Mom, Elizabeth Hoettels, and her best girl, Rio, are inseparable after work and on weekends. Photo courtesy Sweet Ventures by Nichole DuPont.
Picture this for a moment. You’re a military critical-care nurse, with a surgical team stationed in East Africa for several months, away from family, friends, and everything familiar.
But the wonderful world of Skype helps bridge that gap after a stressful day of treating injured personnel. While most of her cohorts Skyped with their wives, girlfriends, and kids earlier this year, Maj. Elizabeth Hoettels was Skyping with Rio, a 2-year-old Golden Retriever.
“I’m pretty sure my tentmates thought I was a little off my rocker,” laughs Hoettels. “One looked at me quizzically and asked, ‘You’re talking to your dog?’ And I replied, ‘Yep.’”
Swimming and jumping are two things at which Rio excels. The combination is perfect for dock diving. Rio earned her first title at Camp GoldenSoul this summer and is now training avidly for her next title.
But the next Skype visit depended on a little help from Hoettels friends, Rio’s breeders, Nancy Lewine and Jenny Cochran, of GoldenSoul Dogs, in Harleysville, Pa., who were housing the 65-pound Golden from May until late September, while Hoettels was deployed.
“Nancy and Jenny were great about saying ‘whenever I wanted to Skype, I could see Rio.’ I talked to Rio like I did any other day – while sitting on one of the tables that we use for patients. I walked around to show her where I worked. I told her I would be home soon. You know, everything that everyone else would say to a family member. This family member just happened to be furry and have four paws.”
There was an eight-hour time difference involved, which meant the 30-minute calls were usually conducted during the day in Pennsylvania and evening in East Africa. “Nancy and Jenny would bring me up-to-date on GoldenSouls' activities, and then I’d talk to Rio. After some time, she got wise and caught on that it was just my voice, but not actually me in the room,” Hoettels says.
The technically savvy Rio gets in some face time via Skype with mom, who was deployed to East Africa earlier this year.
Because of her incredibly busy schedule and the prospect for continued deployment, the 43-year-old Hoettels, who lives in Destin, Fla., faces challenges when it comes to dog ownership. But she compensates for it with Rio in every spare minute of her time.
They live in a townhome near the beach, which allows them to get plenty of water playtime. During the day while Hoettels is at work, Rio is in doggy daycare, allowing her plenty of social time with two- and four-legged friends. The weekends, though, are their time. “We run races together, we participate in therapy dog visits (Rio is registered through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, working for the American Red Cross in Northwest Florida), get in beach time, and explore any place that will let both of us go there. One of our favorite activities is visiting coffee shops, which allows Rio to practice her manners.”
The story behind Hoettels and Rio has an international twist.
“I fell in love with the Golden Retriever breed when I was serving at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany,” Hoettels says. “Landstuhl had American Red Cross therapy dogs for the wounded warriors to love on. However, the military also recognized the need to take care of those who cared for the wounded. Consequently, the dogs shared their love with the medical staff. One day, I met the sweetest dog – a Golden Retriever. While my lifestyle was not accommodating at the time, I told myself that I, too, would have one someday, to not only be my therapy as a running companion, but also as a therapy dog who could bring joy to others.”
As a military nurse, Hoettels is acutely attuned to those she serves and tends to follow organizations that support her military family. While she was in Germany, she happened upon a group that trains service dogs for wounded warriors. It was a Golden Retriever puppy named after a nurse who lost her life in World War II – Francie – that became the segue for connecting with GoldenSoul Dogs.
Living at the beach in Destin, Fla., affords Rio plenty of good water time. Hoettels looks for any opportunity to get sandy paws together.
“After reading the story attached to Francie, I decided to write to Nancy and Jenny just to say ‘thank you’ for donating a puppy that could be a future best friend for one of my military family members.”
A short time later, Hoettels exchanged e-mails with the pair, and she expressed an interest in getting a Golden Retriever in the future. To determine her lifestyle and interest in the breed, the breeders interviewed Hoettels in Germany, via Skype. “When I look back on it, I am pretty sure Nancy and Jenny adopted me into the ‘pack’ early on. I just didn’t know it at the time.”
During several months, Hoettels watched from afar via Skype as several GoldenSoul litters were born. “Nancy and Jenny pored their hearts into these puppies, and it was this dedication which was the impetus for me to apply for one of their puppies,” recalls Hoettels.
Almost one year later while working at Landstuhl, she received a message from Lewine providing information about a healthy 4-month-old Rio and asking if Hoettels would consider an older puppy. “I remember coming out of my flight suit with excitement. Here I was being offered the opportunity to become a puppy mom when I came home from Germany.”
Here Rio is waiting for her new mom with GoldenSoul Dogs breeder Jenny Cochran at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. This was Rio’s’ first up-close-and-personal meeting with Hoettels, who was arriving from overseas deployment.
At a puppy birthday party a few weeks later, Lewine announced to the entire GoldenSouls family that Rio was eventually going to go home with Hoettels.
Throughout this Golden adventure, Hoettels continued to express uneasiness about being a single puppy mom in the military, where deployments are a stark reality. “I continued to let them know that concern. What will happen then? Without hesitation, they said Rio could come home and stay with them for as long as needed. These words were crucial to me. I was not going to bring a puppy into my life that could not receive the nonstop love and care it deserved.”
Fast forward to July 2014. Hoettels stepped off a military contract aircraft in Baltimore and was met by Team GoldenSoul – Lewine, Cochran, and Rio. However, Hoettels only had one night with the greeting party before continuing to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., her new military home. A few days later, Lewine and Cochran drove from their Pennsylvania kennels to Virginia to hand off Rio to an ecstatic Hoettels.
The new puppy mom and Rio spent one year together at the Alabama base, then moved to Florida, where Hoettels is stationed at Eglin Air Force Base.
Last February, the predictable Big D notice arrived – she was being deployed. “Deployments don’t bother me. I love what I do – a critical-care and trauma nurse. I love my military family and gladly being there alongside them when they go into harm’s way,” Hoettels emphasizes. But this time things were different. She was a dog mom.
Upon receiving a deployment notice, there are a wide array of things – professional and personal – that must be addressed. “My mind was like a CNN ticker tape,” she recalls. Following a phone call, the cool, calm, and collected Lewine planned Rio’s itinerary within days. “You have no clue how reassuring it was to have someone take that one plate I was juggling in my mind out of the equation,” she smiles.
It is important to give back, says Hoettels. In addition to being Hoettels’ partner in life, Rio doubles as a therapy dog, serving both her military and civilian family.
About six weeks later, Hoettels drove Rio to Concord, N.C., where GoldenSoul professional handler Heather Helmer was competing at shows with Rio’s father and siblings. The handoff was gut-wrenching. “You might as well cut my heart out,” she recalls. “Rio looked at me all confused. I told her over and over that I promised to be back soon, and that Nancy and Jenny were going to love her. I cried from Concord to Atlanta that day and all the way home to Florida the following day.”
In late September, as soon as Hoettels could begin her leave after her East Africa service, she was headed north to see her beloved Rio, and the two were reunited in Philadelphia.
“We were both off the charts excited when we set eyes on each other,” Hoettels recalls. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her dance around so much. I was a bit relieved she was so happy. Quite frankly, I was concerned she would think I wasn’t coming back. I knew that she did not lack for a thing over the summer. She was loved by Nancy, Jenny, and all of the family. It was Camp GoldenSoul, after all -- swimming, running in the woods, and going on adventures to shows and dock diving. A Golden’s dream come true. But that didn’t change the fact that I worried that she’d think I wasn’t coming back.”
Hoettels characterizes their relationship as a “Calvin and Hobbes-esque. I know it’s all in my head but we have conversations – some pretty serious ones, such as deployment, while others are just for fun,” she says. Many of those witty interactions are posted on their Facebook page, with everything written from Rio’s perspective.
Whether they're on different continents or at home together, Rio and Hoettels continue to prove that the bond between dog and owner is unbreakable.
Friday nights are girls' nights. The pair go to play in the water when Hoettels is done with work -- a chance for both to unwind from the hectic week.”
These girls do more than just "sit pretty." They seek fun and adventure while taking time to serve their country and community. Photo courtesy Sweet Ventures by Nichole DuPont.