He’s gone

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All the back doors in our house are open at the moment. It’s a warm summer day, and it’s nice to let in the breeze, but the doors being open is a reminder there’s no puppy requiring confinement.

There was no need to jump out of bed this morning to take someone out to relieve himself; no one to feed, which also should have been nice but instead felt kind of sad. In so many ways, our house, our Saturday routines, feel duller and more lifeless. With Tucker gone to his canine reward (last December) and Adagio turned in to CCI yesterday, our house is dogless for the first time in almost 30 years. 

I think part of the reason I’ve been remiss in writing any posts for this blog for the past several weeks is that anything I wrote would have touched upon Adagio’s looming departure. I often tell people the way I cope with having to give up the puppies we raise is by putting that eventuality out of my mind until the very last minute. For some reason, however, it was harder to do with Adagio. Steve and I both started feeling sad several weeks ago. That’s a little strange; Adagio hardly had the most personality of all the dogs we’ve lived with. For so long, maybe the most distinctive thing about him was how easy he was to live with — happy to curl up and sleep for hours if nothing much was happening, and just as happy to greet the arrival of new people (or better still, dogs!) or go for a walk or some other adventure.

We think he’d make a great facility dog — one of those animals whose full-time job is interacting with hospital patients or crime victims or other folks in need of comfort. A certain number of CCI dogs graduate to this kind of service. On the other hand, up to the day before turn-in, he was still overreacting to the sight of other dogs out on the street, barking with excitement at one or two. That’s the kind of thing that gets a fellow kicked out. We hope that living with so many other dogs up at the Oceanside campus might make him more blasé about canine company. (He matriculated yesterday along with 35 other fellow students, and they join several dozen other dogs whose training began at least three months ago.)

But we really have no clue how he’ll react to the sudden dramatic change in his life. I was startled yesterday to note his behavior during the 90-minute ceremony  that preceded his turn-in. It includes everything from a coo-inspiring puppy-photo slide show to the awarding of graduating dogs to the folks who are receiving them. Normally, Adagio would be all too happy to lay down and snooze through this kind of program, but instead he seemed edgy throughout it– putting his head in one of our laps or climbing up on them (which he never seemed particularly eager to do in normal life). It looked, more than anything, like he was feeling insecure, which again is strange because he could have had no idea of what was coming. Steve thinks he somehow intuited something big was up. IMG_5348.jpeg

I wondered if maybe the change in costume unnerved him. For their big day, puppies trade their routine yellow training vests for heavier, more formal blue capes. I wouldn’t have thought this change mattered much to any dog. But it freaked out Apple, Adagio’s littermate. She refused to move when her dress cape was on, according to her puppy-raiser, Cyndy. Maybe Adagio thought it was creepy too.

In every other way, the morning seemed to bring only happy moments. Adagio got to meet the dog who will be his roommate in the coming weeks: a dashing Golden Retriever named Morrison. DSC07574.jpeg

Adagio also was reunited with Jan Thornburg, the breeder-caretaker of Phyllis (Adagio and Apple’s mother). She’s from the Sacramento area but came down to visit friends and attend the matriculation/graduation festivities.

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I can’t tell you he remembered her. But I can’t say he didn’t.

Once the ceremonies were over, we followed the same dreary drill we’d undergone seven times before: driving to the CCI campus on Rancho del Oro in Oceanside, checking in, then taking a few teary minutes to pet and hug Adagio and tell him to do his best. Dolefully we walked over to the doors leading to the kennel area and introduced him to one of the trainers to be led away.

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As has happened with every one of his predecessors, Adagio pranced off, tail wagging. He never once even glanced back. It’s easy for us to imagine he’s having a better time with Morrison and his huge pack of new buddies than he would, at home with us.

We’re unlikely to hear anything else about how he’s faring until September 25, the day when the dogs’ first “report cards,” will be issued. That’s comforting, as is the reminder we got yesterday of the CCI dogs’ mission. Most of the folks paired with the graduating dogs are dealing with soul-wracking challenges, and they all express such joy and gratitude to have the dogs enter their lives.

This time such consolations are especially important for Steve and me. Almost always before, we’ve immediately gotten a new puppy to raise — a huge distraction from the sorrow of turning in a dog. But the waiting list to receive a puppy recently has grown to unprecedented lengths. We’ve heard rumors that the CCI litters for some mysterious reason have gotten smaller in recent months. Certainly the recent opening of a sixth regional CCI facility (in Texas) means more competition among the centers for any pups that are produced. 

Back in March, I applied for our next puppy, and we were approved without a hitch. But at the moment we’re still 36th on the list of folks who are waiting for pups. We’ve been told we’re likely to receive our next trainee toward the end of November. Until then, this blog is apt to be very quiet. So is my house, which makes me feel more than a little bereft.

 

My fair puppy

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Saturday I went to the San Diego County Fair — thanks to Adagio, or rather Canine Companions for Independence. For the first time in some years, CCI got a booth and put out a call for volunteers to sit in it and explain the mission of the organization. I hadn’t been to the fair myself in ages, and Adagio is game for any outing, so I signed us up for the afternoon shift.

Two other dogs and their handlers shared the duty with us: Mulberry (who’s almost exactly the same age as Adagio) and Helena, a graduate now working as a facility dog at the VA Hospital. Adagio found both those girls to be quite beautiful (more interesting, truth be told, than any of the humans). Situated in the beer tent, our booth drew a ton a foot traffic, and dozens of humans stopped by. They asked about the organization; wanted to snuggle with the dogs. IMG_4852.jpeg

It’s not a tough assignment, and Adagio’s tail kept wagging throughout. Still, he looked pretty tired by the end of our shift, and I was flagging too, so we never strolled around to look at all the other sights. The only souvenir we returned with was this pin.

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It’s not really pinned to his fur. I would never do that to him.

And now Adagio is poised to go off on another adventure: staying with two different sets of puppy-sitters while Steve and I set off tomorrow on an adventure in Latin America. When we reunite in July, we’ll have just three more weeks together before Adagio moves on to his advanced training. The very thought makes me want to cuddle him at least as much as any of his admirers at the fair.

 

 

Fun run

The high point of cuteness of my week came Tuesday morning, when Adagio and I participated in a fundraiser for Canine Companions for Independence (the organization that owns him). This event, a fun run, was organized by La Petite École, a French-language immersion school located off Aero Drive that adopts a different local beneficiary for its community philanthropy each year. Adagio and I were among the seven puppy-raisers and their charges who showed up to cheer on the kids. The Moment of Maximum Cuteness came when we mingled with the preschoolers. They gently patted the dogs, who seemed barely shorter than them, marveling at the softness of their ears and fur. Adagio seemed to enjoy this attention greatly. IMG_4782.jpeg

Then we moved to a large field, where the older kids did laps and took breaks in which they delighted in our dogs’ ability to Speak and Shake and do other “tricks” (their terminology.) We learned that close to $6,000 had been raised, with some hope that a bit more money might trickle in over the next few days.

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Watching all that running was exhausting. 

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Going to such events, when possible, isn’t mandatory, but it can be fun. And it’s a pretty good training experience. After a few hours, when we gathered for a group photo, neither the other dogs nor the kids were distracting Adagio. He was quite content to flop down in the sun and rest.

The final stretch

IMG_4766I’ve gone so long without blogging about Adagio that a friend asked me the other day if he’s okay. He’s fine! I’m the one who’s remiss. After writing about Steve’s and my adventures in puppy-raising for almost 10 years, I may be running out of steam. Or maybe I’m just in the doldrums of our final few months with Adagio. Unlike when we’re struggling to civilize a baby dog, learning something new about his or her personality every day, life with a fellow like Adagio (now 18 months old) is calm. Not much news develops. But I don’t want to drop altogether the narrative thread of Adagio’s journey, so here’s a brief update.

We will turn him in to the staff at CCI to begin his advanced training on August 9, exactly 11 weeks from yesterday. What makes me quail even more is that we will only live with him for 7 more weeks! Next month Steve and I depart on a four-week trip to South America, and once again Adagio will go to trusted puppy-sitters while we’re on the road.

The prospect of saying goodbye to him already feels heartbreaking. Both of us think he’s the easiest CCI puppy we’ve ever lived with. His half-sister Beverly (our last dog before him) came close, but she was more vulnerable to digestive disruption (and ultimately we got the terrible news about her malfunctioning kidneys).

Adagio always seems content to curl up and sleep whenever we haven’t suited him up for some activity. He has almost no bad habits; never digs or hurts our plants or tries to steal food or sniffs out other mischief. He learns quickly and wants to please.

As far as we can see, he has one bad quality, and we’re worried it may torpedo his chances to graduate. Although birds, cats, even the rare squirrels don’t much interest him, the sight of other dogs invariably redirects all his brain cells. If he thinks he might get to play with one, he literally moans with pleasure and excitement. Sometimes he yips or emits a happy woof!

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Never does Adagio experience more joy than at times like this. 

This may be cute in a pet, but a service dog must concentrate on his human. Steve and I have been so concerned about this failing we even arranged for a counseling session last week with Becky Hein, head of the local puppy program. Over Skype, we described to her how easily Adagio appears to lose his mind when he spots a potential playmate (namely any other dog) while out for a walk. She offered a number of suggestions (put more distance between him and them; give him sharper corrections), and we’re doing our best to work on them.

We’re already thinking about what we will do with him if he fails to graduate. But that’s a  complex decision, and we hope that gloomy call doesn’t come. Better to focus on enjoying the dwindling days we have left together.

Ready for take-off!

Last night Steve, Adagio, and I participated in the most entertaining field trip ever. Along with more than a dozen other older pups and their raisers, we gathered at Lindbergh’s Terminal 1, where we practiced going on a plane flight.

Service dogs need to be able to travel by air, and some CCI puppy-raisers take their charges to the skies as part of their formative training experiences. Not all airlines allow pups-in-training in the cabin, but many do, and in 2015 Southwest for the first time opened its cabins to CCI trainees. Still, Steve and I have always quailed at the thought of trying to get one of our puppies to board and behave impeccably in any airliner’s cramped quarters, even for a short excursion.

I did happily participate in a group practice session at the airport three years ago with Kyndall (our trainee at the time). Our group went through the security screening, strolled the terminals, visited the doggy “relief station,” and happily interacted with members of the traveling public. But we didn’t get near any actual planes.

Last night was different. After years of laying the groundwork, veteran puppy-raiser Marilyn Fullen managed to get permission for our group to board one of Southwest’s working 737s (furloughed in San Diego for the night). Here’s a glimpse into how the adventure unfolded.

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Armed with our special gate passes and caped companions, we lined up for the routine security inspection. 

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The humans had to take off their shoes, but the puppies got to keep their capes on.

Once through security, our group climbed the steps and found Gate 4, where we lined up just as if we were ready for boarding.

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Steve and Adagio got in the A line. (But so did everyone else.) 
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Adagio never hesitated…
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…although he didn’t look as joyful as our friend Inge. (But she always looks like that. She’s pure Golden.) 
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The wait at the cabin door was brief, as no one had any carry-ons (other than leashes). 
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Adagio’s sister, Apple, was the model canine traveler. Positioned perfectly under the seat in front of Cyndy, a middle-seat passenger might never notice her. 
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But Adagio, half again her size, simply wouldn’t fit. 
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This is about as good as we got.

Some of other puppy-raisers and one of the Southwest representatives assured us that, should we ever need to fly with a puppy, we could get access to bulkhead seats, where even dogs as big as Adagio do fine.

I think Adagio probably learned something about good comportment from the whole exercise. And Steve and I can better imagine how flying with a pup could work out well. We’re still not ready to try it any time soon. But it was fun to come close to experiencing it.

 

Would you call this puppy fatso?

If you think Dean Ornish is a stickler about weight, you should see our overseers at CCI. They don’t care how much we (the puppy raisers) weigh, but they take a dim view of any dog who packs on extra pounds. The logic behind this is understandable. Labradors, a mainstay of the program’s breeding stock, have a genetic disposition toward plumpness. Moreover it’s the destiny of many successful program graduates to be matched with handlers whose mobility is impaired, making it harder for them to get a lot of exercise. Keeping the animals at a healthy weight when they’re young sets them up for a healthier life in service, or so the thinking goes.

But what’s a healthy weight? That’s where things can get murky. Over the years, Steve and I at times have heard our vet declare our current pup’s weight to be ideal, only then to be told by the CCI staff that he or she should be leaner. I’ve learned a catchphrase from my fellow raisers: “CCI Skinny” and have come to equate it with a level of thinness that in a human might be considered borderline anorexic.

Still, we want to be good, conscientious puppy raisers, so we adhere closely to the feeding guidelines: one cup of Eukanuba Large Breed Puppy Chow three times a day until the puppy is six months old, then a cup and a half of the puppy chow twice daily, switching to a cup and a half of twice-daily lower-calorie adult dog food after that. But we also use treats as a training adjunct (with CCI’s blessing), and once again, that’s where things can get a bit fuzzy. Some folks dole out pieces of puppy chow kibble as the treats. But this can leave you with no kibble left over at mealtime, if you train and treat enough, which feels downright cruel to Steve and me. So we use Charlie Bears or Costco beef jerky treat bits or other tasty morsels to encourage correct behavior. Recently, we’ve been enjoying great success at getting Adagio to ignore other dogs by having little slices of all-beef hotdogs close at hand.

Maybe because of our treat habits (or because of his avocado raiding), Adagio was looking a tad stocky to us a month or two ago, and we cut him back to only one and a third cup of kibble for each of his two meals. Still, we quailed when at a recent weight check at the vet’s, the numbers on the digital scale climbed to 72 pounds. (In contrast, his sister Apple, who looked identical to him a year ago, now weighs only 54 pounds — and she gets fed one and three-quarter cups for her breakfast and dinner!)

Sure enough, as we feared, when I reported Adagio’s most recent weight on his monthly puppy report, the program assistant shot an email back, expressing concern. “That seems pretty large for one of our dogs, even a male,” she wrote. “Would you mind sending me a couple of photos so we can evaluate his size and make any recommendations for reducing food, increasing exercise, etc, if need be?”

She attached the following photos as a guideline to what the CCI honchos are looking for:

With some trepidation, we tried to position Adagio in a similar pose, captured the following pictures, and sent them back.

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To our great relief, she answered quickly, “He does look great in these photos! You got the right angles, looks like his tummy tucks up and he’s got the indented waistline. I guess we’re just getting some big boys nowadays! 😉”

We’re kind of dreading the advent of fig season this summer, when those succulent balls of sugary goodness drop from our tree like manna. We’ll have to rake them up morning and night and ramp up Adagio’s exercise, as best we can. Because come August 9, he’ll face the fat police in person.

 

 

 

Fruit fight

Given Adagio’s obedience and docility, I am surprised to report he has come up with a novel form of bad behavior — a sin none of his seven CCI puppy predecessors ever committed: stealing our avocados.IMG_4488

 

The tree from which Adagio is stealing is more than 40 years old; Steve and I planted it as a sapling. It grew into a great robust engine of guacamole glory. At times we ate its fruit throughout most of the year. But over the last decade, it hasn’t fared well. Recent crops have ranged from minimal to non-existent. Then about a year ago, Steve finally took action to try to revitalize it: removing salt from the soil, watering the tree more, and pruning it heavily. This work has paid off in a bountiful crop of avocados that are delicious (although very small).

They started dropping off the tree a month or two ago. That’s when Adagio discovered them. We got suspicious when we spotted him snorfling around in the compost around the trunk base, and when we caught him in the act of savoring one of the little emerald gems (skin and all) our worst fears were confirmed.

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Years ago, we grew accustomed to our puppies gorging on fallen figs. Steve and I can only consume a small fraction of what our massive old fig tree produces every summer; I don’t even like figs much. But I adore avocados, and they can cost $1 or more apiece from the store. So around our house, avocado thievery is a criminal offense.

We’re now policing against more of it by checking for newly fallen fruit under the tree every morning. Only 3 or 4 avocados drop, on the average day, so we can keep up with that. And Adagio hasn’t yet gone to the next level of criminality:  reaching up and pulling goodies off the tree (which he could easily do, given how tall he is and how low the fruit is hanging.)

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We’re hoping he’s too virtuous to even think of that.