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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It Doesn’t Get Any Easier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the grocery store…

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… and the YMCA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one of the commencement speakers said, today was (their) independence day.
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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.
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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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