Lilly Makes the Big Leagues

My beloved partner, Lilly, has been posthumously inducted into the Texas Animal Hall of Fame today. Below is the text of my acceptance speech. Although the text includes one intentional misspelling and numerous punctuation oddities to assist my computers in reading the speech aloud as intended, it’s still quite “human-readable” as well.


Thank you, Director Tibbitts, Kate, et al `/.

In all fairness, I think it would probably be worthwhile to say something about who Lilly Royall was, and what made her worthy of induction into the Texas Veterinary Medicine Association Animal Hall of Fame. As Kate has likely said, Lilly was a Belgian Shepherd-Chow mix that I found at the Citizens for Animal Protection shelter, and even that was rather unusual. It was late summer of 2001, about two months after the death of my previous dog. I had a young German Shepherd briefly, but she came into season and was returned to the breeder to be bred. So I went to several shelters but didn’t see anything that met my criteria. Finally, as I was leaving the dog room at CAP, I happened to spot a large black dog quietly curled up in a corner cage. That was the beginning of a rather special partnership that lasted exactly a decade `/.

Inside of six months, Lilly was going to work with me most days at Shell Oil’s Westhollow Technology Center, learning literally on the job what a service dog needs to know to fit in. She was attending meetings, escorting me across the campus, and spending hours in my office. Lilly even attended the meeting where I was formally notified of my layoff by my department manager and the Human Resources director so she quickly taught herself the proper conduct for a range of situations. Almost ironically, Shell also sent me to New Orleans, for what was to be my last Microsoft Tech-Ed conference, at the same time as Mardi Gra. That’s right, Lilly was walking Canal Street on Fat Tuesday, 2002, barely six months after we teamed up, and she did flawlessly. In fact, she seemed to learn a good bit that week about her new person, and how she might best be able to help him `/.

That brings up the first of two reasons why Lilly was worthy of her Hall of Fame nomination. While she was certainly not a Rin-tin-tin or a Lassie, she did have the real-world analogue of the animal intelligence grossly exaggerated in those fictional dogs. I’ve known many good dogs in my time, but Lilly was the first to demonstrate an uncanny ability to read a situation and respond to it as if reading my thoughts. The only behaviors I formally taught her were to sit, and to follow the Invisible Leash concept. Everything else was her idea, and that included a sizable list of behaviors. Lilly even decided what type of work she would be most helpful with. I had originally envisaged her doing the typical work of service dogs, opening doors and picking up things, but she quickly disabused me of that notion.  One of my caregivers mused that Lilly was saying, “I am `3 not, a retriever.” It took me a little while to see the natural wisdom of her view, but she was correct. I can generally accomplish those tasks myself. Instead, Lilly made it clear that she felt I needed someone with the temperament and mental agility to go from helping me interact with a group of strangers, to fending off a would-be threat, and back again, all in an instant and without deliberate cues from me. Fortunately, she also decided she was just the dog for the job `/.

What made Lilly’s work so noteworthy was how nuanced it was. Threats could be human or animal, and it was amazing how differently she responded to them. Animal threats, normally dogs, would only get one warning snarl. Failure to heed that warning resulted within two seconds in either the opponent running home yelping, or with them on the ground with Lilly’s fangs on their throat. `3 Then, they ran home yelping. Of course Lilly would never chase them. That wasn’t her objective at all. Her job was done as soon as the opponent left my vicinity. If, on the other paw, there was a dog that I wanted to pet, Lilly would literally step off to facilitate that. Such was simply the level of sophistication in Lilly’s understanding of my needs `/.

Potential human threats received a response that was much more finessed, with multiple levels of reaction. Lilly’s initial response would be to move between me and an opponent as if to say, “you can’t argue if you’re petting me.” If that strategy didn’t de-escalate the situation, she would then turn to face the person and start nudging them back with her head and shoulders. Only if the person ignored that message, or was an immediate threat, would they get the rumbling growl and bared fangs. Although it was a case of mistaken identity that she spent ten minutes apologizing for, at least one former caregiver knows first-hand that Lilly was quite capable of drawing blood with those fangs even through heavy denim jeans `/.

All this talk about Lilly’s protective skills could give the impression that protection was her primary duty, but the truth is it was only a background task in her powerful mind. Lilly quickly decided that her main duty was helping me to interact with new people, despite how contradictory that seemed to be to protection. As soon as she noticed me going to talk to someone new, Lilly would literally engage them and hold their attention while I prepared to talk. Yep, she was primarily a “people dog,” and she loved that aspect of her work the most. Even in her last year, as cancer metastasized throughout her body, she resolutely insisted on escorting me at a busy Amateur Radio swap-meet. Lilly would slowly walk down a crowded aisle about five feet ahead of me, using her nose to politely alert people that I wanted to get by. You could tell from the gentle swish-swish of her fluffy tail that Lilly was genuinely content that morning `/.

The other reason why I’m convinced that Lilly belonged in the Hall of Fame is because she essentially worked non-stop for her entire adult life despite enduring a seemingly endless list of medical issues. That’s how the people at GCVS came to know her. By my count, she underwent at least four procedures here, including TPLOs on both knees, and emergency surgery for Gastric Volvulus. Given Lilly’s fondness for people, it’s hardly surprising the staff fell in love with her.  When Lilly was two and a half years old, Dr. Anderson confirmed that she was hypothyroidic. Naturally, we immediately put her on hormone supplements, but her levels were always either slightly high or low. That gave her chronic problems with her weight and energy levels so it was no wonder that a nationally-renown trainer didn’t find any basic drives usable in training Lilly just before the Hypothyroidism was diagnosed. In truth, her love for me seemed the only consistent motivator she had, but she obviously considered it to be of paramount importance because she followed it through some very challenging physical difficulties!  Sure, most dogs are devoted to their people, but precious few have both the initiative to unilaterally devise ways of being useful, and the grim determination to do so in the face of physical pain and fatigue. That’s how Lilly earned her place in the Hall of Fame `/.

Dr. Anderson certainly remembers that I commented many times that something seemed “off” in Lilly’s gait, particularly in anything above a walk. Although we could never track down the root cause, I long realized that I would be lucky to have her for ten years. I suppose, therefore, that I should consider myself fortunate, but I still acutely miss her. One result of my experience with Lilly was that I resolved that my next dog, my last dog, would be as free of genetically-based health issues as humanly possible. I had previously decided this dog needed to be a German Shepherd for a variety of reasons, and I knew that the only way to assure getting a genetically clean GSD was by contacting one of the top kennels in Europe, where they actually have strict breeding regulations. The dog you see by my side, Ari, could be called an example of the current state of the art in German genetic engineering, because she has perfect health so far. She also enjoys people. However, Ari lacks Lilly’s quiet self-confidence, which was what enabled her to take the initiative and create her own useful duties within our partnership. Only careful training and exposure to a broad range of situations with positive outcomes can help Ari to bolster her self-confidence. I selected Ari shortly after Lilly was diagnosed as having Osteosarcoma, and the hope was that Lilly had enough time left to impart some of her sophisticated knowledge to Ari by way of example, but that was not to be. Lilly’s body simply didn’t have the reserves left to grant her the time or the energy `/.

Lilly Royall died August 24th, 2011. I had just finished walking Ari when Lilly barely managed to crawl up in front of me. She lifted her head and whimpered, which was an oddly significant thing for such a normally silent dog. Then, she slumped to the kitchen floor, rolled on her side, and stopped panting, forever. Frankly, I was stunned, finding it hard to believe for several moments that my constant partner for a decade was gone. I needed to keep things together and notify Dr. Anderson’s assistant to collect the body. I also had to focus on the impending death of another friend, and start making arrangements for his funeral. Thus, while mourning my first dog had been a pronounced and relatively short experience, losing Lilly ignited a smoldering pain that will only die when `1 I do. I daresay everybody present understands that I’ll always chide myself for not summoning Dr. Anderson the day before to ease Lilly’s passing. Of course no one knew how close she was to the end. Even her team of doctors at GCVS was surprised when they heard the news. We had been trying to help Lilly attend a final social event at the beginning of October, but her body betrayed her one last time. Naturally, Lilly seemed to want to stay with me as long as possible, but one of our responsibilities as the human in these relationships is to make the deaths of our dogs as gentle as possible. They dedicate their lives to us and expect so little in return. Certainly, Lilly would forgive my lapse on that, just as she would forgive me for not stroking her as she slipped away out of some ir-rational fear of pushing her over the edge. She would forgive, but `1 I won’t; she deserved better `/.

But, that’s all history, and it cannot be changed, of course. The only thing left to do is somehow commemorate the life of a remarkable dog. I am not at all sanguine about the Hereafter, and the only other way I can see of giving someone any degree of immortality is by providing some remembrance of who they were. That’s actually what we’re doing for Lilly today. As I told one reporter, “the critical point of this whole process, at least for me, is to give Lilly some small degree of the legacy that she so richly deserved. An archaeologist exploring the ruins of Texas a thousand years from today won’t know any of us from pocket lint. But, maybe he’ll uncover a reference to a dog named Lilly and think, ‘hmm, she had to be rather special to be memorialized at all.’ Yes, she was `/.”

Inclusion in the Texas Animal Hall of Fame is our way of granting Lilly that tiny bit of legacy, and I thank the Texas Veterinary Medical Association again for making that possible. Lilly wouldn’t think much of the ceremonies, but she was always one to enjoy being the center of attention `/.

By the way, there are rare occasions when using a computer to speak has certain advantages; computers don’t get choked up with emotions  `/.

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