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.

What Is This Feeling? (omg omg omg)

Today, a familiar, padded manila envelope arrived in the mail. I knew immediately that it contained Jitter‘s “official” CCI cape/vest – the one that she will wear when we’re out and about in public. Since she’s been such a fantastic learner and has such a great personality, we’ve been itching to be able to take her with us on errands. Now that we’ve gotten CCI’s stamp of approval, we’ll start making her our constant companion, just as we have with our other CCI pups.

image1Looking spiffy… but not so psyched to be all gussied up…

Along with this readily-anticipated package, however, came another mailing from CCI – this one thick, in a legal-sized envelope. It was clear from the address label that it wasn’t a fundraiser or informational brochure, but since we’ve never received two pieces of mail from CCI on the same day, I was stumped as to what it could be.

When I opened it, I understood why: we’d never received one of these before.
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A guide to graduation.
Because Fenwick has nearly completed his Advanced Training! He has only 4 weeks to go until Team Training; only six weeks to go until the Big Day!!
He is *this close* to learning everything there is to learn and becoming an official service dog!!!

When I saw that front page of the graduation packet, I got teary.

Our boy has almost done it!!

As I began to read the letter (that accompanied the graduation info) aloud to Nick and Annie, my voice was shaking; by the time I finished it, I was officially crying.

After a year-and-a-half… After doing our best with him and taking him to puppy classes and bringing him everywhere with us… After Annie falling head over heels in love with him and watching our hearts break as we turned him back into CCI, kept afloat only by the hope that maybe he might actually do it, might actually change someone’s life…

After all of it – this boy is nearly there. He is our first CCI puppy to make it to this stage; the first two were released early, and Jambi is considered a CCI success because she was accepted as a breeder (Jitter is one of her pups!), but we have not had a dog come this close to fulfilling all of the training requirements and then be matched with someone in need.

Until now.

Fenwick’s learned how to turn on and off lights. He can open and close drawers, doors, cabinets, and refrigerators. He’s been taught to pick up objects and bring them to whoever’s asking. He’s able to pull his handler in a wheelchair. He’s polishing up a few other advanced commands, but otherwise, he’s good to go, training-wise.

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The bold paragraph is the heart-stopper…

That’s not a guarantee that he’ll graduate, however. We know this. There’s always the chance that something will happen in the next few weeks that could get him to be dismissed (that possibility is slim, but still). More likely, there’s the very real possibility that he won’t be the perfect match, personality- or skill-wise, for any of the candidates. CCI wisely has more dogs than recipients at each of its quarterly, two-week Team Training sessions; that way, each person is matched with a dog who truly meets his or her needs. Accordingly, there are always – every single time – several perfectly trained, otherwise-amazing, ready-to-go potential service dogs who do not find their human…

… meaning, every single time, there are several eager Puppy Raiser families – like us – who receive the news that their dogs did not make it, after all. Come August, we could well be one of those families. We tell ourselves this over and over, so as not to get our hopes up only to have them dashed in an instant.

And  yet…
It is nearly impossible not to hope, not to imagine, not to nearly jump out of our skin with excitement and pride.

Because, whether or not Fenwick is a part of the graduating class, there will be a graduation ceremony on August 12th. On that day, after two weeks of intensive matching-up and getting-to-know and detailed instruction and exhaustive training, a group of people will go home with a dog by their side — a dog who will guide and comfort them, assist and teach them, allow them to live the lives they have dreamed about.

There is a group of people out there right now – at this very moment – who, in six weeks, will have their lives changed by a Canine Companions for Independence dog. As we go about our daily summer routine of friends-over and too-much-ice-cream and swimming and reading and staying-up-late, there are other folks out there going about their daily summer routines, folks for whom these dogs represent mobility, friendship, independence, confidence, love, freedom…

Who are they? What are they like? What makes them laugh? Do they prefer milk chocolate or dark? Are they morning people or night owls? What are their goals and hopes and wishes? Are they, as I am, closing their eyes at this exact instant and imagining themselves with the dog that will make the difference?

Will that dog be Fenwick?

Knowing that there are, tangibly, undeniably, people in the world who will be graduating from CCI in six weeks with one of these remaining dogs – and that one of the dogs up for changing someone’s life is Fenwick – is a feeling unlike any I’ve ever experienced.

Even if it doesn’t happen, this feeling, alone, will have been worth it.
And so we wait… and hope… and pray… and cross every appendage… but ultimately know that this will play out exactly as it is supposed to, however that is, and that – no matter what – Fenwick has already made a difference. We will count down the days while reminding ourselves that it may never come to pass.

But then again… it might.

IT REALLY FREAKIN’ MIGHT.
HOT DIGGITY DOG. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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Our Fenny, exactly one year ago today.

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.
fen sleeps on lang
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
fenwick plays

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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This Part Sucks

Today, we returned our third CCI puppy for Advanced Training. After seventeen months with us, we’ve given her back with the tremendous hope that she eventually graduates and changes someone’s life. We know that what we’re doing is good and worthy and helpful and all that jazz… but right now? It hurts a helluva lot.

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Jambi in her hilariously adorable matriculation cape – see the yellow tassels?

Everywhere we go with our CCI pups, someone we meet says the same thing: “I could never do that because I could never give a dog away.” Everywhere we go, someone asks the same question: “Isn’t it hard to give the dogs back?”

The answer is yes. Yes, it is hard. It’s enormously hard. You grow more than a little attached to a dog that has been a part of your family for almost a year and a half, a puppy you got at 8 weeks old, a pal and sidekick who went absolutely everyplace with you. It isn’t quite the same as when a pet dies, but yes – saying goodbye to a beloved pet is never easy.

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One last hug before she was on her way…

Today at matriculation/graduation, I noticed that another puppy raiser was wearing a homemade pin/button made out of Scrabble tiles. It read: This Part Sucks. I teared up and laughed at the same time, turning to her with an emphatic, “Damn straight”

So, therefore, we come to the other question that someone asks us everywhere we bring our dogs: “How can you do this?” That answer to that is easy.

We do this because of the little girl today – eight years old, maybe – who received her dog at graduation. When the Lab who would change her life walked across the stage to greet her, the girl’s face lit up brightly enough to be seen in the very back row, and she threw her arms in the air with ecstatic jubilation.

We do this because of the woman today – in her sixties, maybe – who received her dog, the one that will help her now that she’s had a stroke. But before this? The woman raised FIFTEEN puppies for CCI. Now, she has finally received her own assistance dog. Funny, how the world turns, isn’t it?

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Poor, long-suffering Jambi…

We do this because of the man today – in his forties, maybe – who proudly walked across the stage to greet his dog using his cane instead of his wheelchair. His wife said that even though he and his dog had only been together for a few days, already her husband was more confident, more secure, stronger.

We do this because of the parents today who said that their hope – now that their children had assistance dogs – was that people would approach their previously isolated sons and daughters more readily and they could make new friends. We do this because of the dog who will be working in a crisis shelter, providing comfort and much-needed joy to victims of domestic violence.

We do this because we get to have an adorable bundle of puppyness live with us for over a year. We get to snuggle with this bundle, receive kisses from this bundle, and scratch this bundle behind its ridiculously soft ears. We get to bring this bundle with us absolutely everywhere – to restaurants, on airplanes, to movies, to the grocery store, to the girls’ classrooms – and spread the word about what an incredible organization s/he’s training for.

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Chillin’ with her best bud, Langston, and our other dog, Joey, the night before we left.

We do this because we get to bone up on our obedience training skills. With each dog, we learn more about how to be good dog owners and caretakers and – we hope – to become better each time around. We do this because we get to work with all sorts of teachers and dog sitters, and to introduce them to the world of service dog training.

We do this because we want Ella and Annie to grow up learning what it means to be responsible for raising a pet – feeding, walking, training, keeping healthy. They get to experience the unconditional love that only a dog can give. We do this because they get to learn how to give back to others, even when it’s difficult. We do this so that they can understand that the world is bigger than what they see around them and that they are so very fortunate to have the lives that we live. We do this to show them how important it is to help those in need. We do this to show them that this is what life’s really all about.

We do this because it makes us feel incredibly good. No matter how our days have gone, no matter what mistakes we’ve made, no matter what we haven’t yet accomplished, at the end of the day when we’re raising a service dog puppy, we can know that at least we have done something right. Some good has come out of each and every day that our pups are with us, because there is the chance that these little furballs will change someone’s life for the better, forever.

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Proudly wearing their Jambi the Zombie t-shirts immediately before turn-in.

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.

Jambi (which rhymes with zombie; this is important) was an absolute delight to raise. She was playful, gentle, loving, and unusually calm. She had patience beyond her years, a wonderfully sweet disposition, and was unflappable even when faced with the loudest, craziest situations (often involving our own children). She was so overjoyed to see us after we returned from being away – even if only for an hour – that her entire body wriggled with elation; we called her Wiggle Butt. She also earned the nickname of Miss Piggy because she had a habit of snuffling like a pig whenever something interested her. Jambi had the best cold, wet nose of any dog I’ve ever met. I really miss that cold, wet nose tonight.

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My constant companion for seventeen months…

We have no idea how she’ll do in Advanced Training (which is typically six months long); most pups do not make it all the way through to become service dogs because they need to be perfect, and perfection is a difficult standard for any of us to attain (even me). Jambi is pretty damn near perfect, but you just never know. For now, we’ll cross our fingers and hope like crazy – that she isn’t lonely or homesick, that she makes fast friends with her new kennel-mates, that her trainers adore her as much as we do, that we’ll get another puppy to raise soon, that Langston isn’t too depressed over her departure (this is a real fear for us – no, seriously), and that the rest of our hearts heal soon so that we can focus again on why we do this in the first place.

(Hint: it isn’t the abundance of dog fur all over our house.)

Most of all, we’re crossing our fingers and hoping like crazy that she makes it – that she’s just the right material to be a service dog and that she’s able to change someone’s life forever.

Well, someone else’s life, that is. She’s already changed ours.

We love you, Beast! Go on and wiggle your way into someone’s heart – and also learn to turn on lights and pick things up from the ground, too, while you’re at it. You were the very best; thank you so much for being our girl and for teaching us all that you did.
xoxo

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Note: We are always looking for people who would like to become CCI puppy raisers, especially in the Rochester area (we’re the only ones! Come on now!!). I know, I know… you think you can’t do it. You could never give up a dog. I’m here to tell you that, yeah. This part sucks. It really, really sucks. But when you see that graduate cross the stage with the dog that is finally allowing her to feel human, to be confident, to be independent… You know you could give up a dozen more pups to help other people lead happier, more fulfilling lives. This is the good stuff – why we’re here on this planet in the first place – I promise you. Won’t you consider it?