There Goes My Heart

For the past 19 months, Jitter (our 5th service dog-in-training with Canine Companions for Independence, or CCI) was our pup. She went everywhere with us – movies, airplanes, the grocery store, you name it. She especially went everywhere with me; when I didn’t bring her with me, it felt empty and strange, like missing a phantom limb.

This afternoon, Nick returned Jitter to CCI to begin (what we hope will be) six months of Advanced Training, ultimately culminating in her becoming a service dog of some sort (fingers crossed). This is the part that sucks.
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Back in 2011 when it was time to turn in our second CCI pup, Langston, I made that adventure solo (well, my dad joined me for the actual turn-in, which was extremely comforting). Returning the dogs is always awful, but doing it on my own was particularly difficult; this time, I asked Nick to please be the one to return Jitter (I like to share). He generously obliged. I’m sure it was also particularly difficult, despite my dad’s attendance once again. And now, after 19 months, we’ll have to get used to the strangeness not having the incredible Jittsy-Bitsy by our sides.

As I’ve mentioned before, Jitter’s mama was our third CCI pup, Jambi, who was recruited from the service dog ranks to become a breeder. Since doing so, Jambi has had four litters (with a fifth on the way). Her first litter graduated this summer and fall – and, to our amazement and wonder, every single one of her pups (barring a fella that was released for medical issues) was placed with someone in need. It seems that Jambi – who was, herself, a tremendous pup-in-training – breeds some very special dogs.
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Mama Jambi with Jitter’s litter. 

Jitter is no exception. Typically, it takes us a while to truly warm up to our pups. Sure, they’re cute and all… but they also have really sharp teeth. And accidents. And they make meals out of refrigerator magnets and socks. So, our relationship with our puppies is usually quite businesslike until they stop chewing through table legs. Even when we finally fall in love, one of us is generally more smitten with a given pup than the rest of us (see: Fenwick). That’s just how it works.

Within a few weeks of Ms. Bitsy Boots’s arrival, we had all – the four of us – fallen head over heels for her. Yeah, she was super smart and learned her commands in an instant. She was a terrific size – small for a Lab but still solid. She had the most gorgeous, soulful brown eyes.
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But it was Jitter’s personality that drew us, and everyone who met her, in. She was the absolutely perfect combination of goofy but intelligent, playful but serious, sweet but mischievous, energetic but completely unflappable. To wit: last week, as I was talking with folks at the Y about Jitter’s return to CCI, they reached down to pet her – and commented that her single tail wag was the most excitement they’d seen her show. Two days later, I told our wonderful housecleaner/petsitter that it would be her last opportunity to visit with Jitter. She, in turn, told me how much she’d miss her – because of her exuberance and silliness.

She was, in a word, the very best. (Okay, that’s three words, whatever.) It wasn’t just us, either. When we took Jitter to Minnesota last summer, Nick’s sister, Nelle, pulled us aside to tell us that, if Jitter was released from the program, she’d like to consider Jitter for their family’s first dog. Nick’s mom, Karen, had visited us earlier in the summer and had already met our pup. As we we hung out with her and Nick’s stepdad in the Twin Cities, Karen remarked that she was grateful Grandpa Ray could meet Jittsy – because they’d love to adopt her if she were to flunk out. Before we left, Nick’s other sister, Emily, informed us that she’d talked with her husband… and they’d decided they were ready to have a second dog – Jitter, to be more specific.
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Thankfully, should Jitter wind up not making it through to graduation, we won’t have to risk starting World War III with Nick’s mother and siblings – because we decided long ago that she’d stolen our hearts and we would bring her home if given the chance. Even more thankfully, we have a feeling that we won’t have the opportunity to get Jitter back in our lives; surely a dog so smart, so dang purdy, and with such a fabulously versatile personality is meant to be helping people, don’t you think?

Last night, I posted on Facebook that even though this is our fifth go-round, it doesn’t get any easier. At the time, that was true. I cried my way through yesterday and felt nauseated all evening long anticipating Jitter’s departure. CCI is kind enough to provide a live-stream of its matriculations and graduations, so I watched from home as Nick and our girl crossed the stage and received her diploma and a handshake. I kept watching as the current graduating class – the folks who’d been paired up with the dogs – officially took the leashes and began their new lives together.

It was then, through my tears (always with the tears on graduation day), that I remembered our 4th CCI pup, Fenwick’s, graduation last summer. Like, I remembered it – how it felt sitting in those seats with Fen at our feet for the first time in six months, waiting for Gabe‘s name to be called so we could hand over the leash. I felt the anxiety… but also the hope. The pride. The relief. And, most predominantly, the joy of having him become Gabe’s forever partner – and the joy of having played even a small role in that.
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Watching the live-stream, as I felt that happiness and hope wash over me, I was somewhat astonished to discover my sadness over returning Jitter had lessened. Not entirely, of course – when you give a perfect dog your heart for 19 months and send her away, it’s next to impossible for it not to affect you. But when we returned Fenwick, none of our previous pups (or their offspring) had graduated yet. Now that we’ve seen Jambi’s puppies change lives… and now that we’ve seen Fenwick with Gabe… it feels different. More peaceful. Maybe even a little easier.

It has to help that, this time around, Jitter’s departure is not leaving us puppy-less. Seven weeks ago, we welcomed our 6th CCI pup, Arlington, into the fold. He’s still in that climb-into-the-dishwasher, inhale-everything-that’s-not-nailed-down phase, but good grief… is he ever cute. He also needs to be, you know, fed and walked and trained, so he provides a very welcome distraction. And, in another couple of months, he’ll be ready to accompany us to the movies, too (just in time for The Last Jedi – holla!).
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I’m still sad as heck that my little shadow isn’t here anymore, and we’ll be counting down the days till her monthly updates… but I’m going to try to share my heart with Arlington, too.

Go get ’em, Boots! You’ve so totally got this. Can’t wait to see what comes next.
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Worth It Already

Last Friday was one of the best days of our lives. We’d dreamed about it for years – literally, since 2009, when we brought home our first service dog puppy for Canine Companions for Independence. Our first two pups had been released from Advanced Training (flunked out, basically). Our third was accepted as a breeder – a success, but not quite the heartwarming, This Animal Has Become A Service Dog And Will Now Change Someone’s Life moment that we’d imagined.

Then came Fenwick.
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After six months of Advanced Training, he’d learned all the skills he could master and, after nearly two weeks of intensive Team Training, he’d been matched with someone in need. He was, indeed, to Become A Service Dog And Change Someone’s Life. Seven years later, we were finally attending the first CCI graduation of a puppy we’d raised.

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Reunited!!

It was almost more than I could handle.

I thought I understood why this was such a big deal. I assumed that Fenwick’s long-awaited placement would be the “reward,” that after a seventeen months with him – obedience classes, vet visits, bringing him everywhere with us, loving him with everything in us – we would finally see our hard work “pay off,” and that would feel great.

Turns out, assumptions really do make an ass out of you and me.

Ten days prior to graduation, we learned that Fenwick had been matched – but we didn’t know with whom. That news was, in and of itself, tremendous. He’d done it. OUR BOY HAD DONE IT!! Whoever he was placed with was surely perfect for him; it was all good.

Three days prior to graduation, however, when we learned that Fen’s perfect partner was a twelve year-old boy… Somehow, that made things seem even more tremendous. A boy – a child – would grow up with a buddy by his side. A child‘s life was going to be different because of Fenwick. That joyous news nearly did me in.

Again, I thought I understood why I was so deeply moved. Children tug at our heartstrings. Children are supposed to be carefree. They’re supposed to play, laugh, run, grow, and dream. They’re not “supposed” to have to deal with the hardships that adults face, whether they be financial difficulties, illnesses, physical limitations, losses, or heartbreaks. When we hear that a child is going through a challenging time, our Not Fair genes kick into high gear and our empathy goes into overdrive.

I assumed that was why I was so moved by Fen being matched up with a young child. But that was only part of it.

On Friday morning, we arrived at the CCI Northeast regional center right at 9:00, which was the earliest we were allowed to meet up with Fenwick. We hadn’t really worried that he’d have forgotten us since February, but seeing him wiggle around with glee at the sight of us and physically knock us over with his exuberance felt pretty great nevertheless. After an hour of hugs, belly rubs, a walk, and making him show off a few of his recently-acquired skills (he totally gave us some side eye when we made him “get” my cell phone off the ground), it was time to bring him to the reception room where the graduate teams were waiting.
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No way around it: I was nervous. Would it be awkward, this meeting of two families who loved the same dog? What if we didn’t have anything in common? How could we convey that we were genuinely thrilled that Fenwick was being placed with them, but we still wanted to hug him one more time? Could we explain how delightful we thought it would be to keep in touch, without it seeming stalker creepy?

And most important: What if they didn’t like us?

After a few deep breaths, we entered the room and found G and his mom almost immediately. There were introductions and polite greetings until G’s mom and I got to one another. Rather than accepting my handshake, she held her arms out for a hug. I was so relieved and grateful, I thought I might sink right into the floor; and then, as our arms encircled one another, she whispered, “I can’t thank you enough for doing this.”

The tears that had already escaped a few times that morning let fully loose; I pretty much didn’t stop crying for the next five hours.

All of our concerns and anxiousness disappeared the moment we began talking with G and his mother (her sister was with them as well, and equally lovely). They were nice! They were funny! Our kids are six months apart in age! They like books and Star Wars! Best of all, it was readily apparent that Fenwick and G were crazy about one another, and that this was exactly what Fen was born to do: be with G. We never felt awkward or uncomfortable; they could not have been more gracious about the “we love the same dog” thing.

The 90 minute brunch absolutely flew by as we exchanged life stories, Fenwick stories, ate scrambled eggs and cake, traded mementos and gifts, looked at Fenwick photos and videos, and generally took one another in. It was a bit mind-bogglingly awesome to think that what connected us was a yellow furball asleep at our feet.

Things were going just about as well as I could have hoped when G’s mom explained how she’d sought out CCI in the first place: because she knew that G needed help, and a service dog was a way to obtain that help. As was said during the graduation ceremony, Fenwick provided G with “the bridge between ‘I can’t” and “I can” (and is) “the friend (he) can always rely on.”

All at once, what had been light and happy became substantially heavier and more meaningful. Fenwick’s placement with G opened up avenues and possibilities in G’s life that, two weeks prior, had only been hopes and wishes. Within the span of mere days, and embodied in one furry being, G’s entire life had changed. While I had considered all of this before in some capacity – it’s why we started with CCI in the first place – seeing it right in front of me was more affecting than I can describe.

While this is true for every graduate, from eight years old to eighty, and is why what CCI does is so incredible, hearing G’s mom describe how the life of her son was changing drove everything home. Yes, my heartstrings had been tugged because G is a kid and kids aren’t “supposed” to have to go through the hard stuff, but now I saw things through G’s mom’s perspective. She had been searching for answers to help make things better for, easier for, open possibilities for her child – and BAM! all at once, those wishes came true… in a four-legged pup. As a mother, I cannot imagine anything more significant or worthwhile.

With comprehension finally dawning, I felt like the Grinch with his suddenly three-sizes-larger heart; no joke, my heart literally felt bigger, spreading a warmth throughout my chest that lasted all day.

When we’d learned that Fenwick and G were to be matched, I’d gleefully announced their pairing on Facebook. A wonderful friend of mine commented on the post that it was a “full circle moment… Such a great example of the love you showed him!” I had never considered it in that way but before instantly latched onto the idea. For all of those months, through those vet visits and grocery store trips and Target candle aisle mishaps, through nights snuggling close and days romping about, we were loving on Fenwick with everything we had. That love was stored up inside of him – and maybe even made him just a wee bit more awesome (I mean, we’re pretty cool) – and now he was able give that love back to G.

Mic. Drop.

IMG_0539One last hug for Fenwick at graduation before we turned over the leash…

I’ve written before about how raising CCI pups changes lives… most significantly, our own. I’ve also written about how it’s pretty much awful saying goodbye and turning the pups in for Advanced Training. Through it all, I’d assumed that, if one of the pups made it and became a service dog, it would have been worth it.

The more the girls, Nick, and I talked, the more we understood that the joy of Graduation Day – and all it means – so far eclipses the sadness of Turn In day, there’s no comparison. Fenwick becoming a service dogs wasn’t the reward (although, don’t get me wrong, it’s one of the most incredible things that’s ever happened in my life).
Raising him was, in and of itself, the reward.

Fenwick has taught us – and our girls – more about what it means to love, to give fully, to believe, to hope, and to dream than most people ever will. We couldn’t teach Annie and Ella those lessons on our own if we spent our lives trying; raising CCI pups does it for us. Saying that it was an honor to have raised Fenwick, and then to have seen him pass that love and those hopes and dreams along to G is an understatement; our Grinch-grown hearts are so full with pure joy, they are nearly bursting.

I’d worried that saying goodbye to Fenwick for the final time would be tough. Turns out, it wasn’t at all; he’s doing what he’s meant to do and we’re so thrilled him and G, sending them off was happy and hopeful.

Plus, we had our own CCI furball waiting for us at home… With another year to pour love into her, just imagine the possibilities…

IMG_6447This face definitely makes things worth it. Dirty… but worth it.

Flashback Friday: The Poopsplosion

Since I just wrote about our newest CCI puppy, Jitter, I thought perhaps now would be a good time to relay one of our all-time favorite CCI puppy stories about Diamond, the first puppy we raised.

Diamond was a great pup and we thought she was awesome. If she had one flaw, it was her penchant for counter surfing, a habit that we accidentally taught her by leaving her alone in the kitchen with one of our other (counter-surfing) dogs, who showed Di the ropes. Diamond would happily grab anything off the counter: leftovers, a pan of brownies that was awaiting book club, a freshly frosted cake for a friend who’d just had a baby… We had to be extra-vigilant.

This story takes place in April, 2011. Because we were visiting Minnesota right before Easter, we dyed eggs at home a few days prior to our trip. We dye a minimum of 18 eggs apiece, winding up with dozens of brightly colored hardboiled eggs, which are typically stored in the refrigerator until I remember to throw them away.
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Annie, concentrating hard…

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Emi and Ella, at work…

Except, of course, for the hours in between dyeing them and storing them (I don’t know why there’s lag time, but there always is), when they’re kept in their cartons on the dining room table.

Diamond had been with us for over a year and a half by this time, and we had learned not to give her any opportunities to access the kitchen counters. It didn’t even occur to us, however, that it might be a bad idea to leave 54 hardboiled eggs in the middle of the dining room table (I mean, if we were okay with this from a food safety perspective, clearly anything goes in our house).

Turns out? Dining room tables are easily reached by counter-surfing dogs.

We found the mangled egg cartons on Friday. One might think that consuming dozens of vinegar-soaked hardboiled eggs wouldn’t go over well, but Diamond didn’t act any worse for wear at first. Then, the mosaic poop began – legions of it. For 24 hours, Di positively Jackson Pollocked the backyard with rainbow eggshells. By Saturday afternoon, though, the poopsplosions were over, with Diamond behaving completely normally. Which was a good thing, considering we were getting on an airplane – all of us, including the dog – for Minnesota that evening.

My sister-in-law, Emi, had been visiting and was headed back to Minnesota that same night. Due to a flight problem, we all wound up on the same plane, which was lovely in terms of traveling camaraderie, but a bummer because our flight change caused us to land well past the girls’ bedtime. Knowing they would be super tired, I was adamant that we hustle off the plane ASAP so we could carry their still-sleeping forms into the car and then off to Grandpa Bill and GranMary’s house.

Which might have been well and good had they actually fallen asleep during the flight. Instead, they remained awake, with glassy, thousand-mile stares that told us they were likely to have exhaustion-induced meltdowns at any point. The flight was otherwise uneventful; even Diamond, who had flown with us before, did a bang-up job… except for the excessive panting.

But, hey. We figured she was just hot. Dogs pant when they’re hot, no?

They do. They also pant when they’re backlogged with Easter egg poop and know that popping a squat in the bulkhead section would probably result in, at the very least, some rather unhappy glances.

By the time we got off the plane, Diamond was in obvious distress, while Ella and Annie were seriously flagging, so we doubled down our efforts to hightail it over to Bill, who was waiting to pick us up. Emi and I each grabbed a girl and a stroller (they were too old for strollers but we brought them anyway); Nick took Diamond; we divvied the luggage up like sherpas; and off we went.

When the tram-train thing that was supposed to take us to the end of the terminal pulled into the station and just sat there for a moment, we were annoyed but didn’t worry. When it sat there for a full minute, annoyance turned to frustration. When the message was broadcast that the tram-train thing was no longer operational, frustration turned quickly to rage and despair. The girls were drooping, Diamond was frantic; we needed that tram.

(Our rage and despair were nothing, however, compared to the faces of the people who were on the tram-train thing when it became un-operational and were unable to get off of it. Yikes.)

Seeing no other options, we began hiking the length of the terminal – which, no joke, was about a mile from end to end. Emi and I were in the lead, moving as quickly as the strollers would allow, with Nick and Diamond following closely behind…

…until, suddenly, they weren’t. We heard a “HEY!” and I turned back to see them a good 25 yards behind us, rushing into a bathroom(??!). Seriously pissed (we were in a HURRY, for God’s sake), we backtracked to see what on earth he was doing.

Five long minutes later, they emerged, the picture of utter defeat. “I don’t know what to do!” he maniacally whispered. Seeing our puzzled – and furious – glances, he explained, “Diamond just shit all over the moving sidewalk!”

Oh. Well, then.

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Bunny Di.

After holding it in for the entire flight and then waiting as the tram-train thing broke down, Di could apparently no longer contain herself – literally. Nick said this became apparent when the people behind him on the moving sidewalk began gasping and saying things like, “Oh, dear God!” Unbeknownst to him, Diamond – still trotting along – had begun leaving rainbow-colored poopsplosions on the sidewalk, causing the other travelers to jump out of the way to avoid them.

Funny/horrible thing #1: Although everyone was horrified, no one felt they could say anything to Nick… because Diamond was wearing her service dog-in-training cape… and, apparently, they thought Diamond was Nick’s service dog… and how do you politely explain to someone who needs a service dog, “Um, sir, I’m so sorry, but your service dog is crapping all over the moving sidewalk”?

Funny/horrible thing #2: Because the sidewalk was, indeed, a moving sidewalk, there was nothing that could be done about the Easter egg poop – no way it could be cleaned up in time – and so it just… wentaround… as the sidewalk ended and mechanically went back underneath.

With (literally) a mile to go to the exit, Nick decided that the best option was to take Dizey into the men’s room and tell her to do her thing; at least it would be contained and he’d be able to clean it up. He chose the handicapped stall so that they’d both fit, which turned out to be wise because the moment he told her to “hurry,” she looked at him as though he had three heads (Hurry? INDOORS? Are you insane?)… and so, remembering that a little movement often speeds things along, Nick began walking Diamond in tiny little circles around the stall to see if her could get things going.

Omg. This is one of the best mental images I’ve ever had, of them circling the handicapped stall with him stage whispering to her to “hurry” and her thinking he was nuts.

(It should be noted that, during this time, I became so upset about the girls still being awake, I offered each of them five dollars if they could fall asleep in their strollers before we reached the car. I PAID MY CHILDREN REAL MONEY TO GO THE EFF TO SLEEP. 

It should also be noted that BOTH OF THEM FELL ASLEEP. If you need parenting advice, don’t hesitate to ask.)

When it became apparent that Diamond would absolutely not disgrace herself by crapping on the bathroom floor, he came to find us. I became rather less pissed and rather more desperate to give Diamond the chance to finish her business.  It was at this moment you could (almost literally) see Emi switch into high gear. She dropped the bags she was carrying, physically grabbed the leash from Nick’s hand, and took off running – calling back to us that she’d meet us at the car – not stopping until, many minutes later, she’d reached the terminal exit where Diamond could finally relieve herself in peace.

Accordingly, Diamond sat down and glanced at Emi as if to thank her for the lovely jog.

We saw no more rainbow mosaic poop, and Dizey had an entirely uneventful Minnesota visit. She would go on to make it through 4.5 of 6 months of Advanced Training; counter surfing was not the reason she was let go, although I understand that she has taken her forever family on a few adventures in this department.

We imagine that the cleaning crew who dealt with the moving sidewalk is still telling the tale of Diamond’s adventure in the airport, too.
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The girls and Diamond in Minnesota. ALL SMILES.

It Doesn’t Get Any Easier

It’s been eight hours since we said goodbye to Fenwick and returned him to CCI for Advanced Training. It still feels pretty miserable. It will for a while.

This, we knew. Since Fenwick was the fourth puppy we’ve raised for CCI – and, thus, the fourth to whom we’ve said farewell, holding our broken hearts delicately in our hands while reminding ourselves of why our heartbreak is so very worth it – we knew that this part would suckfen turn in6
Fen was super patient during the matriculation/graduation ceremony.

After four times through, we knew what to expect (more or less. All dogs have their own awesome personalities and quirks – like, for example, pooping next to the candles in Target…). We were prepared for the early sleepless nights and razor sharp teeth. We’ve got the moving-of-the-dog-gates down to a science. We were psyched for Fenwick to bond with our CCI release dog, Langston.
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WHY DO DOGS DO THIS? HOW DO THEY EXPECT ANYONE TO ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING WHEN THEY ARE EXHIBITING SUCH CUTENESS?

Side note: we were not psyched for Fenwick to bond with our Old Man Dog, Joey, because in his 13 years of life, Joey has bonded with exactly nobody… But, hey. Maybe old dogs can learn new tricks.
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Three dogs… one bed. Somehow, the math works.

We were ready to answer the gazillions of questions that we get asked when we’re out in public, to smile when toddlers run up to Fen before their parents could stop them, to hear strangers’ stories about their own dogs. (Those are my favorites, truly.) We were prepared to love this dog with everything in us for seventeen months and then tearfully return him to be loved by the incredible CCI trainers, knowing that our fragile hearts would slowly fuse back together again with the hope that he could change someone’s life.

What we were not prepared for was one of our daughters falling equally in love with this dog… nor for her heartbreak when he had to be turned in.

From practically Day One, Annie and Fenwick took a shine to one another. fenwick arrives13
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Wherever Annie went, Fenwick would follow. Sometimes, he’d try to get her to play with him. Other times, he’d simply curl up at her feet and wait for her to finish whatever she was doing. Either way, he just wanted to be near her.

The feeling was mutual.
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In addition to wanting to hang out with Fenwick, Annie wanted to help. Sure, Ella could be counted on to feed Fen in a pinch, to go for walks with us, or to give him some gigantic hugs… but it was Annie who really felt that assisting with Fenwick was her responsibility, one that she was proud to have.

She brushed him and helped bathe him. She fed him and worked with him on his commands in the living room. She came to obedience class with me and gladly took Fen’s leash when we went for hikes. If I asked the girls if they’d like to take the pup with us to a store or restaurant, it was Annie who piped up, “Yes!” first and Annie who asked to take his leash and guide him.

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At the grocery store…

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… and the YMCA.

All of this time together made them the best of buds. Sometimes, upon hearing something unusual in another room, I’d discover that Annie had her head close to Fenwick’s and was sharing secrets with him. When they didn’t know I was looking, I’d catch them loving on one another, full stop.
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Bedtime kisses…
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… and kitchen kisses.

Over the last month or so, Annie had requested that Fenwick sleep in her room (we’re required by CCI to have the dogs sleep in one of our rooms at night; we were happy to oblige). Every night, Fenwick would eagerly trot into Annie’s bedroom and curl up on his dog bed, at the foot of Annie’s bunk.
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And every night, when I’d check on her several hours later and let Fenwick out one last time, I’d find him on her bed, curled into her as tightly as he could.IMG_3825

When I say that Fen and Nini were the best of buddies – I mean it. Which made his return today more difficult than I’d ever imagined.

It’s one thing to break your own heart, knowing it’s for a greater good. It’s another to show your children how to survive a broken heart – how, sometimes, sadness is not only okay but necessary in order to achieve joy in the end. It’s another thing entirely to realize that your own child’s heart is breaking. No matter how important the “lesson” is, no matter how much good you believe you’re doing… seeing your babe’s anguish as she struggles to let go of something she adores – knowing there’s nothing you can do to make it better or speed along her recovery beyond acknowledging how much it hurts – is really just awful.

Even when you’re doing the right things, parenting can be so damned hard.

Matriculation and graduation went just as they should today. Fenwick was cool as a cucumber throughout the 90 minute ceremony. Annie walked him across the stage when we got our certificate. We awwwed over the ridiculous cuteness of the other dogs and cried tears of the most joyful joy as we saw the current graduating class be placed with the dogs who were providing them with new hope, new dreams, new lives.

As one of the commencement speakers said, today was (their) independence day.
It’s hard not to feel pretty inspired and awesome after hearing that.fen turn in5
How can you not just melt into a puddle when you see dogs like this during a graduation ceremony? YOU CANNOT. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE.

With graduation over, we took Fen back to the CCI campus, allowing him some time to meet a few of the other matriculating dogs and run amok with them in the huge outdoor play space.

I hope he’s already made a buddy and isn’t lonely tonight.
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All too soon, it was time to formally turn him in. We gathered to bid him farewell and give him one last hug, lingering for a while as we whispered “Good luck!” and “We’ll miss you!” and “I love you, you goofball!” in his ear.
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Ella giving Fender Bender one final smoosh.

Annie was the last to join. She was hesitating… wanting to stretch the moment as long as possible, to maybe avoid having to say goodbye at all. When, at last, we could wait no longer, she took her turn.
I will never forget that moment.fen turn in

Like all of our other CCI dogs, Fenwick jauntily made his way down the hall and out of sight, eager for his next adventure, never looking back. I wish we could feel the same.

As I wrote when we turned in Jambi (our last CCI pup):

We do this because, when all is said and done, that’s really why we’re on this planet in the first place: to love, to laugh, to learn, to find joy, to spread joy, and to help out whenever we can. Sometimes, doing so is easy. Other times, helping those in need is really, really hard. Giving back a dog that we’ve grown to love is miserable – but that doesn’t make it not worth doing. On the contrary, sometimes, the more difficult something is, the greater the return.

I know, through her relationship with Fen, our Nini has already received her return. I know – I hope – some day, she will be grateful for all of these opportunities to change lives… not to mention the opportunity to get to know these wonderful dogs.

I just wish there was a way to help her heart heal a little faster in the meantime.

We love you, Fenwick. Go make that difference!
(Just not in the candle aisle again, please. Thanks.)

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Check Yourself (aka Pride, Pups, and Poop)

This afternoon, I took Fenwick with me to the store. Once we were in the car, the radio came to life with “Connections,” one of our local, daily public radio programs. I’m almost always interested in what the interviewees have to say (I got a lot of information for my Common Core post through one of this show’s broadcasts), but today’s discussion was especially riveting because they were talking about service dogs.

More specifically, they were discussing facility dogs in the courtroom and how they help witnesses – particularly children – feel safe and comfortable enough to testify. I found myself nodding (and, okay, speaking out loud ’cause that’s what I do) in agreement with the expert (“That’s right! These dogs are totally All Business once they have their capes on!” “They really DO love working!”). Many graduating CCI dogs go on to become facility dogs, helping out in situations similar to this. That’s why we raise CCI puppies – so that, just maybe, they can go on to do this kind of life-changing work.

When the pre-recorded segment ended, our local host (Evan Dawson) announced that they only had time for a few more callers. (I assumed that the service dog discussion would continue, so when the next caller had a question about her cat’s dental hygiene, I was confused. I guess this is part of a monthly Pet Show, not necessarily a show about service dogs. Anyhoo.) Seeing my opportunity to spread the word locally about CCI – and maybe, just maybe, attract even one other local puppy raiser – I pulled over and called in, assuming that the lines would be busy or they wouldn’t be able to take me but crossing my fingers nevertheless.

To my surprise, I got through to a lovely-sounding lady (I’mma call her a producer ’cause it sounds more official) who asked why I was calling. After a brief explanation, she brightened and quickly told me she’d put me on air. (Score!) Moments later, I heard Evan say that they had time for one last caller (me!), so I turned off the radio and began my schpiel.

I knew the program was about to end, so I did my best to cram in the most important information: we’re puppy raisers raising our fourth puppy for CCI, a lot of these dogs go on to become facility dogs just like the ones mentioned in the broadcast, CCI is an incredible organization that offers dogs for free (FREE!) to people who need them, you can find them online, and if anyone in the Rochester area is interested in becoming a puppy easier, that would really be amazing. It was over in maybe 60 seconds, but when I was done, this crazy high flooded my system: I did it! I gave CCI a shout-out! CCI is awesome! YAY FOR MORE PUPPY RAISERS!
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(Image is from their webpage; you can find the “Unleashed – Diabetic & Courthouse Dogs” podcast here. I’m the last caller of the segment, at 47:00.)

Still glowing while we trotted into the store (after stopping to let Fenwick relieve himself), I actually said aloud, “This is an awesome afternoon!” We’d hardly been in the store a minute when we were approached by two woman who asked if they could pet Fen (side note: always ask if you can pet or even greet a dog that looks like its working). They loved on him, we chatted about what CCI does, and Fen did what he always does when we’re out and about: waited patiently, being a marvelous CCI representative. I beamed with pride.

After putting a few items in the cart, I could feel the joyful adrenaline still coursing through my system and began to grow a little more full of myself. Look at me, making a difference! We are going places! We are gonna change the world! GO ME!!

I had just turned jauntily into a new aisle when I felt the tug on the leash that indicated that Fenwick had stopped moving. Curious as to why my furry Ambassador Of Change had halted so abruptly, I turned back just in time to see him taking a dump in the middle of the home goods section.

Making a difference, all right.

In a ridiculous stage whisper, I hissed at him to let him know this behavior was unacceptable (as though, you know, he could understand), whipping my head in all directions to see if any of the other customers had seen the Special Dog dropping a deuce near the scented candles. Thankfully, it appeared that no one had noticed (although I did steal a second glance at a woman who had paused momentarily when she heard me violently whispering), so I immediately picked up the poop (and cleaned the floor)… and, ever classy, promptly put the poo bag in my purse so that no one would see it.

Fenwick and I hightailed it outside so he could finish making a difference (naturally, despite walking on a grassy embankment for a good 10 minutes, he didn’t do a thing) and then, after disposing of the poo bag, returned to finish shopping. This time, however, I wasn’t feeling quite as ecstatic as I had when we first entered. Getting your pride thoroughly checked will do that to you.

So, to recap:
– Public radio = awesome
– CCI = awesome
– CCI puppies = awesome (even when they pop a squat in home goods)
– Being full of yourself = not awesome

They say that true change starts at home. Perhaps, before changing the world, I could work on that whole pride thing just a bit.
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Adorable, even after causing me to dial it back a notch. You know you want to become puppy raisers… C’mon!

To learn more about CCI, go here.

Jumping in with four paws

Last week, I was in the checkout line at our local grocery store – with Fenwick in tow – when a good acquaintance got in line behind me. She knew already that we raise service dog puppies and commented about how well he seemed to be doing. After thanking her for her support, I confessed that I was actually so nervous about our visit to the store, my lower back physically hurt from the tension. What followed was a perfectly reasonable question: “What are you so nervous about?”

After considering her question, I listed the reasons, talking nonstop for over a minute. Her eyes widened as she said, “I had no idea there was so much to think about!”

See, a couple of months ago, I was asked if I would be able to bring Fenwick to a local Girl Scout troop meeting; I quickly agreed. We love to promote CCI whenever and wherever we can. Also, I always appreciate having enough time to answer some of the most commonly asked questions (“How can you give the dogs up??” or “What kinds of things do they need to learn?”) as well as dispel some of the more common misconceptions that we’ve encountered (“Oh, poor thing; he must hate having to wear that cape” and “Don’t they ever get to have any fun??” Answer: NO, NOT EVER.)

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Not Having Fun on Christmas Eve. 
Okay, so maybe they were’t having fun – especially Langston – but they’re definitely not serious working dogs all the time.

Plus? Sharing an adorable dog with a bunch of kids? Yes, please!

Once I agreed to attend the meeting, I promptly forgot all about it. I mean, it was on my calendar and in my to-do book and I’d figured out the logistics (pick up girls from swimming, eat dinner in the car, head over to the meeting place) and all that, but I wasn’t really thinking about it, if you know what I mean. Which kinda makes sense because, in the past, each time I’ve brought one of our CCI pups to a “formal” event, the dog has been totally prepped and ready so there’s been little for me to think about, per se.

Fenwick, however… Not so ready.

CCI is very clear with puppy raisers like us: we need to set a good example by only taking our dogs into public places when they’re up to the task. We work hard training our pups but are told not to take them out and about until we receive their “official” capes/vests (when the pups turn five months old, give or take). By then, it’s assumed that the dogs will be house trained, will have learned some basic commands, will walk appropriately on leash, and will behave in a way that, you know, befits a service dog.

I absolutely understand. We need to represent not only CCI but also the individuals who may eventually receive these dogs. The last thing I want to do is take a crazy, nutty furball into the mall, have it wreak havoc on the place, and put a sour taste regarding service dogs in everyone’s mouth.

Hence, we’ve been very careful about only taking our pups out in public when we feel they’re ready to do so. It’s always a gradual thing – first, dashing into the post office to drop a package in the slot. Next, a five minute, middle-of-the-day run to an uncrowded Starbucks. If those go well, maybe we’ll take the dog to the library while we look at books for fifteen minutes. Eventually, as the pup succeeds at each progressively more advanced/difficult task, we work our way through trips to Target, going to restaurants and movies, navigating the grocery store, and even traveling on planes. By the time we finally bring the dogs into school to meet the girls’ classmates, they’re more than good to go.

Fenwick received his official CCI cape in December and we decided to take him with us to a quick meal at Panera the next day. It did not go well. Turns out our little dude was not ready. At all. Pulling on the leash, refusing to sit, nipping at people’s hands, wriggling out from under the table, darting toward every door. We made it through but vowed that it would be a nice long while until he was ready to go out in public again.

Fast forward to a couple of days before the Girl Scout meeting when it suddenly dawned on me that, despite having not gone out in public even once since our disastrous Panera escapade, I needed to present Fenwick to these girls. Not just “present”… but represent CCI in a positive way. And, um, not look like a total schmuck with an unruly service dog.

So, with only a few days left until the Big Reveal, I did the only thing I felt was fitting: I jumped in with both feet. Or four paws. There was no time to slowly help Fenwick acclimate to public outings; I had to know immediately if he was up to the task of meeting these Scouts (’cause if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t bring him — that wouldn’t be helpful for any of us). Which is why I decided that his first foray into the real world would be a trip to the grocery store. Not just any trip, either… My Official Weekly Grocery Run – the one that would take at least an hour (even if the store was miraculously uncrowded) and which would require me to traverse every single aisle of the store and pile my cart with a gazillion items and bags.

fen's first outing
Learning the safest place to sit while the human pays for the groceries.

This was the kind of outing to which you couldn’t pay me to take my ten year-old — yet there I was, my not-quite-six-month-old puppy beside me as I weighed produce and considered the merits of unsweetened-vanilla versus regular-vanilla almond milk. Every step was so tense, I could feel the spasms building in my back.

It wasn’t until my friendly acquaintance in the checkout line asked me why I’d been so nervous that I stopped to consider all that was required for a successful visit to the store – but when I did, I was actually a little astounded at how complex a simple trip to Wegmans turns out to be. To wit:

* Fenwick could have an accident. Obviously, I stopped to have him do his business before we went into the store, but even that’s easier said than done – it can be difficult convincing a dog to pee or poop on concrete or asphalt (Fen’s actually pretty good at this, but you still never know if they’re going to have problems in-store, a la Jambi with the apples, omg…).

* He’d never even seen, much less had to walk quietly and calmly beside, a grocery cart and I had no idea if it would freak him out or not (it didn’t). I also didn’t know if he’d figure out how to walk beside a cart and not pull away or get his paws run over or step right in front of me and entangle me with his leash (he didn’t).

* He – like several of our other CCI dogs – might have wigged out when the automatic doors opened as we entered the store and the warm air whooshed past us and refused to even move (he didn’t particularly like the doors, but he kept walking).

* He might not have liked the smooth floor and decided not to take another step. (Good thing it’s not at all embarrassing when this happens and you find yourself literally dragging your dog across the store as her claws scrape against the tiles. Thankfully, Fenwick didn’t mind.)

* He’d never had food in such close proximity (we keep it away from him at the house), and certainly not fresh, unpackaged food right at his level (helloooo, tantalizing apples and oranges and tomatoes and bananas and every single item in the produce section) and I had no idea if he’d lunge for it or lick it (he did neither).

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Enjoying the attention of the kids at a local ice cream shop following Ella’s chorus concert. He was a big hit AND he didn’t try to eat any of the ice cream. Bonus!

* The number of people at the store, especially in the more crowded areas, could have made him nervous and he might pull on his leash, cower, become hyper, or anything else that demonstrated anxiety (he did seem a little uncertain about the busyness of the setting, but he handled it quite well).

* When people come up to pet him (because they always do, even though he’s wearing his WORKING DOG vest), he might not have greeted them properly; he’s supposed to sit or stand still and calmly allow people to pet him. This can take a lot of getting used to because many of our dogs get excited when people pay them attention. (His furry rump left the ground a few times when people approached him, but a reminder from me got his butt back in gear.)

* He’s mouthy. I don’t mean that he bites or that he’s aggressive, but just that he likes to explore things – and people – with his mouth, licking and prodding with his nose, walking right up to someone and nudging their hand, sometimes gently using his teeth. It’s something that we’re actively working on with him – teaching him appropriate interactions – but it’s definitely a work in progress and I didn’t really want to test his resolve by tempting him with the hands of 392 customers. (He did lick a little but otherwise kept to himself.)

* He might have “forgotten” all of his commands and refused to listen to me, making an ass out of both of us and also potentially getting himself into trouble or danger (thankfully, to paraphrase my girls’ preschool teachers, he used his listening ears superbly).

In short, going out in public with a service animal – especially to large and crowded and sensory-overloading places like the grocery store – requires a heckuva lot of coordination, patience, and thinking. Because Fen is our fourth CCI pup, we’ve got the mental checklist fairly well memorized and we are alert to potential bumps in the road, which certainly helps… but dogs – like toddlers and teenagers – are unpredictable.

In the end, Fenwick did a bang-up job. There are definitely a few things we need to work on, but given that he’s only six months old, that’s more than okay. I knew that he could handle meeting the Girl Scouts and that he’d represent CCI nicely; our visit went off without a hitch!

I don’t recommend that you choose your weekly grocery run for your service pup-in-training’s first big outing, but if you do, I hope your dog does as well as Fenwick and that your back holds out better than mine. And if you happen to see someone out and about with a service animal, maybe take a moment to remember that there’s a lot going on for both the animal and the person with it. If they don’t stop to chat with you or only smile politely when you acknowledge their animal, don’t take it personally; their minds might be occupied making sure that the outing is as successful as possible for everyone involved.

Or maybe they’re just rude, in which case you probably didn’t want to have a conversation with them anyway. No worries; Fenwick and I would be happy to hang out any day.

annie and fenwick
Fenwick and Annie would probably hang out with you, too. When they’re not too busy working, that is… 

 

Mixed Emotions

When I received the voicemail from CCI about Jambi, it didn’t even cross my mind that something was amiss. By contrast, it was wholly shocking a year and a half ago when we got a call only eleven days (!!) after Langston had been turned in. We’d been sure he was going to do well in Advanced Training – he was such a pleaser, so smart, so loving. We hadn’t anticipated that it would be the loving part of his personality that would get him dismissed; indeed, he adored and missed us so much, he became crazily anxious not being with us (and, um, got into a fight with another dog and then bit the trainer who stepped in to intervene – oopsies!). It was clear that Lang was meant to be our forever dog and we welcomed him home with open arms.

With Jambi, it was different. We felt in our bones that she was a good egg, that she was cut out for the life of a service dog. Her exceedingly calm demeanor and unflappable nature, her cuddliness and sweetness, her intelligence and desire to please; this dog was going places, damn it! And so when the call came yesterday, it never occurred to me that Jambi had been released – it was far too early for her to have been placed (she wasn’t slated for graduation until February), but surely nothing was wrong.

As I reached the part in the voicemail where our puppy program manager said she had “great news” to tell us immediately, I turned to the girls and told them that I was all but certain that I knew what the news was: Jambi had been selected as a breeder. An hour later, my suspicions were confirmed.

Up until now, I’ve only mentioned that CCI puppies face one of two possibilities: to be released from the program (which the vast majority are because perfection is a very difficult standard) and become someone’s pet, or to graduate and become a working dog in some capacity – a hearing dog, a service dog, an assistance dog, a therapy dog, etc. There is, however, a third possibility. A very small number of pups are selected as CCI breeders, taken out of Advanced Training, and sent off to California, near CCI’s headquarters, to begin a life of leisure (and humping) with a volunteer breeder/caretaker family.

In order to ensure that the dogs are properly and safely bred, that they’re well cared for, and that certain genetic characteristics are passed on from dog to dog, CCI breeds all of its own puppies – Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, or crosses of the two. I’ve been saying for over a year now to anyone who would listen (or at least who I thought might be even mildly interested) that I thought it was highly likely that our Beast would be chosen as a breeder. Not only did she have a terrific personality, one I thought CCI might like to, you know, pass along, she was also small for a Lab – something helpful when you’re navigating tight spaces, trying to fit under airplane seats, squeezing onto subway cars, etc. Plus, she’s gorgeous.

7.24.14 out and about

Jambi’s most recent progress report reiterated what a fantastic dog she is – attentive, quick, calm, super smart, not easily distractible, not fearful, highly motivated. She was doing incredibly well in Advanced Training, easily well enough to have gone on and graduated… so well, in fact, that they decided that there should be more dogs like Jambi.

Having suspected that this would be her fate long ago, I wasn’t shocked to hear the news. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel conflicted. See, we really really wanted her to become a service dog. That’s what makes it all worth it – the training, the pooping in the middle of stores, the heartbreak of growing close to her only to return her. The idea that Jambi could someday change someone’s life makes it all worthwhile.

If she can’t, however – if she’s just not cut out for it – then flunking out didn’t seem to be the end of the world, especially since we’d planned on her going to live with my sister-in-law (and new brother-in-law; more on that soon). She would be in a loving home! She would be with people who would continue with her solid training foundation! We could still see her! These did not seem like such bad options.

To have neither feels a bit… hard. Jambi didn’t quite make it. She’s not coming back. We’ll probably never see her again, ever. Sure, she’ll be with a new, doting family – but will they appreciate her adorable grunting noises the way we did? Will they love the velvety feel of her perfectly cold, wet nose? Will they know that she lives for ice cubes and will come running the moment she hears one jostling about in the freezer?

And then there’s the whole breeding thing; it just seems so impersonal. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am with a guy she’s never even met, whose butt she’s only just begun to sniff – what if she doesn’t like it, this mating thing? And then when she’s pregnant (but she’s so young!) and uncomfortable and has squalling puppies all around her, pawing at her and nipping – what if she doesn’t really enjoy being a mom?

It’s not easy when your babies grow up and fly the coop and get knocked up all within the space of a few months!

With our first CCI dog, Diamond, I actively hoped against her becoming a breeder; it wasn’t helping enough; it felt like all of the time and effort and love we’d put in would go to waste. I preferred that she flunk out than become a breeder. This time around, I no longer held those views. Maybe it was having worked with CCI longer and seeing how important all of the dogs are, maybe it was seeing two of our pups get released, or perhaps it was because I’ve had the feeling for so long that Jambi would be selected as a breeder. Whatever it was, I wasn’t hoping she wouldn’t be bred, so receiving the news wasn’t the punch in the gut it would have been a few years ago.

And, when you think about it, being chosen as a breeder is actually a pretty fantastic thing. CCI hopes that Jambi will have 5 or so litters, which amounts to 40 or so puppies. It is essentially impossible that none of those puppies will go on to become service dogs, and far more likely that several – maybe even a dozen – of them will. That means a whole lot more people’s lives will be forever changed for the better than if Jambi had become a service dog herself. (And they’ll be damned cute, too.)

playground pup

If changing lives is why we raise CCI pups, it seems that we’ve hit the jackpot with this one.

Nevertheless, it’s still hard. Even though we know that this is a wonderful thing, a true honor, it’s still not what we’d originally hoped would happen, and changing emotions on a dime isn’t really my strong suit. (Unless I happen to be watching a good Budweiser commercial, in which case I can go from smiling to sobbing in a matter of seconds.) Knowing that we won’t get to see her again hurts. Wondering how she’ll take to being an incubator is tough.

But I’m going to look on the bright side. With luck, her new breeder/caretaker family will be amenable to connecting with us through digital media so we can watch her grow, be a part of her pregnancies, and ooooh and ahhhh over her new puppies. My mother-in-law pointed out that Jambi’s exceedingly sweet and adoring nature means she’ll probably be a tremendous mama. And, if we play our cards right, down the road we should be able to raise one of Jambi’s puppies as our next CCI dog — which is pretty freakin’ incredible.

And so, to Jambi… We knew you were destined for great things, Beast! We miss you so much, but this is such awesome news; you’ll be amazing and will bring such joy into so many other lives. And if we ever make it out near you in California, I expect an uncontrollable full-body wiggle as a greeting, deal? Deal.

jambi and the girls