Noel the Mini Lab

February 20, 2019 Allison Storck
Noel, Labrador Retriever

The day started like countless others before: a couple of New York skiers waking up in Vermont and anticipating a full day of riding on the mountain. It was Sunday, February 18, 2018 – one year ago. My family and best friend woke up to a blanket of fresh snow covering the trees and backyard. We were excited to get to the mountain and soak up all of the fresh powder.

Joining us – as usual – for the weekend were our three yellow Labrador Retrievers: Noel, 10 years old, who was a retired guide dog; Pablo, 9; and Charlie, 4. As we prepared our gear, we let the dogs out in the backyard for a romp. They loved the snow – Noel would often eat it as she would run around. We packed up the cars, kissed the dogs goodbye, and rushed to the mountain.

Life changes in an instant. While we were at the mountain, our rental home went up in flames. It was determined that an electrical fire had started in the baseboard heating system and quickly spread throughout the house.

The property had two caretakers who lived in the neighborhood to look after the house while it was being rented. Thankfully, both men saw the smoke from their homes, called the fire department, and immediately rushed to the burning house.

The two noticed paw prints in the snow and realized there were dogs trapped inside. They risked their lives to brave the flames and managed to rescue one of our dogs. Luckily, the fire department arrived and immediately took action to rescue the other two still inside. A fireman pulled Charlie out. He was not breathing, so the firefighters began CPR. Their quick thinking saved him. Another fireman pulled Noel out, but it was too late. She was gone.  

But we were unaware. By the time we had cell phone service and could finally get calls, it was an hour or two after the fire. The local veterinary office called to say they had two of our dogs, and the fire department called to tell us the house had burned down, and we had lost one of our dogs.

A year is an eternity and a second.

I feel every bit of the pain from that day in my heart. It hurt then and it hurts now. How can we turn back time? How could this have happened?  Suddenly the guilt and pain roll in and paralyze me.

Charlie was in critical condition and needed urgent medical attention at an animal hospital that had an oxygen tank. Pablo was stable but not in great shape either. Noel was still at the house. My brother and sister-in-law went to tend to Charlie. My husband, best friend, and I went to get Noel.

When we arrived at the house, we saw that two firemen had stayed with Noel – they didn’t want her to be alone. That gesture was one that will stay with me forever – two strangers, exhausted from putting out a house fire, wrapped her in a blanket and remained by her side until we came. We are forever grateful to those men and their kindness.

The smell is one we will never forget: like a wet campfire that had been rained on for a day. The most intense smoke smell I have even encountered is burned into my nostrils. I used to enjoy the aroma of a campfire, but now I absolutely hate it; it’s a smell that brings me back to that moment in time in a matter of seconds.

After speaking with the firemen, my husband and best friend went inside and gathered as much as we could salvage. Most of it was gone, but it was just stuff that could be replaced. Noel … Noel could not. A home that brought us so much happiness and joy had become a place of pain, suffering, and guilt. Guilt that we couldn’t protect Noel or Pablo or Charlie. Guilt that this happened while we weren’t there. These dogs are our children, our family, our life, and we are meant to care for them. We didn’t and it eats away at us every day.

Charlie had to be rushed to a veterinary clinic in Massachusetts and spent a week in an oxygen tank with a direct O2 and feeding tube through his nose. He was battling carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation … he almost didn’t make it. Pablo traveled back to New York and spent a week in an oxygen tank as well, recovering from the same injuries. I am relieved and thrilled to say those two survived and are happy, resilient pups today.

Noel was a loving, endearing, loyal, and quirky girl, and we are beyond lucky to have had her in our lives for six amazing years. She had been a guide dog through the Guide Dog Foundation, and she helped someone who was blind to live a life of independence on their terms.

To say that we miss her is an understatement. Of course we wish we could turn back time to get her back. My husband and I try and live life as she did, with so much happiness and love for every day, thankful we are alive. 

I love this quote by Zig Ziglar: “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” This is exactly what happened. We mourn the loss of Noel every day but take stock of what and who we have now.

One thing that became clear to us during this tragic time was the outpouring of support, love, and humanity in this world. Folks from Vermont hold a big place in my heart. To say they are selfless doesn’t go far enough for what they mean to my husband and me. From the two men who found the house and risked everything to go in and save the dogs, to the firemen who worked tirelessly to put the flames out, to the complete stranger who rushed Pablo and Charlie to the vet, to the vet who offered not only a shoulder to cry on but round-the-clock support during our long journey home, and finally to the healing powers and support of the veterinary clinics that cared for our pups day in and out. Also to my family and friends who cooked us meals, shared stories about Noel, and gave us a safe space to heal and cry in, thank you. You all showed us again and again the power of humanity, the power of supporting one another.

The reason I am writing about this day is to create awareness about pet fire safety. These simple tips that could change an outcome like this for the better.

  1. Always make sure your dog has a tag on them with your cell phone number(s) and address. The fire department called us because they found our number on Noel’s and Charlie’s dog tags. Link to make your own here.  
  2. Learn animal CPR. You never know when it might be necessary. Thanks to the quick thinking of the firemen who gave Charlie CPR, we still have him with us today. Link to video here.
  3. Register your pets with the local fire department or put a sticker on your home in a window/door that firefighters can easily find in the case of a fire that tells them how many pets to look for. Free stickers can be ordered here.
  4. I highly recommend you get a WiFi smoke/carbon-monoxide detector that can send alerts directly to your phone or to the local fire department in the case of emergencies. More information here.

In recognition of her career as a working guide dog, we started a fundraiser to sponsor a future guide dog puppy in Noel’s memory. Within one week, we successfully raised $6,000 to name one beautiful, yellow Labrador puppy named Minnie Noel, after our Mini Lab. We are also currently puppy raising her for the Guide Dog Foundation. In the next few months, she will return to the Foundation to begin her formal training to become a guide dog for someone who is blind or visually impaired.

As painful as these memories are, they also allow us to reflect on how lucky we are, how thankful we are to be able to use this experience to educate others, and how grateful we are to raise a future guide dog in Noel’s honor – so that Minnie will follow in her “paw-prints” and take her place by the side of someone who is blind to help them live without boundaries.

Hug, kiss, and love your dog every chance you possibly can get … and most importantly, remember to live life with love like Noel did.