The Hansens did all of Leonard’s favorite things on the day they gave him away.
Leonard, usually a good boy, jumped onto a countertop during a game of chase. He’d never done it before, but it was OK this time. After more than a year with the Hansens in Salt Lake City, Utah, rules were lax for his last day.
“We got some really good pictures,” said Ronny Hansen, the family matriarch, who raised Leonard with her 18-year-old son, Mason. “We got a picture of Mason and Leonard, and Leonard’s licking Mason’s cheek, and it was really a sweet picture.”
Leonard is a black lab with a square head. Since he was a puppy, the Hansens raised him to eventually become a guide dog for people with visual impairments — all the while knowing one day they would have to give him away.
Every other Saturday, families travel to Boring, Oregon, to watch dogs like Leonard graduate. Boring is home to one of only two campuses nationwide for the nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind.
It’s at graduation where the lives of the dogs, their trainers and their new owners intersect.
Leonard’s New Owner
After spending months with the Hansens, Guide Dogs for the Blind called Leonard back to campus in Boring to meet his new owner, Schalee Lodge of Tomball, Texas.
Lodge lost her sight on her birthday in 1995. She sat behind her father, a pilot, when their plane crashed.
“The controller said that my dad did everything to keep that plane in the air,” Lodge said. “He avoided a post office, but when he did, he banked the wing to keep from hitting it.”
In the crash, Lodge lost her sight completely. She also lost her father.
When Lodge returned home from the hospital six months later, she was determined to continue living a normal life.
“I honestly can’t say I’ve ever been afraid,” Lodge said, citing her strong faith in and relationship to God.
“I remember walking in the door after getting home from the hospital, I reached over and flipped the light switch where I knew where it was, and nothing happened,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, well that didn’t work.’”
She laughed at the memory: “It was almost like, ‘OK, I’m back home now — everything should be normal.’”
Leonard is her third guide dog. Her other two retired. For two weeks this fall, Lodge stayed at the Boring campus, learning how to work with Leonard.
“He does everything with full force. That’s his personality,” she said. “So he works hard and plays hard, you know, kind of like how I live my life. I do the same kind of thing, so they match us really well.”
Ronny Hansen talks about Leonard like he’s her fifth son.
“He’s like another little boy to us,” she said.
Leonard is the first dog the Hansens have raised for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Hansen said she’d done this whole “letting go” thing before, like when her two eldest boys went off to college and then on mission trips abroad for two years.
“As a mother, that is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “Letting my boys go for two years to serve the Lord, and know that I was going to give them to somebody else to hopefully make their life better. And I think that that ties into guide dogs.”
Hansen admitted she’s never had to give something away forever. That’s what made this different from sending her sons off to college.
She hoped Leonard would go to someone who liked to talk, someone who would send dispatches back to Salt Lake City about how Leonard was enjoying his new home and adjusting to his new life.
“I want to hear everything,” Hansen said. “I want to hear all the funny things he did. I want to hear about what she enjoys about him.”
Before graduation day, Hansen talked with Schalee Lodge on the phone. Lodge sounded “bubbly.”
“She just talked and talked and talked,” Hansen said. It was exactly what she had hoped.
The Hansens hadn’t seen Leonard in months, ever since Guide Dogs for the Blind called him back to campus. On graduation day, Leonard’s trainers and his new owner would finally meet.
Many families visit Boring to go through this process too. They all shuffle into respective corners of the guide dog campus. Lives overlap at every turn.
Ronny Hansen brought gifts for Lodge. She gave her the checkered blanket Leonard used to sit on when he would go to school with her son, Mason Hansen. She held Lodge’s hands as they glided over the raised letters stitched onto the blanket to spell “Leonard.”
Lodge shared the story of how she lost her sight.
“I remember saying to my husband when I was in the hospital for six-and-a-half weeks, and I remember saying: ‘I do not want this from keeping me from doing the things I want to do. I’ve snow skied, and I’ve traveled all over the world,’” Lodge said.
Ronny Hansen chimed in.
“And that’s why they gave you Leonard: because you’re such a goer and a doer,” she says. “And they needed a dog that could do that [for you].”
It felt like fate. Lodge and the Hansens marveled at all the things they have in common — faith, family members who are pilots, connections to Texas and, of course, this mutual love for the black lab with the square head.
At the graduation ceremony, Ronny and Mason Hansen officially handed Leonard off to Lodge on stage. They all thanked Guide Dogs for the Blind, which offers all services, including training and lodging, at no cost thanks to donations.
By the end of the ceremony, Lodge sat with her husband and the Hansens. Leonard sat still at their feet.
“We’ll for sure keep in touch,” Ronny Hansen said.
“We have too many things in common — and this guy,” Lodge said, petting Leonard. “We have this guy in common.”