HARRISVILLE - On Thursday, a funeral home in Harrisville did something it had never done before. Director Rich Gillies put together a memorial service for a dog named Sage. The friendly 8-year-old golden retriever died July 28 of cancer after working as a service dog for a U.S. Air Force veteran.
The memorial was organized, gratis, in an effort to soften the grief of former U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kevin Bradley. Ailing from a wasting, brain-stem disease, the Oscoda native sobbed for two days after the animal was put to sleep. However, on Thursday, the mood had brightened a little as Bradley and 16 friends celebrated Sage's life. Boards loaded with dozens of photographs showed the pair constantly together.
When Bradley competed in shotput and archery, when he went fishing in the middle of Lake Erie, Sage was there. When he raced bicycles, went ice fishing or hunting, competed in archery, the big friendly golden retriever was with him.
"He was a cute ball of fur," the 48-year-old said. "He loved to ice fish with me. He'd steal one of the fish and eat it whole."
Bradley said he bought the nine-week-old puppy while living in western New York. Suffering from a genetic brain stem wasting disease, his weakening condition made it impossible for him to continue his 13-year career in the military. Yet the muscular sergeant wasn't ready for a wheelchair. He kept active in sports and thought the lively pup could be made into a solid hunting companion.
It wasn't to be. When a motor vehicle accident made his condition worse, Bradley took another look at the pup two months later and wondered if the dog could become a service animal. But training was expensive. So Bradley and a brother, Jason Stone, began making log beds and knickknacks out of white cedar. They sold the items to the public or turned them over to service organizations for auctions and other fund raisers.
Bradley eventually amassed $14,600 and Sage was sent away at the age of 14 months to Canine Helpers, a service dog training facility Lockport, N.Y. Four months later, Bradley was told to commute four times a week to the center to train with the dog. But failure was eminent.
"He wasn't listening to my voice nor non-verbal commands," Bradley said. "I was very discouraged."
During one exercise walking circles on the floor of a big barn, Bradley finally gave up. He leaned against the wall of the barn and began grooming his nails to kill time until the instructor returned. But he dropped the clippers.
"Sage picked them up," Bradley said.
The dog then rose, putting his paws on Bradley's chest and handed them back.
Once home, Bradley trained the animal to open the refrigerator door, pull out a soda, close the door and bring it to him. He taught Sage to remove his trousers by pulling on the cuffs and to remove his socks by biting and pulling between his toes.
The dog mastered 42 other commands and could even pick up a dime when the two would do service dog demonstrations.
In 2009, Bradley moved in with his mother, Linda Hastings, near Harrisville until he was able to get his own home. The dog enabled him to live on his own, with his mom and friends available to help out if needed. Meanwhile, Sage and Bradley were getting out, having adventures, meeting people and going to sporting competitions.
On July 19, after being away from his dog during a trip to Florida, Bradley noticed one of Sage's ears had a foul order. The dog had been fighting off an ear infection. Sage also had bad breath, so Bradley took him to a Lincoln veterinary clinic only to be referred to Michigan State University in Lansing, because Sage had an enlarged spleen and pale gums.
Although the dog greeted everybody at the emergency center, he still was not 100 percent, so surgeons decided to operate and see what was going on. At 3:45 a.m., July 28 the doctors told Bradley the service dog might live only 10 to 14 days more, because of masses on his internal organs.
According to his mom, Bradley tried to call his friends, asking them what he should do, but no one answered in the early morning hours. So he gave the OK to euthanize the dog so Sage wouldn't suffer.
He stopped talking and his mother took over.
"He didn't get a chance to say goodbye," Hastings said. "But I did, at my house before we left. We were under the impression that Sage was just going to go down there for an evaluation. I didn't think he was going to die, but I did tell him goodbye. He was just the sweetest thing ever."
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.