“How can you stand to give up your dog? I could never do that!” Over the course of 14 years of raising puppies for CCI, that’s the question I’ve heard most. I respond in a number of ways: I talk about how you can only get into puppy-raising if you understand up front that it’s not your dog. “If you took care of a friend’s pet while they were on vacation, you’d be able to give it back, right?” I say. Raising potential service dogs is like that, just on a longer time scale. Sometimes I compare the turn-in process to childbirth — it’s agonizing when you’re in the throes of it but quickly over, freeing you to start all over with an incredibly cute baby creature. Or I talk about the huge payoff that comes when a dog succeeds and transforms the life of its recipient.
But there’s another reason, one that for me may be the most profound. The pain of giving away a puppy I’ve raised can’t compare to ending the life of a dog I’ve come to love over the course of many years.
This is what got Steve and me started raising CCI puppies. In 2004, we euthanized the best dog we ever had up to that point in our lives, a chocolate Labrador named Tootsie. Boisterous in her youth, Tootsie settled down to become a stalwart companion. She ran with us on the boardwalk. Around the house, she always followed us from room to room. She was a smiler, prone to great toothy grins in her middle years that told us more clearly than words how happy she was at the sight of us. Later, these mellowed into quick smiles she would flash whenever I glanced in her direction. In her 13th year, she aged a lot, grower deaf, losing her ability to see well. Her hips hurt, and when she could barely walk and cried because she couldn’t move through the house to be at the side of one of us, we called the vet and ended her life just short of her 14th birthday.
I felt awful about it; guilty thoughts assailed me. As soon as it was done, I felt like we had acted too soon. I’d heard about CCI, however, and shortly after Tootsie’s death we made the clear-eyed decision to raise puppies rather than ever again put a dear friend to death.
That’s how we wound up with Tucker, a doe-eyed, good-natured little fellow who stole my heart the moment he shambled into my sight early in 2005.Both Steve and I adored him. We thought he was the smartest, most attentive puppy we’d ever lived with. We wept when we turned him in for advanced training in May of 2006, certain he was destined for a stellar life in service and that we would rarely see him again. At the same time, we wanted with all our hearts for him to graduate. I still remember how the blood drained from my face two months later when I answered the call from our puppy-program director who broke the news he was being released: too much energy and too distractible to become a working dog.
I don’t remember that we agonized when we were asked if we wanted to adopt him. We loved him so much we couldn’t imagine not welcoming him to be our pet. Later, as subsequent puppies that we raised were also released, we grew more guarded and sensible. We had Tucker and wanted to raise more CCI puppies, and two big dogs was enough, so we found other good homes for others that didn’t make the cut.
We knew vaguely, of course, that Tucker would eventually grow old and we might once again face a terrible decision. But we had so many wonderful times together. We referred to him as the ultimate party animal; nothing gave him greater joy than going to social gatherings or meeting new people.
He never ran away from our home, but once out in Borrego Springs he disappeared, and we found him curled up in the living room of a complete stranger’s house down the street from where we were staying. Another time, in Julian one winter night, Steve took our CCI pup out to pee, and Tucker took off through the woods in the dark — with the puppy racing after him. (Miraculously, they both made it back after a few moments in which Steve and I experienced the starkest terror.) Each time we brought home a brand-new canine baby from CCI to raise, Tucker greeted him or her with a wagging tail and a happy face. Some of them jumped on him or pulled him around by his jowls or otherwise harassed him, but he never took offense. We speculated they helped to keep him young.)
No fountain of youth works forever. Several years ago, Tucker started slowing down on walks, and we reluctantly cut back on them. We stopped taking him up the hill with us, and a year or so after that, we realized he wasn’t even up to making the mile-long stroll to our neighborhood coffee house. Instead we confined his outings to a slow lap around the block a few times a week. In 2014 he developed a cancer in his side, but surgery seemed to get rid of it. We fed him medicine to promote canine joint health, then added daily pain medication. Whereas once he could hear me crack an egg from the other side of the house and come running in the hope I would share part of it with him, he became so deaf in the last year, we had to shake him awake. I began to pray he wouldn’t respond; that he might become my first dog to die in his sleep.
When Steve and I began to plan a long trip to India (for the fall of 2018), we gave a lot of thought to Tucker’s care. We found trusted friends to live in our house and take care of him. We discussed at length his prospects. Coming up on his 14th birthday, he might survive for another year or two, we knew. But what if things got grim while we were away? We told our friends if he stopped being able to walk outside to toilet or stopped eating, we didn’t want him to suffer. We left clear instructions at our vet’s office and departed, hoping things would work out.
We got periodic reports about how happy he was with his caretakers. (We’d been confident he would enjoy the exposure to new people far more than he would miss us, and this seemed to be the case.) By November, however, our friends started sending ominous reports. Tucker was struggling more to get to his feet and having increasing trouble with stairs. Several times he defecated in the house; once in his bed. We began to realize the end could be near, and it felt awful being halfway around the world from him.
As it turned out, he survived until our return in mid-December. He was happy to see us. He still enjoyed eating. But he had deteriorated in our absence. One week before Christmas, we realized he could barely struggle to his feet half the time. The other half, he failed and could only bark hoarsely, frustrated. Faced with taking him on a 1200-mile road trip to Reno, where we’d made plans many months before to spend Christmas with our son and his family, it seemed hard to imagine Tucker could survive the many trips in and out of our van. We consulted with our vet, and she agreed that given the circumstances, it might be best to put him to sleep.
I loathe that euphemism. With our (two) other pets at whose deaths I was present, it seemed like a baldfaced lie. But it felt closer to the truth for Tucker. He always liked going to the vet’s, and December 20 was no different. Steve and the vet and her assistant were all crying, while I outright sobbed, but Tucker didn’t seem bothered by any of our carryings-on. On the table, he gobbled down treat after treat, then slowly lowered his big head as the sedative took effect. When the vet injected the drug to slow his heart, he closed his eyes. His breathing grew more shallow, then it stopped.
Had Tucker in fact gone to sleep one night and not awakened, I would have felt a great sense of peace. He had a wonderful life with us and seemed to enjoy every minute. But he didn’t just die and wouldn’t have chosen to, if we could have asked him his wishes. We’ve tried to console ourselves with the thought that we saved him from reaching the pain of experiencing a life that was unlivable. But I still feel terrible about what we did.
The vet’s office arranged for the cremation of Tucker’s body, and for the first time ever, Steve and I opted to collect the ashes. We plan to bury him on our friends’ property in Julian, where he was so happy; where he once ran through the snowy woods in the night like a wild dog.
And we have once again taken the pledge. If Adagio or any puppies in our (near) future aren’t cut out for a life of service, we’ll find them the best homes we can, but not with us. We won’t take one back at least until our own sight and hearing have dimmed and our memories have grown foggy of just how hard it is to decide that your old friend’s life should come to an end.