RIP Tucker

113017 bed today“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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 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.Tucker's new bed 3505.jpgBoth 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. _mg_0055z tucker2, jeanette dewyze & l.stephen wolfe 1600xAt 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.

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Young or old, he loved everyone.

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.)IMG_3006

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.

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One of his favorite places to snooze, in his younger days.

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.

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The “bio-urn” that we will bury next month

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Castration is no fun at all

Adagio looks like a black Labrador Retriever, but he’s actually one-sixteenth Golden Retriever. Because he is not a purebred, he had to have his testicles removed today.

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That seems unfair, doesn’t it? Not to mention smacking of eugenics (except that so-called “science” was designed to improve humans, not dogs.) Females chosen for CCI’s breeding program can be a mix, so the girls are almost never spayed before they go in for their Advance Training (in the course of which, the decisions are made about who will be chosen to be a breeder). The situation is different for the males. I’m not sure why, but CCI has developed a policy dictating that only purebred labs or Goldens can sire CCI puppies. Next week Steve and I plan to attend a lecture about the breeding program, so maybe we’ll understand it all better after that.

What we have understood for months, however, is that we would have to get Adagio neutered when he reached his 8-month birthday. That milestone came last Thursday. We had called his vet the week before and were told the doctor didn’t recommend castration until dogs reach their one-year birthdays. So we called CCI to ask more directly about this timing. The puppy program assistant manager told us yes; the organization has come to believe the males’ personalities develop best if the boys lose their little reproductive organs at eight months, rather than later.

So it was that this morning at 7:30, Steve took Adagio in. Our pup walked into the office perky, wagging his tail. Steve retrieved him around 5 pm, and the sight of him as he stumbled across the patio upon their return broke my heart. His eyes were bloodshot and drooping. He was moving slowly, looking dazed. Worst of all, for a week or so, he will have to wear the dreaded cone to prevent him from licking the surgical site and pulling out his sutures.

We are hoping he will perk up tomorrow. He should be able to begin eating normally then. I will be very happy to have this behind us.

Before:IMG_3073.jpgAnd after…IMG_3075.jpg

 

The 4-month milestone

Puppy-raising involves many milestones, but few surpass the four-month mark. Adagio reached it yesterday, and today he got his final puppy shots. He should henceforth be protected against rabies, parvo, and other ills that can take down dogs. He can begin venturing into stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places where merely ordinary dogs cannot venture.

His weight at the vets was just over 30 pounds, which means he’s almost 200% larger than he was when we got him two months ago.

Even more remarkable than his size is the change in his behavior. Our first few puppy classes were a nightmare of barking, whining, squirming, and general chaos. But in class last night, he made me proud. He trotted along nicely for our exercises outdoors on the leash. He waited at doorways. He came when, seated in a chair across the room, I called him.

He’s still not perfect; he still occasionally pees on the floor indoors and still is overly entranced by the taste of twigs and stones.

But he’s only four months old.

 

Adagio joins our pack

011018 Adagio and his littermates

The breeder-caretaker of our newest (8th!) CCI puppy, Adagio, took this wonderful photo of him and his littermates, I assume shortly before delivering the gang to Santa Rosa for the final steps before their dispersal. It makes me feel even more compassion for the pups, as each of them heads out on the road to a life of service. No matter how well their adventures turn out (and Steve and I are starting, as usual, with the highest hopes), it still seems sad to split up such concentrated cuteness.

But disperse they must. At 5 am this morning, Adagio and his sister Apple (4th from left above) were fed their breakfast and ushered into the little kennel in which they would fly south. In the past, most of Steve’s and my new pups have been picked up at the San Diego airport by a volunteer, driven to the Southwest Regional headquarters in Oceanside, bathed, and cuddled until we arrived to collect them. This time, however, we followed the lead of Cyndy Carlton, who’ll be raising Apple (her dozenth CCI pup, and the granddaughter of Emerald, whom Cyndy also raised).011018 UAL cargo terminal Many times Cyndy had collected her puppy directly from the airport. So a little after 10:30, Steve and I met her at the air freight center just south of Lindbergh’s Terminal 1. Also joining us were our videographer friends, Bob and Alberto. (They hope one day to make a documentary about puppy-raising.)

As we waited, we chatted about how many CCI puppies are flown from northern California to cities all over the country — somewhere between 700 and 1000, we guessed. It made me feel a little nervous to imagine something going awry — having Apple and Adagio wind up in Minnesota, say, as a result of some ghastly mix-up. Happily, their kennel was unloaded from a transport van shortly after 11. I could just make out little black tails in it, wagging.

Cyndy signed the paperwork, and we transferred the kennel outside, opened the door, and peeked inside with bated breath.

011018 first view

One of the little ones popped up and stepped right over the threshold. A quick check of the undercarriage revealed this to be — Adagio! Apple was trembling, but she seemed to settle down, once she was in Cyndy’s arms.

I think meeting a new puppy is a wonderful thing.

011018 JDW and Adagio
It feels like love at first sight…
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…complete with delicious first kisses.

After giving the little ones a chance to relieve themselves, we drove to the home of another super-experienced puppy-raiser, Jan Ford. She runs a home daycare center, and her human youngsters were thrilled to meet the new babies.

011018 at Jans

We had planned to bathe Adagio and Apple, but they seemed pretty clean, and the day was chilly. Instead we let them race around, playing with the children and tussling with each other. In almost every picture I’d seen of Adagio up with his litter, he was flaked out, looking comatose. But this brief session erased any fears I’d had that his sleepiness was permanent.

After a while, we drove him home, eager to see how 13-year-old Tucker would react to yet another youngster intruding on his dotage. It went as I expected. Tuck’s tail beat fast, expressing hospitality, if mixed with just a hint of nervousness. (“Will this twerp try to nurse from me?”) It’s way to early to know if they’ll turn out to be bros. But Adagio’s behavior was impeccable.

He gobbled down his lunch, did a little bit of exploring the back yard (on a leash, under our close scrutiny), then settled down for a long nap. The evening is just beginning. The first one with a new puppy is often a rough one. For us too, the adventure begins again.

011018 Adagio sleeping

He’s getting closer

121517 preAdagioWe may not have our new puppy yet, but it sure feels like he’s on his way. And we now know his name and color: Adagio and black! Steve and I have raised every other gender/color combo for CCI — yellow girls and boys and black females, but this will be our first black male. I’m sure we’ll love him (though Steve predicts that Mr. Tucker will be less than overjoyed by the advent of a little boy dog.)

We’ve received and have signed the contract with CCI (in which we promise we will not only raise Adagio until November 1, 2019 — but will give him back then). Yesterday a package full of goodies arrived — halters and two sizes of capes, flea and worming medicine, a pristine new Kong and tug-of-war toy, and more.

Normally, we would fill out the forms and get the goodies when we picked up the puppy. But on January 10, we will instead go directly to the airport to collect him there. That should be interesting!

In the meantime, our fellow puppy-raiser Cyndy Carlton, who will be raising Adagio’s sister, Apple, has told us she plans to journey up to central California to visit the breeder-caretaker next week. She’s promised to bring back photos, which I look forward to sharing.

Stuffing it

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Early in our CCI puppy-raising career, Steve and I learned about the curious custom sometimes practiced when a female dog goes into heat right before her turn-in and thus cannot participate in the matriculation ceremonies. When all the other 40 or 50 puppy raising teams line up and walk their trainee to the front of the auditorium, to be recognized by the assembly, those who don’t have a dog because their girl has been banished to Sex Jail often will join in the procession carrying a stuffed animal.

We thought that was pretty silly. When Dionne went into heat right before her turn-in in May of 2014, we just skipped all the festivities and felt sad. When Beverly went into heat two weeks ago, we felt awful. One silver lining was that we thought it would free us to go see a close friend from the East Coast who was planning to be in LA that day.

Then our friend learned she wouldn’t be free. With nothing keeping me from attending the ceremonies, I realized I wanted to go, to salute and support our cohort of puppy-raisers who’ve been on the same journey over the past year and a half. Attending classes with them, parading and venturing out on field trips, sharing puppy socials, trading problems and funny stories all creates a bond. In several cases that association extends back through multiple dogs over now a dozen years.

Steve agreed to join me, and it struck me: if we were going, we might as well go all the way. I informed Becky Hein, the puppy program director, that we would like to join in the procession with a stuffed dog.

Yesterday we hit bad traffic driving to Oceanside and arrived at the QLN Conference Center only minutes before noon, when the program was scheduled to start. Still, Becky spotted me and gave me the minor paperwork I needed. She also led me to a box containing several plush animals.

I chose one almost as big as a real retriever puppy. Early in the program, Steve flipped it over into the cradling position. He pretended to brush its teeth, file its toenails, and clean its ears, as he has done for real with so many of our puppies. (He shoulders virtually all the grooming chores.) It made me giggle. This was helpful. It’s all too easy to cry from the emotion that drenches these convocations.

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After a while we joined the line-up, hugging our friends and whispering as we inched up to the stage. A couple of folks commented on our puppy’s perfect behavior. When we finally made it to the front, I heard scattered laughs in the audience; Becky explained that the real Beverly was already in the kennels.

Attending the CCI Graduation events takes a big bite out of a day. Driving up and back and finding a parking place takes almost two hours, and the program lasts for close to 90 minutes. We could have built in more time for socializing. But I was glad we spent the time we did. We didn’t foresee it when we first got involved with CCI, but not just the dogs but also their human caretakers have become an important source of happiness in our life.

When we got home I found an email from the assistant puppy program manager with good news: we’ll get our first report on how Beverly is doing in the professional training program on November 29. When that arrives, I’ll share it in another blog post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.)

102517 Beverly goodbye

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.

102517 outside

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.