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… 

 

Settling In

It’s now been three weeks since we got Fenwick, our fourth CCI puppy, and I daresay things feel distinctly different than when I last posted about him. He’s becoming a true member of our household and raising him is turning out to be relatively easy*.

* I realized I just jinxed myself. Universe, please have pity on me.

Upon further reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are several reasons why the adjustment to having another puppy around has gone more smoothly this time. To wit, in no particular order:

1) I’m no longer feeling detached, nor keeping my distance. Once I realized that’s what I’d been doing, I decided to knock it off. He’s not Jambi and that’s okay; he’s his own self and that self is pretty fantastic.

2) This face. All day, every day.
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3) He still has puppy breath. (And very sharp teeth.)

4) He lets us know when he needs to do his business and then almost always waits until he’s outside to actually do it. THIS IS HUGE, people. Langston had a habit of asking to be let out, peeing like crazy, and then peeing again the instant he got back into the house or was put in his kennel. (Our CCI program manager actually had to ask us not to bathe him so often because it was bad for his skin, so we resorted to hosing him off a couple of times a day.) Jambi went through a lovely stage where she would poop in her kennel at night and not let us know; I’d “discover” it when I’d awaken to use the bathroom and would be overpowered by the stench. So, Fenwick asking to go out and then doing his business outside? GENIUS.

5) Speaking of genius… he’s smart. He totally knows his name, responds to the “sit” and “here!” and “Let’s go!” commands, and has mastered the art of sitting, waiting, and then being given the “okay” command before he eats his meals. He also walks on a leash quite nicely now; we’ve managed to make it a whole ten minutes up the street before he gives up and needs to be carried.

6) He’s a total imp. He knows the “here” command but will purposely dart away from me if he’d rather play outside. He pulls the girls’ swim towels off of their drying spots, drags them around the kitchen, and then lies down in the middle of them. If you’re not watching very closely, he’ll slip out of any open gate or door to follow you. He’s a twerp.
fenwick and the stick Dragging a stick that’s three times his size because he is a COMPLETE GOOFBALL.

7) He talks. I don’t mean that he barks or is just plain noisy (although both of those are true), but that he vocalizes often and it sounds just like a human being – but not in a creepy, disembodied way. More in an adorable, “OMG, he sounds like a cross between an Ewok and a Wookiee!” kind of way. (Yeah, yeah, I know that those are technically not human… but they were voiced by humans. Point for me.)

8) I’ll deny I ever said this, but he just might be sleeping through the night. You didn’t hear it here. Nope.

9) Langston has changed his tune and has decided that Fenwick is a pretty fabulous playmate. Lang brings toys over to play with him, gets all dog-mouthy with him, and gleefully flings him across the floor when enough is enough. He’s even willingly sharing his bed and not trying to curl into a tight ball in the corner so he doesn’t have to touch Fenwick. OH HAPPY DAY.
fenwick and lang are buddies

And perhaps the biggest reason why raising this puppy is easier (so far) than the previous three puppies…

10) Ella and Annie help. THIS IS A GAME CHANGER, Y’ALL. With our first CCI pup, Diamond, they were really too young to do anything besides avoid becoming chew toys. With Langston and Jambi, they wanted to help, but were either too little to be too effective (the pups were too heavy to carry, they couldn’t reach the food) or got bored ten seconds into working on “down” and would walk away, leaving the puppies chewing on couch cushions in the living room.

This time, not only are they capable of pitching in, they actually want to participate. Feeding the puppy? Not a problem. Letting him out, even on short notice (“He’s about to have an accident! Go go GO!”), and then watching him so he doesn’t get into trouble? Done. Patiently working with him on learning his name? Okay, so maybe they weren’t patient, but they definitely offered assistance. Knowing how to handle it without falling apart when Fenwick nips at their toes or chews on the hems of their bathrobes? You bet.

The other day, Ella decided that the puppy was getting a bit stinky, so she gave him a bath – in the shower, by herself – and then toweled him off and brought him back downstairs. Yeah, she mixed his dirty, hairy towel in with hers, but she hung them both up so I consider it a total win. Heck, one time, Annie even cleaned up after Fenwick when he peed inside… and then sprayed the floor with disinfectant. As you can see, this is all kinds of awesome.

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So, to sum up, if you want to raise a puppy and have the experience be particularly excellent, I highly recommend that you a) get a really cute dog, b) get a smart dog that makes you feel like a super-competent trainer, c) get a dog with personality so you can laugh it off when they try to chew through the handle of your new rake, and d) above all else, have a seven and nine year-old on hand to assist you with all of your puppy-raising needs.

Except for getting up in the middle of the night and picking up poop. Those are still on you. At least this adorable face will make it more bearable.fenwick 11 weeks
Oh. Mah. Gah.