On Nov. 17, Kay Jones will give away a piece of her heart.
"It's 73 days from today," Jones said on Wednesday. "Not that I'm counting."
On that fateful day, Jones will give up Elia, the puppy she has fed, taught, trained, raised and loved for a year and a half.
Because Elia never belonged to her.
Elia belongs to a disabled child or adult who needs a service dog to brighten their days and heighten their normalcy. If all goes as planned, she will blossom into a Canine Companion for Independence — an exceptional dog for exceptional people, as the nonprofit likes to say.
Jones has prepped eight dogs for the Canine Companions program, but she talks more about what they have done for her than what she does for them. Not all have gone on to become companions because once they leave her, they enter into a more extensive six to nine months of training at the program's regional center in Orlando.
Only the best of the best qualify.
"My husband refers to service dogs as the Navy SEALs of dog training," said Jones of Palm Harbor.
So what prompts Jones to give so much of herself? In a word, gratitude. She knows how much one of these companions can change a life because she witnessed it with her own son Travis, who was born in the early 1980s with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a condition similar to polio that blocks muscle development.
"Travis was born with no quadriceps, no biceps, no triceps and a host of other muscles in his arms and legs, feet and hands," Jones said. "He was, simply put, a mess."
Doctors performed 16 surgeries to help Travis achieve some degree of normalcy, but Jones said she soon realized it would take more than just a great surgeon to allow Travis to live independently. Thanks to an Ann Landers column, Jones discovered Canine Companions.
It took three years, but Kosmic, a yellow Labrador, came into Travis' life when he was 8. She carried his lunch box, picked up things he dropped and fetched items from high counters. Kosmic could even open the refrigerator and get Travis a juice box.
Because his legs were fused straight, Travis would fall a lot. When this happened, Kosmic would lie next to Travis as he rolled into a sitting position, throw his arms across her shoulders and tell her to stand. As she stood, she would lift up Travis' chest and torso, and he was able to stand up on his own.
"It was a remarkable thing to witness and even more remarkable, it wasn't something they learned in training," Jones said. "It was something they figured out together."
The intangible value Kosmic brought to Travis also impressed Jones. Kids soon saw him as cool, and he began to do things any boy would do — like daydream in class. Jones worked to correct that behavior, but she saw it as a welcome growing pain.
Kosmic spent 10 years with Travis before her health began to falter and they retired her. Cortez followed and helped Travis through college and on to getting his own place — living the life of two bachelors.
After Cortez passed away two years ago, Travis didn't take another dog, feeling confident about his independence and realizing that someone else needed a dog more. He's living in Seattle and working his dream job.
Meanwhile, Jones has become an ambassador for Canine Companions. This summer, the Tampa Sertoma Club made a substantial donation after Jones made a presentation, with Elia by her side.
She can name all eight dogs she has raised for the program: Lew, Leandra, Gabe, Wes, Alec, Granite, Nieman and now Elia. Each holds a special place, including Leandra, who helped her through a divorce, and Wes, who helped her meet her new husband.
Of course, each time she parts with one it tears her apart.
"When you realize that someone has been waiting for this dog, it becomes not a question of how can you give them up, but how can you not," Jones explained. "Some pain is worth the bearing."
While each dog takes a piece of her heart — and she has already taken in her ninth — Hanford — Jones says the dogs all leave a piece of their heart in return. In the end, she will have more dog heart than human and, in her eyes, that's a much better trade.
That's all I'm saying.