Goodbye to the Evac Pack

If you have to suddenly acquire three additional large dogs, I’ll say this: it sure helps if they’re aspiring service workers. All the training — from their puppy raisers and the professional staff at the CCI southwestern regional center — makes them awfully easy to live with.

The three girls we were hosting (because of the threat to the center from our recent wildfires) could hardly have been better behaved. Friday night we even invited our nearby fellow puppy-raisers, Karla and Mark, and their neighbors to bring over the dogs they all were fostering (a total of four), plus Karla and Mark’s new charge, three-month-old Truckee. We thus had 7 adults humans at the dinner table, 7 adults dogs, and one very young puppy. It was a lot more civilized than one might imagine.

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An awful lot of tail-wagging went on…

 

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Then almost all of them (except Tucker) rested quietly in kennels.

Yesterday we got word that the fire danger had diminished, and the dogs would be able to return to Oceanside Sunday morning. We were delighted to hear that the center director would be transporting 16 of the 60-plus evacuees back to Oceanside in one of the center’s big vans. So this morning shortly before 10, we drove Stonie, Tiny, and Maitai the few blocks over to Pam’s house, where they were loaded into stacked-up kennels. We were sad to say goodbye.

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Back at home, however, we got another dog-related call that thrilled us. The CCI staff informed us that Dr. Shields, the vet who conditionally accepted Beverly into her home earlier in the week, has definitely decided to adopt her. Since the two of them met, it sounds like Beverly has undergone some of the most sophisticated medical scrutiny possible. She’s being treated for a potential kidney and bladder infection in the hopes that this may slow the progression of her renal disease. She also has been enrolled in a UC Davis research project and is being followed by a veterinary nephrologist who plans to monitor her kidney function closely.

Best of all, it sounds like Georgette and her family have fallen in love with Beverly. That’s the best news ever. As good as dodging a wildfire.

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Beverly and her new pack member Fiona (aka Ewok)

 

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A pack of hairy fire evacuees

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Our houseguests: Tyne (aka Tiny), Mai-tai, and Stonie

The wildfires that ravaged Northern California earlier this fall forced the evacuation of CCI’s national headquarters in Santa Rosa, but I don’t know if the Oceanside center has ever had to abandon its facility at any point. If not, it has now.

No one could say they couldn’t see it coming. By 11 am yesterday, the temperature in Pacific Beach was mercifully cool, but the wind was snapping and puffing with maddening ferocity. “If the LA fires don’t spread to here, it will be a miracle,” I said to Steve. By late afternoon it was clear divine intervention wasn’t on our agenda; fire had broken out in the north part of San Diego County. At 4:52 p.m. my cell phone rang. It was Karla Stuart, our neighbor from down the block, who with her husband Mark raised and turned in Keegan, while we were training Beverly. Karla explained that she had been up at CCI in Oceanside earlier yesterday afternoon, working on a fundraising effort. The smoky air grew more acrid, and at some point, she and others present had been urged to return home. Now she’d learned that the staff soon decided to evacuate all the animals. Now 63 dogs were at the home of the regional center’s president, Pam Becker. Could Steve and I foster any of them? Karla asked.

I said sure. We have no puppy at the moment, and we own several kennels. Moreover, Pam lives less than a mile from our house. By 5:20, I was pulling out of our garage.

At the address Karla gave me, I thought for a moment that I must have gotten it wrong. When I parked and got out of the van, the night was quiet. “Where’s all the barking?” I asked a woman who emerged from the house. “They’re our dogs,” she said, smiling. I knew that “we” meant the CCI crew.

Inside the kitchen I found several of the folks who work up in Oceanside, including Stephanie Yocum, Beverly’s former trainer, with whom we had our emotional meeting Tuesday. Stephanie was pouring over lists of dogs. When she learned Steve and I were willing to take three, she assigned us three of the females from her current “string” — Beverly’s former training buddies. I didn’t know two of them, Stonie (a tawny, amber-eyed girl whose wrinkly brow often makes her look worried) and Tyne (a tall thin Golden mix whose nickname –Tiny — does not fit her.) I’ve known the third member of the trio, Mai-tai, ever since she was a tiny ball of black fur. She was raised by the Jedi masters of our local CCI community, Janice and Dan Flynn (veterans of more than 20 CCI puppies, the vast majority of whom have graduated.)

We loaded Stonie and Tiny into my car kennel, and I had Mai-tai ride on the floor of the passenger seat, next to me. Back at our house, all three of the dogs raced around the back yard in the dark. Tucker looked befuddled. But not unhappy.

Since then it’s been a little wild. Minutes after our arrival, I heard something smash against our glass sliding door. I saw nothing at first, then realized it was Mai-tai. I slid the door open to admit her, and too late realized she was dripping wet. (Of course she then raced all over the house, watering the surface of everywhere she went.) We weren’t sure if she fell in the pool by accident, or decided to go for a dip, but this morning, she has gone for a swim at least twice.

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We’ve learned to keep a towel at hand outside and all the doors closed. “We living in the submarine again,” Steve said morosely.

All the beasts, including Tucker, slept in Steve’s office last night. We have kennels for each of the girls. I’m amazed by how quickly their personality differences have become obvious. All three have been raptly interested, when Steve dished up their dinner and breakfast.

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But Stonie acts like she’s dying of starvation. Any hint of a tiny morsel of food draws her laser-like attention. She and Mai-tai both walk nicely on their leashes, unlike Tiny, who tends to forge ahead. Tiny also keeps jumping up on my couch, and barking at the other girls. But she has a sweetly ingratiating cuddliness. Mai-tai periodically bursts with energy. But she complies with every command we give her.

One of the CCI staffers called this morning to check up on them and say that the center is still under evacuation. When the fire will be extinguished is anyone’s guess; I heard that it was “0%” contained as of 6 am this morning. But everyone at our house is fine for now. Having the whole gang here has reinforced our conviction that four large dogs is two too many to live with, full-time. But as a part-time adventure, it’s fine.

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When else does Steve command this kind of adoring attention?

Relief

Walking out of the CCI center last night, Steve felt that a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. I shared the sensation. It’s hard to imagine that any Hollywood screenwriter could dream up a more promising ending for a movie about a valiant aspiring service dog whose career had suddenly been derailed by kidney disease.

We had arrived at the center shortly after 4:30 pm, and Beverly’s trainer, Stephanie, soon appeared with Beverly at the end of a bright blue leash. It took our girl a moment to recognize us; then she wagged her tail vigorously. She looked svelte and perky, despite her recent spay surgery. While we waited for Beverly’s new adoptive mother to arrive, Steve and I chatted with the ardent young woman who had wanted to make Beverly a member of her own family. Stephanie was bright and warm-hearted in person as she had appeared in her Facebook messages to me. Her heart was breaking at the imminent prospect of saying goodbye to Beverly, but she also seemed comforted by the vision of how perfect life with Dr. Georgette Shields might be.

We learned that the veterinarian had recently provided foster care for a female selected to be a CCI breeder who was waiting to be sent up to northern California. Impressed by that dog’s impeccable behavior, Dr. Shields had expressed an interest in adopting a release dog. When she heard about Beverly’s availability, the news of her malfunctioning kidneys apparently didn’t sour her interest. Soon a tall, slender woman wearing medical scrubs strode in, accompanied by a little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel — the other member of Beverly’s new pack-to-be.

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She has a lot of nicknames, but her main name seemed to be Ewok. 

Beverly seemed intensely interested, and Ewok (just 11 months old) flopped down and showed Beverly her belly (as if any display of subservience was necessary!)

Stephanie, overwhelmed by emotion, soon fled, but Steve and I chatted with Beverly’s mom-to-be. We learned that she works at the highly respected Veterinary Speciality Hospital, at their North County branch.

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Her picture from the hospital’s website.

 

(Later, on the drive home, we googled her and learned that she’s a specialist in radiology). She told us she planned to do a scan of Beverly’s kidneys the very next day.

More than any medical expertise that she can share with Beverly, her evident kindness and good humor impressed us. We were aware that she had agreed to meet us, a break with CCI’s normal protocol (in which folks who adopt release dogs normally do not meet with the puppy-raisers.)

We found it very comforting, though, and when the time came to say goodbye, neither Steve nor I wept. As for Beverly, she looked as serene as always. We expect that her new family will come to love that as much as we have.

 

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Beverly’s second happy ending

120417 sleeping BeverlyNo sooner did I write my blog post yesterday, reporting on the drama that had enveloped Beverly, than I received a message from Stephanie, the CCI trainer who fell head over heels in love with Beverly and had offered to adopt her. Stephanie sounded both broken-hearted and devastated. She’d been talking to a couple of vets and another puppy-raiser who was living with a dog with kidney disease. As much as it obviously hurt, Stephanie had concluded that the expenses associated with caring for a dog in such circumstances — dog food that costs $115 for a 25-pound bag, frequent blood tests and vet visits — were probably beyond her means. “I really was hoping it would work, but I also promised Beverly that I would make her well-being my top priority,” she wrote me.

I called her, and we cried together a little over the sadness of the situation. I don’t know Stephanie, but the hugeness of her heart is obvious. She said another good solution might be available. She knew a vet who had fostered dogs for CCI and had indicated some interest in adopting a release dog. Stephanie had spoken to this woman, and she was very interested, but she needed to discuss it with her boyfriend, who was traveling. Still, Stephanie thought we should hear back soon, and both of us agreed that living with a loving veterinarian might be the best thing for Beverly.

We got the good new just an hour or so ago. As frosting on the cake, this veterinarian apparently practices with another one who is a kidney specialist. “So I truly believe Beverly couldn’t be in a better place!!” Stephanie messaged me. “They would like to take her and make sure she gets along in their family (which I don’t see there being a problem with that because Beverly is PERFECT!) I will be keeping Beverly with me until we find a date that works for them to pick her up.”

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Beverly wearing a beautiful bow from Stephanie

We’re eager to see if we might all meet, whenever the transfer takes place. If so, I will certainly report on it.

Years ago, I started blogging about puppy-raising because I wanted to try to capture and share some of this complex and engrossing activity. What a mixture it is. At times, months pass without much of anything happening. The dog has settled into our household, learned all the commands. Maybe we go on a field trip now and then. Then a patch like this comes along, where events are developing faster than I can keep up with them. That’s life, I know. I’m not complaining. Just marveling.

Beverly’s life takes an unexpected turn

Beverly has been released from the CCI program for health reasons.

Typing those words, I still feel a shiver of shock. We never detected that her body was any less perfect than her behavior. Indeed, her first report from CCI last week started off with the exuberant declaration, “Beverly is in good health!”

The clue that something was amiss didn’t come until Friday morning, when the vet staff up at the Oceanside center tested Beverly’s blood in preparation for spaying her. (Getting spayed is routine for the girls in Advanced Training; only a handful are chosen to be breeders.) But the test showed two very non-routine values for creatinine and another blood component; this signaled serious kidney malfunction.

A decision was made to proceed with the surgery and inspect Beverly’s kidneys directly. It was then, the puppy program director explained in her phone call to me late Friday afternoon, that the vet could see that one of the kidneys was both small and malformed. The other one looked normal. But it couldn’t be functioning properly or else her blood values would be normal. Instead the staff estimated that Beverly’s one kidney may be operating only about 40% as well as it should. What is unclear is whether this will shorten her life by just a small amount or substantially.

Becky said the vet felt the best course would be for Beverly to start consuming a special dog food, lower in  protein and thus easy on the kidneys. Becky also sadly pointed out that this turn of events meant Beverly could not continue on to graduation. She asked if I thought Diana and John, our puppy-sitter friends, would still want to adopt Beverly (as they had intended to do, in case she was to be released). I said I didn’t know. Adopting a dog with a health problem requires a special commitment, one that I don’t think Steve and I could handle. I asked Becky if she would call John and Diana to fill them in. An hour or so later, she called me back with the news that they also didn’t feel they could take on this challenge.

This is where this story takes a happy turn. Becky had informed me that someone else did want to adopt Beverly — Stephanie Y, the young woman who’s been training her for the past few weeks. Becky said Beverly and Stephanie had developed a deep bond. “When I call her to tell her she can adopt Beverly, you’ll probably be able to hear the scream from there,” Becky said. She pointed out that in her new life as Stephanie’s release dog, Beverly will be able to come into work with the trainer every day. She’ll have a “sister,” Belle, whom Stephanie raised and adopted upon her release. She’ll be showered with exuberant attention and love. Becky says the Oceanside staff jokes that in their next lives, they all want to come back as one of Stephanie’s dogs.

Since then, I’ve exchanged several messages with Stephanie, and they’ve confirmed that Beverly is one lucky dog indeed. “I fell in love with her the second I saw her and I knew that she was such a special pup!!” Stephanie wrote me. “Belle and Beverly have met and enjoy cuddling and sleeping next to each other!! During these first few weeks, I want to make sure that both dogs are EXTREMELY happy in their new role as sisters and their well-being is my top priority!!”

She sent me these comforting photos and a video, and we plan to meet in person soon. I fell asleep myself Friday night filled with such conflicting emotions: sadness over Beverly’s troubled kidneys, grief that she won’t have the life we imagined for her, joy that she has found her forever angel. Because of the latter, I slept soundly.

 

 

Into the red kennel

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This is how it started, a little over 16 months ago.

Once before, two puppies ago, we had a female go into heat right before she was scheduled to be turned in for Advanced Training. That was Dionne. The circumstances were a bit different from what we’ve experienced with Beverly. Dionne started bleeding almost three weeks before our scheduled separation, so we had some hope that her heat would end in time for us all to participate in the ceremonies. (It didn’t.) With Beverly just 10 days out from turning in, there was no such hope. Our goodbyes thus felt different.

After confirming Monday that Beverly was undeniably bleeding, I called CCI in the afternoon. Jules, the assistant puppy program director, sounded compassionate, but when I offered to keep Beverly at our home for a few extra days (since the campus is under construction and human/dog teams are already there, working together in preparation for the upcoming graduation), she gently pointed out that the rules are inflexible: all females in season must be in a kennel — either at CCI or some surrogate facility.

I acceded, promising that Steve and I would deliver Beverly at 11 the next morning (Tuesday). But then I was struck by fear: would she be all alone? (Normally no other dogs in heat are present in the kennels right before graduation, since CCI needs all the spaces for the dogs who will shortly be turned in.) The thought of Beverly in what would effectively be solitary confinement horrified me.

Jules said she would check. Less than two minutes later, the phone rang again. “There’s a delightful Golden here already who’s also in heat,” she announced. “She’ll have a great time!”

Feeling slightly better, Steve and I packed up Beverly, her cape, and a few other odds and ends and ushered her into the van for our last ride together. Normally she travels in the cloth kennel that we keep in the back of the vehicle, but this time I invited her to curl up next to me on the floor in front of the middle seat. She snuggled close, casting glances that almost looked concerned, as if she suspected something was going on. (Probably she was just startled by not being in her normal space.)

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Alberto, our documentarist friend who has filmed our puppy-raising activities for several years, accompanied us. Up at the Oceanside facility, Jules ushered us all into the interior lobby, where we chatted for several minutes. Again, Jules exuded empathy for the unwelcome early goodbyes. The puppy program director, Becky Hein, also joined us to express her condolences.

They both offered to dress Beverly up in a fancy “matriculation cape” so we could photograph her in the ceremonial garb, but somehow Steve and I felt too dispirited to mess with that. We did move outside for a photo in front of the facility’s sign.

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We returned inside, gave her final hugs, handed over the leash, and watched her exit toward the kennels, tail wagging vigorously. Like every other puppy we’ve ever returned to CCI, she did not once look back. (And we learned that yet another of her classmates, Helena, also went into heat at the last moment and might also be Beverly’s roommate.)

We drove home and began the disconcerting process of adjusting to life with one less dog. Our home dog, Tucker, will be 13 years old next month, and he sleeps so much it’s easy to forget his presence. As virtuous a puppy as Beverly was, Steve and I both developed an unconscious radar for tracking her presence; we do this automatically now, with all our CCI puppies. So it feels weird not to hear her following us through the house; not to see her curled up in the dog bed next to my desk.

Late yesterday afternoon, I got an email from Becky with some terrible news. Her message announced that Cath Phillips, the longtime North County CCI teacher and ultra-veteran puppy-raiser, has been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer. Apparently, she has very little time left. I don’t know Cath well, but I understand what a key role she has played in this community, and I was moved that earlier that morning Becky and Jules treated Steve and me with such compassionate attention while dealing with this very sad turn of events.

In contrast, Beverly is healthy and (I’m sure) happy. She was bred by CCI for a purpose: to   work at helping people. We’ll find out over the course of the next six months whether she can fulfill that destiny. Unlike some premature departures, her journey is nothing to feel sad about.

What now?

101817 J&BSixteen days remain until we turn in Beverly. I’ve been quailing for the past two weeks, ever since our vet declared that Beverly probably had a “silent heat” last spring and would almost certainly bleed normally when her next heat started — likely 9 to 10 months after the first one. I don’t remember exactly when it was that Beverly looked somewhat swollen to us. Was it January? February? Either way, it seems likely she should go into heat again very soon.

So what? people have asked me. Here’s the thing: whenever she does go into heat, we’re obligated to take her to the kennels up in Oceanside. With a normal cycle, that’s not the end of the world. Your girl spends three weeks in Girl Camp (aka Sex Jail), then you pick her up, and puppy-raising life goes on.

At this point in our time with Beverly, however, the start of a heat would mean something very different. If she were to start today, she would not be able to participate in the Turn-in activities. (Girls in season are too distracting to all the doggy participants.) Steve and I have never been big on ceremonies, but I’ve come to believe the ones associated with Turn-in play a helpful role. It’s painful to say goodbye to a puppy you’ve raised, and doing it in the company of others who have gone through the same experience helps to ease the pain. A bit.

You brace yourself for Turn-in, but if your girl suddenly goes into heat two weeks before it, you have to load her in the car, drive her up to CCI, hand over the leash… and never see her again (except maybe briefly at Graduation, if she makes it). The end comes before you (the puppy-raiser) are ready.

In our case, there’s an extra wrinkle. Steve and I and Beverly are scheduled to depart early tomorrow for our last big adventure together. We’re driving to Northern California so Steve can take part in a reunion of his high-school class. We expect to return Sunday.

We won’t cancel the trip just because Beverly could possibly go into heat in the next four days. That possibility has been hanging over our heads for months and months. At the moment, she doesn’t look particularly swollen to me.

We had one other CCI puppy go into heat when we were on the road with her. We were in Arizona at the time. We couldn’t just leave Steve’s business conference abruptly then, so we got our girl to the kennels a few days later. I guess if the same thing happens to Beverly, we’ll muddle through in similar fashion.

But we’re sure hoping it doesn’t come to that.