I can't say that this was entirely a surprise to me. Elliott was a great dog to live with and to work with. He was an enthusiastic worker when it came to learning new skills, and for the most part well-behaved in public. But over all these years training a lot of golden retrievers to be guide dogs, I have gotten pretty good at spotting "golden red flags," and I knew he had some. I never wrote about them when I was raising him. In case he did grow up to be a Leader Dog, I did not think his future handler really needed to know that when he was younger, I thought that he might not be suitable for the job. I mean, if I were a guide dog handler, I probably would not want my guide dog's puppy history out there on the Internet for everyone to see, at least not the full version.
The biggest concern I had about him was that he did not handle stress well. It wasn't so much that he was afraid of THINGS, like noises, or unusual objects. I mean, he was afraid of those sometimes, but he always got over them quickly. He just didn't handle stressful situations well. Even when he was 13 months old, I still had to put a Gentle Leader on him when we went somewhere new, at least for the first half hour or so, because he was so busy processing the novelty that he had a really hard time responding to cues that he knew very well in familiar settings. His distraction level in new places was also exponentially higher than it was in familiar settings. It's not like he was ever completely without distraction, but in a new place it was like he couldn't whip his head around fast enough to look at every new moving thing he saw.
Also, in new places, he had a lot of trouble sitting still. When he was about a year old, I took him to the triathlon club meeting at the brewery. He sat nicely for about twenty minutes in the crowded, noisy room, then started panting hard and standing up. I kept putting him back in a down and he kept popping back up. Finally he just started lunging to the end of the leash. He wasn't lunging for anything; he was just done with being in that room with too much happening. This is something I have seen from a lot of goldens, so many that I even have a name for it: the "golden breakaway." (This is not to imply that all goldens do it, that only goldens do it, or that goldens who do it sometimes will be career changed. It's just a thing I've noticed over the years that raises a concern in my mind when I see it.)
He never did the golden breakaway in familiar places. He could lie on the floor in the instructors' office for hours without moving at all. He was fine in quiet, familiar places, but not really fine in busy, unfamiliar places. Also, he growled at noises at night. He didn't start doing this until he was almost a year old, but once it started, it happened pretty regularly. He almost never barked, but there was a lot of menacing-sounding growling when things went "bump" in the night. I know perfectly well that this is not a good guide dog quality, and usually indicates some lack of soundness. Still, he had a lot of good qualities too. He could stay calm while people petted him, something a lot of goldens struggle with because Oh my God they just love people soooooooo much!! He was great to live with and never annoying in the house. He had good skills and it was very easy to teach him new things. Overall when I turned him in I gave him about a 50/50 chance of graduating. I was realistic enough to know what I was looking at, but I also know that a lot of goldens change and become more confident as they mature, so I thought there was a chance. I would not have put any money on either outcome, though.
His instructors worked diligently with him, but in the end he just was not able to keep his head in the game enough to be responsible or keep someone safe. We had one of his sisters in our string and I saw the same qualities in her. She was a very sweet dog and I'm sure is an excellent pet, but it got to a point where keeping her in training was not fair to her. It was stressful and she didn't want to do it, and he was the same way.
Elliott went to live with his "other mother," my co-raiser Ashley. Ashley and I may have been disappointed that he got career changed, but I am convinced the day that he got to go home was the best day of his life. Not only did he get to jump all over both of his mothers at the same time, he also got a tennis ball and a soft toy, both of which he had been deprived of his whole life because of the need to only give Future Leader Dogs safe toys like Kongs and Nylabones. And then he got to go home and get on furniture and sleep in the bed and live the easy life of a pet. This picture says it all. (Picture is a close-up of Elliott looking directly at the camera with a big tennis ball in his mouth and an expression of pure happiness on his face.)