In the past 30 years, I’ve had three companion service dogs.

First was Sam, a 9-month-old, male black Lab mix. Sam was professionally trained by Sam Maxwell, through a program in southern Ohio. We — my husband, Tom and I — named him after our trainer. We first met Sam Maxwell as part of a business trip. At her home, we found a house full of various dogs in training, kids and her husband, a person with quadriplegia. We loved her rapport with the dogs. Each animal’s personality came through. Our dog Sam and his training were sponsored, at no cost to us, by Mrs. Firestone of the tire fame. After that initial meeting with the trainer Sam Maxwell, we found our dog. We didn’t meet him beforehand.

When Sam completed his basic training, we returned to Ohio to train one-on-one with him. I needed him to pull my wheelchair, retrieve items I dropped or couldn’t reach, help me open doors and protect me from harm. Because he would be certified, he’d be allowed to go anywhere I went. Sam had been given to the service dog program by a young couple who learned the husband had allergies. After the training, we met with the couple. When we drove home from Ohio to Traverse City, it started snowing around the city of Clare. Sam had never seen snow and he played in it at every rest stop.

Through the years, I watched other assistance dogs act as counter balances for those with walking issues, alert persons with epilepsy of an impending seizure, guide people who are deaf or blind and comfort military veterans with PTSD. I’ve even seen monkeys and small horses assist persons with disabilities.

When Sam was about 6 years old, we adopted a female chocolate Lab puppy from Mesick. We named her Mel. Training Mel was easy, she imitated everything Sam did. Once, on a ferry from Mackinac Island, we saw her comfort a stranger. The man’s wife said he was depressed and marveled at Mel’s intuitiveness. She was extremely emotionally intelligent. Sam lived to be 11 years old. For several years, Mel was our solo dog.

In 2005, after Mel died at age 12, Tom surprised me with a 6 week old, female black Lab-shepherd mix puppy from near Fife Lake. We named her Olive. When COVID hit this year, Olive anticipated our needs and kept our household going by walking Tom three times a day.

In early fall 2020, I enrolled Olive in the Dog Aging Project through the National Institute on Aging and the National Institutes of Health. The vast amount of data collected will help dogs live longer, healthier lives.

Just shy of 15 years old, on Nov. 4, 2020, Olive died.

When Olive died, I lost both my animal companion and life-sustaining assistance. Today, most people respect and recognize animal loss and grief. Tom and I have received cards, meals, flowers, and donations made in Olive’s name to animal nonprofits. Our vet gave us a casting of one of her paw prints, hair swatches and a card signed by all of the employees.

In 2021, we’ll let ourselves be adopted by a new dog. And, the spirit of the other three will be right there with us.

Contact Susan Odgers at

She is a 33-year resident of Traverse City and has been using a wheelchair for 44 years. She is a faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University.

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