Because of Diamond

Our Canine Companions for Independence journey began in October of 2009 when we joined the CCI family as we welcomed Diamond, an 8 week-old black Lab puppy.
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Gah…. little Annie was only 2 years old…

Given that this was our first foray into the world of service dogs, the learning curve was steep. Once Dizey became housebroken, we began leaving her alone in the kitchen… and then were horrified when she would chew through chair legs. She also learned the art of counter-surfing (including a cake to celebrate a friend’s newborn) – a habit that, according to her forever family, proved impossible to break (our bad!). Being consistent in our training – no jumping on anyone, even if they love dogs; no random climbing on the furniture, no matter how snuggleable the dogs look; no pulling on the leash, despite how much longer walks might take to get it right – was tough. But we learned. And Diamond taught us.

Bringing a pup-in-training with us everywhere we went was also an entirely new experience. We soon discovered the best times to visit the grocery store (lest a pup get its paws run over by the cart), how to fasten a CCI cape/vest in blinding Rochester snow, just how many paper towels and plastic bags to have on hand at any given time, which things might spook a dog (automatic doors, floor grates, and mannequins, I’m looking at you), and that, no matter how many times you’ve offered the pup a chance to hurry, there are no guarantees that a visit will remain accident-free.
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These were taken for the girls’ valentines; their cards said, “Puppy Love”

We also learned that there are no “quick stops” when you’ve got a cape-wearing dog with you. This is simultaneously one the most wearisome and most awesome parts of raising a service pup: everyone, and I do mean everyone, wants to tell you their dog story, and especially their dead dog story. A simple trip to grab milk and toilet paper could turn into a 20-minute sojourn when Diamond came along, as we were stopped so people could scratch her head (only with permission, thanks very much), tell us about their black Lab back home, how their best friend’s cousin’s uncle’s boss’s wife once dreamed about getting a black Lab, or about good ol’ Rascal or Butch or Princess who was the light of their life but crossed over the rainbow bridge last week or last month or six years ago. It’s almost compulsory, this desire to share dog stories with us because of the cape-wearing pup at our side.

And, for us, those stories have become almost sacred. Dogs are special. Sharing them is special.

So was Diamond. She came with us to Kiawah and Minnesota, doing a stellar job on the airplane both times. (Our trip to Minnesota did, however, provide us with our favorite dog disaster story of all time: when Diamond left Easter egg-filled diarrhea all over the moving sidewalk at the MSP Airport…) She went with the girls into their classrooms. She joined them in the snow and the water, posed for photos in costume, and never, ever complained.
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After returning Diamond in May of 2011, we knew we wanted to raise another service dog pup. By the time Langston arrived in September, we felt more confident and were excited to put what Diamond had taught us into practice.

We’d been told that CCI could release dogs from Advanced Training at any time; only so many are cut out for a life of service. Nevertheless, we were surprised in October, 4.5 months into Advanced Training, to receive a call that Dizey was being released. (Long story short, she was occasionally, but unpredictably, aggressive with other dogs.)
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We adored Diamond. We would gladly have taken her back.
But because we adored her, we knew she couldn’t live with us. She deserved a home without other dogs to make her nervous. So we put the word out – and, very happily, Diamond became the forever pet of local friends who loved her dearly (even though she never outgrew counter-surfing). Her nickname was D-Money. She graced their Christmas cards. They brought her on countless adventures. And when she became mysteriously ill, they never gave up on trying to find out what was wrong, to help her, to make her comfortable.

Very sadly, despite their Herculean efforts, Diamond passed away three days ago. She was only eight-and-a-half years old.

It’s a strange feeling, losing someone who held great importance during a particular period of your life. Not quite missing; Diamond hadn’t felt like “our” dog for many, many years; Ella and Annie barely remember her. Not quite heartbreak; we loved her then, and remember her fondly, but it’s been a long time and our hearts have made room for 5 other CCI pups since then. There’s a buffer of respect and deference, too; Diamond was our puppy, but she was her forever family’s beloved pet.

Her passing is nevertheless a somber, poignant milestone, and Diamond will forever occupy a unique and significant place in our hearts. She introduced us to CCI – their specific commands, training methods, and approaches. She also introduced us to the world of service dogs and puppy raising, which has become one of our most central and important missions.
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Gabe and Fenwick

Because of Diamond, there was Langston – who, though he flunked out, has become our very best boy. Because of Diamond, there was Jambi, a pup-turned-breeder whose pups have directly changed the lives of dozens of people in need. Because of Diamond, there was Fenwick, whose placement with Gabe has forever made him happier. And because of Diamond, there was Jitter (now in her 5th month of Advanced Training) and Arlington (who has become a gigantic, genius goofball)… and who knows how many other pups yet to come.
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Jitter navigating the LIRR during Advanced Training; photo courtesy of her handler
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Arlington taking in ‘Black Panther.

Because of Diamond, we found one of our purposes in life. We cannot possibly express our gratitude to her, not only for being a fantastic puppy, but for introducing us to the world of service dogs. Diamond brought us into the CCI family, and nothing has been the same. Thank God.

Or, in this case, thank dog.

Godspeed, Dizey. You were a great pup, a terrific pet to your forever family, and you can bet that next time Arlington and I are stopped by someone in the grocery store, I’ll be sharing your story with them.
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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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Check Yourself (aka Pride, Pups, and Poop)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a difference, all right.

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

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

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

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

To learn more about CCI, go here.