This is a tale of love’s labor gone to the dogs.
In the Free home in Williamsville, New York, the law had been laid down. No dogs allowed. Crysti was allergic, Melanie didn’t like them, and Mom and Dad didn’t want the problems associated with man’s best friend. Janna Free, the dog lover in the family, had asked before but to no avail.
“I don’t think so,” was always the reply whenever the question was posed.
For a while, it appeared the Free home would remain a dog-free environment.
Then things changed. Crysti moved out, Melanie left for her mission, and Mom and Dad turned into a couple of old softies.
And Janna—the 16-year-old with the innocent smile—decided to give Mom and Dad the big “Pleeeeeeeeease” once more. And this time, the response was a little different.
“We’ll talk about it,” said Mom. And for Janna there was a glimmer of hope.
But why the change of heart? Credit Janna for that. Her well-thought-out plan to get a dog became an offer Mom and Dad couldn’t refuse.
Janna’s strategy for getting a dog was simple. She would affiliate herself with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and raise a guiding eye dog. She patiently explained to her parents that she would keep a dog for 18 months, while socializing it and teaching it manners and commands. Then she’d return the dog to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for the four months of specialized training all guide dogs need before being assigned to a blind person.
It was a simple plan, really. Janna, a member of the Amherst Ward, Buffalo New York Stake, would get her dog. It would be a short-term deal, and she’d be performing a service at the same time. Who could argue? Certainly not Janna’s mom and dad.
“I’d always wanted a dog, and when I was 16 it just worked out that I was looking for a project to do for Girl Scouts—to earn my Gold Award,” says Janna, now 18 and a freshman at BYU. “One day I saw a sign on a bulletin board for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.” The light went on.
“So I took down the number and came home and started bugging my parents to let me do this project,” she continues. Janna, a firm believer in the if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed adage, tried again.
Let’s just say that Janna Free can be pretty persuasive. “Oh, yes, she was,” says Janna’s mom, Maureen, remembering the process. “She went and got all sorts of literature on dogs. She showed us all the things she knew she was going to have to do. She was pretty convincing.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization in Yorktown Heights, New York, which has placed more than 4,000 guide dogs with blind people since it began in 1956, evaluated Janna’s application, and two weeks later approved her to receive a dog.
“I was a little nervous because I had never had a dog before. I wasn’t sure how [Guiding Eyes] would feel about giving one of their dogs to a first-time raiser, especially one so young,” Janna says.
Apparently that wasn’t a problem, because in May of 1994, Phineas, a 14-week-old black labrador retriever, was delivered to the Frees’ front door. And Janna’s year-and-a-half odyssey with her puppy began.
“There was a lot of adjustment because I took sole responsibility for Phineas. I had to walk him twice a day. I had to schedule my time so that I would be home. I didn’t want to dump him on my parents,” Janna recalls.
“You’re doing what?” was a common question among Janna’s friends. “They couldn’t believe I’d take a dog knowing I’d have to give him up in the end. That was generally the first reaction they’d give. But I knew when I took him on that I wasn’t going to be able to keep him. But I also knew he could do something better than just sit around as a house pet. I was excited to be a part of that.
“My greatest fear,” she continues, “was that he would never make it.”
Unfortunately, not all dogs graduate to become guiding eye dogs. Some don’t have the temperament. Some don’t respond to the training. Some just aren’t cut out for the task.
It was Janna’s job as a puppy raiser to take Phineas into new situations that would acclimate him to things he would face as a guiding eye dog. If Janna had to run to the store, Phineas went with her. She made arrangements with local shopkeepers to allow her to take him inside their stores. She was also impressed at how the public awareness about guide dogs increased as she took Phineas around.
Janna also noticed how her experiences with Phineas made her feel. “I’ve always wanted to keep busy. I’ve never been one to just sit around, and this felt like the perfect opportunity for me to do something for someone. There was always that sense of, Yes, I’m doing this for someone. I’m doing this for a blind person,” she says.
Although Janna’s work with Phineas made her more aware of the disabilities of people around her, she also noticed her own attitude change when she realized how blessed she was. When she’d stop and think that somewhere a blind person needed Phineas to have a full and active life, she was humbled.
“The best thing for me was what I’ve learned about service. I’ve gained a testimony of the idea that when you lose your life you find it. There are times when I get kind of bogged down when things go wrong. But my problems become so minuscule in comparison to the people I’m helping. I don’t have to go through life blind. It really gives me a renewed appreciation of how blessed I am,” she says.
All along, Janna knew her time with Phineas was short. And when the day came in August of 1995 for Phineas to leave, it was no easy thing.
“I cried. I tried not to but I cried,” she says. “Phineas knew something was going on. I was sobbing. But he just got in the car and went away.”
Last January, Janna traveled to Yorktown Heights for Phineas’s graduation from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. It was there that Janna met Joyce, the blind woman who became Phineas’s new owner. They talked, and Joyce filled Janna in on what Phineas had been up to.
Never was anybody more happy to have dog slobber on her face than Janna. “I was nervous to see whether he’d remember me. I petted him for a long time and got kisses all over my face. I was really excited,” she adds. “That was a major emotion for me. I felt grateful that he had made it all the way. It was really kind of a culminating experience to go see the graduation. I was just really proud of him.”
These days, there are few visual reminders of Phineas’s 18-month stay in the Free home. But Phineas’s impact on Janna is not forgotten. And vice versa.