in the air, and occasionally, a little black dog imitating a kangaroo popping up and out of the snow banks. She definitely loved the snow.
In the spring, we started taking her to a large park to see other dogs and to get some exercise. I didn’t think, however, about the local wildlife. For the first time, Nittany came face-to-face with Canadian geese, ducks, and swans. While the birds were accustomed to dogs in their park, they still walked very slowly away and into the water. Nittany was so intent on them, wanting to get as close as possible so that she was chest deep in water before she even realized she was wet. She tried to run fast enough so that she would walk on the water instead of walking through it. She grumbled, and was a “cranky butt” all the way home and during her bath to wash the pond water off of her.
When my husband retired, we made the decision to return to Camp LeJeune where I would have all the resources that Wounded Warrior could provide. It didn’t take long for everything to be scheduled and started—and Nittany was right in front of everything.
Part of my treatment plan included volunteer work with other vets. Nothing strenuous, just helping to write letters, reading out loud to them, and sometimes, just listening to them. After the first week, I was volunteering in the Traumatic Brain Injury ward. There, something amazing and miraculous happened. Patients who weren’t responding to human interaction were responding to Nittany! When we placed her on their lap or in the bed with them, she was so patient while working with them, nosing their hands over and over until she got through to them. In a matter of weeks, she became their rock star. And it wasn’t just with the patients. It was also with the staff, family members, and other volunteers.
Nittany loved every minute of the days we volunteered. She even knew which days we would go. On those days, she would get her leash and carry it to the front door; just sitting there, waiting for me to catch up to her. She was definitely where she was supposed to be, doing what no one else had been able to do. And she was so happy.
On a cold day in January two years ago, we said goodbye to Nittany Bear. We had all gotten together to celebrate the four birthdays that were in January and February, one of which was Nittany’s. We went to dinner, and had cake. One of my friends made a special cake, just for Nittany.
When we woke the next morning, I knew immediately that something was wrong. Nittany wasn’t in the bed or in any of her beds in the bedroom. When I got up to look for her, I noticed puddles where she had been sick. We both called to her, but she didn’t answer or come into the room. Tony went to find her while I cleaned up the mess from room to room. Finally, I heard Tony call me from the guest room, and I went to try to coax Nittany out so that she wouldn’t think she was in trouble. As I reached the room, Tony was attempting to lift her and she screamed with such a sound that it made my soul shrink. Tony gathered her up and went to the emergency vet while I cleaned the house waiting to hear the news.
Nittany had suffered a stroke, and all the vet could do was help her go to sleep and end the pain she was in. An hour later, Tony returned with her wrapped in her favorite quilt. She looked so peaceful.
And just like that, the amazing soul that had reached down and redeemed mine was gone. Wrapped in her favorite quilt, “Hammie” with her, we laid her to rest. My heart shattered into a million pieces. I still cannot believe how big a hole there is in my heart and soul from the loss of such a little ball of fur.
In the weeks that followed, I started receiving sympathy cards from staff, friends, and family at Wounded Warrior. The reserve unit up home where we buried her sent me a shadow box with her name and rank engraved on the plaque, along with a flag and her chevrons. I sent it to my mother, where it sits on the mantle beside my father’s.
I still keep expecting to see Nittany when I first wake up, only to realize again that she passed on to a better place where she is at peace. My heart still hurts.