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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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.

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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.

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

 

Make Room For Puppy

Four days ago, our family grew by one: we welcomed Fenwick, our fourth CCI puppy, to the fold.
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Don’t mind the green around his ear; that’s just a little extra ink from his uber-cool tattoo.

We’d been planning to get another CCI pup since before we turned Jambi in for Advanced Training, but a puppy wasn’t available to us until last week. We met him at the airport, a howling bundle of fuzz that couldn’t wait to get out of the kennel where he’d been cooped up for more than twelve hours. Annie had stayed home sick that day, so she ventured with us to get Fenwick; on our way home, we drove by their elementary school right at Ella’s lunchtime… so an impromptu meet-and-greet was held in the school parking lot.

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What? Don’t all the sick kids wear magician star skirts on their days home from school?

Half Golden Retriever and half Labrador Retriever, Fenwick (we don’t name them, btw, but I think his name is very dignified – in a Brit-lit kind of way – and pretty rad all-around) has a very clear Golden look. He’s absurdly fluffy and soft, not at all wiry like Labs tend to be, and by far the smallest puppy we’ve had. He is also crazy loud when he’s left alone and prefers not to be, screaming in a freakish way that is almost human. Aww, puppies!

The girls took to him immediately, declaring him “The cutest dog ever!” and cuddling with him and carrying him around in that way that children do with puppies and cats that makes you question whether small humans and small animals should ever share the same space. Then they torture play with him and help wash him and any Hey, you dropped me on the tile floor and could’ve killed me memories are all but forgotten.
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See the leaf? You can’t eat it! But you can look at it! See it? Don’t eat it! Look – a leaf! Leaves aren’t for dogs! I CAN DO THIS ALL DAY.

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Okay, okay… so maybe peeing in my kennel wasn’t such a good idea…

Nick seems to think that Fenwick is just dandy, but he went out of town less than twenty-four hours after picking him up, so his opinion doesn’t fully count. Which leaves me as the lone hold-out who isn’t completely smitten with this adorable little furball.

I’m not sure why, exactly. I knew it would be difficult – eight week-old puppies almost always are. They wake you up at night to go to the bathroom, they whine when they’re displeased, they pee and poop in the house indiscriminately and sometimes wind up soaked in their own urine. (This is eerily similar to most two year-old humans.) They nip at your fingers and hemlines and shoes, they put everything in their mouths – especially the things that shouldn’t go there – and they are utterly unpredictable. (This is exactly like most two year-old humans, except it’s legal to lock them in cages.)

I knew all of this going in, and I was prepared. Cleaning up the umpteenth mess of the day (five minutes after I let him out and with absolutely zero warning or preamble) is exhausting – but that’s not really why I’m not crazy for this boy yet. I don’t dislike him – he’s got that delightful puppy breath and is and full of zany puppy energy and makes little grunting noises when you hold him and likes to drag a stick around the backyard that’s six times longer than he is, which cracks me up to no end. I’m just not all in quite yet.

I know – I know! – how can I not be completely taken in? I mean, look at this guy.
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Seriously? SERIOUSLY.

I think part of it is that we’re going out of town next weekend, so I’m almost afraid to put too much into it because I’m half-worried that he’ll forget us entirely in our absence. I’m also worried that he’ll still be up in the night and will be soiling the floors at regular intervals when our petsitter is here and, well, I’m just nervous, so I’m not jumping in fully to enjoy him. I think part of it is that I miss Jambi – not just any old puppy, but Jambi specifically – and when Fenwick’s personality diverges from hers, it’s a reminder that she’s gone, and that’s hard.

But I think the biggest reason I’m not totally head over heels for this puppy is that Langston isn’t head over heels, which is not at all what I expected. He and Jambi were ridiculously good pals, playing and lounging and napping together from day one. He’s also been really friendly with other dogs, though, so we assumed that he would love having a puppy around again – especially since he’d been practically bouncing off the walls with boredom since we turned Jambi in. When we brought Fencick home and introduced them, I actually said to Lang, “We brought you a present!” (Yes, I talk to my dogs as though they’re human. Preach it.)

To my dismay (and surprise), Langston doesn’t care. In some ways, he’s even annoyed by Fenwick – which, upon closer inspection, I guess I can understand. Fenwick bites at Langston’s wagging tail, causing him to yelp with pain; he attempts to gnaw on his hind legs as though they were teething toys; he jumps up on him in a never-ending game of Notice Me! Notice Me! Notice Me!

I’d been so convinced that Langston would be thrilled that we were bringing home another puppy, I didn’t even consider how it would feel if he wasn’t completely taken with the new dog. Turns out, I’d been putting a lot of stock into the two of them getting along, to being buddies, and now that it hasn’t played out that way (yet), I’m really bummed.

I say “yet” because I know that it’s only been four days… four days out of the sixteen months that Fenwick will be with us. He’s only a baby. We’re all still adjusting. Hell, he’s still on west coast time – jet leg will do strange things to a dog. I know that there’s plenty of time for Langston to come around – or not. Maybe they’ll never be the best of pals. But there’s plenty of time to adjust to that, too, and for me to fall in love with this smooshy little buddy simply because he’s him, rather than because he’s Langston’s companion.

And yet… Last night, I’d invited Langston up on the couch to chew the new favorite bear we’d gotten him, keeping it safe from Fenwick’s shark puppy teeth. A moment later, however, Langston had gotten off the couch – bear in hand mouth – and walked over to Fenwick… to play. With his bear. Langston wanted to play with Fenwick by sharing his bear. Oh, be still my heart!

They played longer than this, but I was so busy watching like a giddy buffoon for the first minute or so, I didn’t even think about grabbing my phone until Ella said, “Mom! Don’t you want to record this??” She is so my daughter.

You guys, my heart soared. So yeah, they only played together for about five minutes today, and that was only because Langston grew so tired of Fenwick trying to nip him to death, he decided to nip back and some dog-mouth-play ensued, but still. It’s a start! And a good reminder to me that, like people, no two dogs are alike – and it’s pretty unfair to judge one based on the other. Today, Fenwick ate all of his dinner (woo hoo) and let me know each time he needed to go out to poop, so overall, it feels like a win. He’s responding to his name and walking better on a leash and feels just absolutely perfect in my arms.

We’ll get there. I’m not worried. Neither is Fenwick. It’s all good – doggone it.

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Dog tired.

Throwback Thursday: Adorable Puppy! YOU KNOW YOU WANT ONE.

Exactly one year ago today, we welcomed our newest CCI puppy, Jambi, into our lives.

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FYI – her name rhymes with ZOMBIE, not Bambi. This is important, folks, because rhymes-with-“Bambi” in a western New York accent is not a pretty sound.

It was love at first sight for Ella and Annie.

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Awaiting them when they got home from school…

And Langston, who’d returned to us from Advanced Training only a week earlier? Well, he needed no convincing to allow her into his life (and his bed. *ahem*).

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Everyone always asks us how we do it (once they get over the adorableness and coolness of seeing a real live dog out and about in the library or at Target). How do we love these dogs as though they’re our own, and then give them away? My answer is simple: We are amazing, selfless, and basically role models for everyone around us. Duh.

After I’ve explained that, I go on to tell people that, once we saw what these dogs could do – once we saw how they could help people, how they can change lives, how they can give kids and adults alike hope and courage and freedom that they never dreamed possible – we couldn’t not do it. Does it suck, giving the dogs up after they’ve been part of our family for a year-and-a-half? Yes. It does. It hurts like hell. But that hurt is absolutely nothing compared with the joy that these dogs can potentially bring to others. On one of those scale-thingies (I suck at The Math, so just use your imagination), it’s not even close to being equal.

Of course, it’s not all sacrifice. Not by a long shot. Aside from having a cuddly, delicious, soft, apple-eating puppy in our lives, we also get to experience what it feels like to help someone else – and, I’m not gonna lie, that feeling is so incredible, it actually makes me feel almost selfish raising these dogs. I get to have a puppy AND feel this stupendous? This can hardly be legal.

When we got our first CCI puppy almost five years ago, my cousin – whose mom, my Aunt Lisa, has raised CCI puppies for years – commented to me that doing so was one of the best gifts we could ever give Ella and Annie, because raising CCI dogs changed her life. (She’s now an Advanced Trainer out in California, so I guess she knows what she’s talking about.) That wasn’t what we set out to do when we started down this path, but if that’s what winds up happening, then go us! Unintentionally instilling values, FTW!

We are currently the only family in Western New York who is raising puppies for CCI, and while that’s a somewhat neat distinction, I’d like to change it. My new goal is to convince at least one other local family to become puppy raisers before we turn Jambi back to CCI in August.

It’s worth it, I promise.

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 Come on… You know you want to…