It’s hard to believe but last summer Dilly wasn’t alive yet. For half of it, he wasn’t even a twinkle in his mother’s uterus. He’s only been living with Steve and me for 8 months, but he’s such a big presence, it feels like he’s been with us for ages.
Had the coronavirus not followed him into the world, we would have missed several weeks of his puppyhood when we traveled to Europe in May. But like so many people’s plans, that trip was canceled. Instead we cobbled together a more pandemic-friendly adventure: a California road odyssey for which Dilly was our game fellow-traveler.
Packing our van with 3 weeks worth of dog provisions reminded us of when we took our oldest son on the road as a toddler. Instead of diapers and child seats and snacks and toddler toys, we had bags of dog food, Dilly’s bed, bowls and brushes and balls and more.
Along with all our gear, it barely fit.
We hit the road July 3. Over the next 21 days, Dilly got to hike in many awesome landscapes: in meadows and mountain trails at Mammoth and Lake Tahoe:
At the foot of volcanic Mt. Lassen.
He got to sniff the needles of the oldest trees on Earth…
… and some of the tallest…
He met exotic wildlife.
He discovered that the world can feel and smell very different from the way it does in San Diego.
Probably the funnest place was the enormous yard in back of the ranch house. Dilly got to run around in it, off-leash, at 90 miles an hour. He NEVER gets to do that at home.
Most of the time, he brought us daily pleasure. Countless folks admired him, and he reciprocated with love for one and all.
But he wasn’t wild about all the time on the road. For most of the more than 3000 miles we covered, he rode in his kennel, but he often didn’t sleep. We speculated that the twisty blue highways made him uncomfortable. Or maybe he was too warm back there.
For a while, he went out strike, refusing to jump up in his kennel as ordered. Then we had to muscle him in.
A few times I took pity on him and let him sleep at my feet up front.
He seemed to enjoy everything else about traveling, though. We sensed that what he loved most was getting to spend more time than usual being paid attention to by us.
Eight weeks have passed since the last time Dilly and Steve and I have been to a CCI puppy class. Where has the time gone? (Oh yeah. I remember. We’ve ALL been kenneled.)
Steve and I have been doing our best to continue training Dilly during this challenging interlude. We’ve been walking him more than we normally do, and Steve takes him out for a separate training session most afternoons. Still, we’ve keenly missed the human interaction with our fellow puppy-raisers (and instructor). Without the twice-monthly reminders of what we should be working on, I suspect we may have lost some of our training edge. So with some trepidation, I signed up for Dilly and me to participate in an online Basic class that we attended yesterday.
Organized by one of the local puppy-raisers, it cost $10 to take part in the session (unlike our normal classes, for which we never pay). It was taught by a contract trainer named Chelsea Calabria. A few minutes before 5:30, I logged in and joined a group that included Chelsea and six other puppy-raisers (plus me but not Steve; he was working on dinner).
Earlier Chelsea had sent out an agenda, and we followed it closely. We took turns with each puppy-raiser having her dog walk over an unfamiliar surface (that Chelsea had asked us in advance to have available.) For Dilly, I used a large piece of cardboard, and it surprised me to see him shy away from it at first. But after a try or two, he was padding over it competently and sitting on it to receive a treat.
Later, we each practiced having our dogs walk past kibble scattered on the floor to get to their beds, then we put in some time showing off (and getting tips for improving) our prowess with the Heel command. Chelsea finished off with some advice for us to practice using the Under command during some meals, just as we would if we could go out to a restaurant. Which of course no one can do at the moment.
For me, this was all nowhere near as much fun as a flesh-and-blood puppy class. There’s a bloodless (if virus-less) quality to doing these exercises in front of a computer screen, an inability to comment and get quick subtle feedback from several people at once. At the same time, going over the material did make me think about things I hadn’t considered in some time. So it certainly didn’t feel like a waste of time.
From Dilly’s perspective, I’m sure it was way more boring still. The images on my computer screen may have looked like dogs to me but not him. They certainly didn’t smell like dogs or offer what some folks think is the most valuable part of the real-life classes — practice at ignoring all the fascinating distractions.
Still he got to work on things he hasn’t done in a while. Not a bad use of a sleepy hour at the end of an all-too-quiet afternoon.
Memo to self: the next time one of our CCI puppies graduates, wear waterproof mascara.
I actually considered doing that yesterday morning, as I was putting on my make-up in preparation for the special day ahead of us. I don’t like the waterproof stuff; at the end of the day it’s so hard to remove. And I reflected, “I usually don’t cry that much,” thinking of all the days on which we’ve turned in puppies. “Usually only at the very end when we’re saying goodbye.” Foolishly, I applied regular mascara, that kind that runs and smears when tears fill your eyes.
I’d forgotten how different graduations are from turn-ins — not surprising, considering that the last time one of our dogs actually graduated was 8 and a half years ago (Brando in August of 2011). The whole structure of the day is different. Puppy-raisers turning in dogs don’t arrive until mid- to late morning, and the main event comes at noon, when the ceremony begins. Shortly after it starts, everyone watches the slide show of adorably cute photos of the puppies who are matriculating. Then all the puppy-raisers parade onstage with their charges to receive ceremonial rosettes and be applauded. It’s heartwarming, but it never makes me cry.
If you’ve raised a puppy that is graduating, in contrast, the day begins at 9 a.m., when you assemble in a big work room in which long tables have been set up. You get your first sight of your dog’s new family (see the framed photo, above.) The head of the training program gives a little prep talk (e.g. be positive when you reminisce about your experiences in raising the dog; don’t be too nosy about the recipient’s disability). Then shortly after 9:30, the recipients file in.
Steve and I greeted the family for whom Adagio will serve as a Skilled Companion, then we all sat down. Dina, the mom, blinked rapidly then apologized for feeling emotional. But I was blinking too, startled by the wave of strong feeling that swept over me. Suddenly I recalled that I had felt exactly the same way when Brando graduated. It takes so many steps, big and small, to bring you together with the family across the table. And here you are, sharing this canine that you love. Turning in your puppy to begin its Advanced Training is like sending your kid off to college, but to me graduation feels like going to his or her wedding.
In the hour and a quarter that followed, we learned much that made me feel good about Adagio’s destiny. He is the second CCI dog chosen to serve this family. (Amazingly, Dina and Tony participated in that training session 8 and a half years ago with Brando. They instantly remembered Aimee and Yuriy, the couple to whom Brando was awarded.) Their first dog, Emilio, is still alive and well, but aging enough that it seemed time for him to stop working (though he will live out his life with them).
They live in Orange County and seemed happy at the prospect of staying in touch with us in the coming months and years. Julianna, who’s now 14, is non-verbal and she’s inclined to rock a lot, often forcefully, but Dina reported that Adagio seemed undisturbed by her movements. In the training dorm, he fell asleep next to her and soon was snoring loudly, while Julianna seemed comforted by his presence.
After a while, one recipient after another stood and took a microphone to talk about what their dog was going to mean in their lives. Several were men in wheelchairs who’d lost their ability to walk. Three were able-bodied women who would be taking their dogs to work (one to comfort crime victims, for example; another to cheer psychiatric patients). The rest were families with children struggling with terrible challenges, like Julianna’s. Generically, their stories are familiar; they’re the folks to whom CCI has always given its dogs. But hearing the actual voices of real individuals, seeing their obvious fortitude and gratitude and optimism packs a emotional punch. The details make a difference, like Dina’s description of how the canine companion transforms her family’s routine outings to a mall. People stare at Julianna’s unusual appearance; her convulsive movements. But when a proud, handsome dog accompanies them, it deflects and transforms that cruel attention.
After the brunch, all the puppy raisers moved to another large room to reunite with the dogs we had raised. When the trainers let Adagio out of his kennel, I almost wondered if they’d made a mistake; directed us to the wrong animal. He looked so much bigger than I remembered. But his frantic tail-wagging made it clear that he at least recognized Steve and me.
We spent some sweet time petting him and taking photos…
Eventually we loaded him into the van to drive to the Vista complex where the ceremonies unfold. Several more things happened that startled me and touched my heart. The little box of beautiful cookies made by Janice Flynn (who with her husband Dan are the most epic dog folks I know, having raised more than 20 CCI puppies, most of whom have graduated.)
The beautiful engraved frame which we will fill with a photo of the handsome Mr. A — a completely unexpected gift from a whole crew of regular puppy raisers I have come to cherish.
Adagio got to sit with Steve and me throughout the program. A dark moment came well into the ceremonies, when I realized we were on the brink of handing over the leash to his new family, this time for good. I whispered for him to come to me, then I bent over and petted and petted him. He wagged his tail and looked into my eyes.
Then it seemed it was over in a flash. Except it’s not. This morning I received some photos from Dina. They all make me happy:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once through security, our group climbed the steps and found Gate 4, where we lined up just as if we were ready for boarding.
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.
We had our first doggy funeral last week. It was for Tucker, whom we ushered into the Great Beyond a few days before Christmas. We had him cremated then after being euthanized and for almost six weeks kept the cardboard box filled with his ashes on Steve’s work bench in the garage. Last week we buried it up in Julian.
This was a novel experience for us. Over the years, Steve and I have had five pet dogs (in addition to the seven puppies we’ve raised for CCI; Tucker was both, a trainee turned permanent member of the family). All our pet dogs were big animals: a golden retriever and four labradors (one with a dash of Dalmatian). Their bodies seemed too unwieldy for us to consider digging holes in our back yard that would contain them securely over the years. We had nightmare visions of some successor canine digging up one of his or her predecessors. Instead we had our vet dispose of each beloved pet in turn. This didn’t bother us. They were dogs.
I don’t know if we’re getting old and mushy-headed or if it was just that Julian seemed such a perfect final stop for this particular dog. Since 2003, we’ve gathered in Julian every year with a close group of friends at the home of one the couples, and for 13 of those occasions Tucker accompanied us. Each has been a joyful interlude both for us humans, and for Tucker, who adored the woodsy deer-drenched smells of the surrounding hillsides. One year he ran off in the middle of the night into the forest, wild and free, with our then-current CCI puppy in tow. Somehow they found their way back to us. Wes and Jenny said they would welcome him to their property, for his final resting place, when the time came. So when we gathered in Julian this time, Steve picked out a spot, and Wes dug the hole.Steve positioned the box, while Adagio looked on (apprehensively?)Near the surface, Steve placed the little heart-shaped packet of wild flowers provided by the cremation company… …and finally, a simple marker.We didn’t pray or sing or anything like that, just admired the way the grave blended into its surroundings.
It would be nice if the wildflowers would bloom. Even if they don’t, though, and even when the sign disappears, we’ll never walk those woods again without thinking of our old buddy.
Steve and I raised one puppy who was a glutton for affection from her earliest months. Darby loved being cuddled and petted as much as she loved chasing the ball and eating her kibble and swimming (she was our only CCI pup so far to be entranced by water). Far more commonly, however, our trainees have warmed to physical affection more gradually.
We’ve been seeing such a change in Adagio in recent months; he’s more apt to approach one of us when we’re seated on a chair or couch and seek out petting. And he’s enjoying such interactions with other humans in a more obvious way.
I saw more evidence of this on Wednesday, when Adagio and I volunteered at a CCI fundraising event inspired by Valentine’s Day. An employee at Intuit (the financial software giant with a big presence in San Diego) has organized a “Cupids and Canines” celebration for several years, but this was the first time a puppy and I participated. An area within the spiffy company cafeteria was cordoned off, and Adagio and I settled down within it with five other teams for three hours. Intuit employees who were willing to make a contribution to CCI could enter to receive some quality puppy-snuggling time.
It was a high-serotonin experience for both the dogs and the humans who got down with them. A few mosh-pits developed:
But more folks seemed to prefer one-on-one cuddles (often experienced in serial fashion with the dogs). Adagio reveled in it.
By the end of our stint, I was worried his tail might be exhausted, from wagging so much.
We heard that close to $4000 had been contributed during that day’s event, and another group would repeat the exercise on Valentine’s Day itself. It seemed like a particularly appropriate activity for the holiday of love.
A whole pack of puppies and their accompanying humans descended upon the Del Mar racetrack yesterday (the last day of racing for this summer’s season). Happily, Adagio, Steve, and I and our videographer friends, Alberto Lau and Bob Schneider, were able to join in. The afternoon proved to be a lot less boisterous than one might expect and not at all profitable (that was entirely predictable, given my incompetence at horse-wagering). Still, all the humans had fun.
I’m not so sure about Adagio. Compared to sleeping, which is how he spends most afternoons, there was certainly a lot more to smell and see. But because this was a semi-official CCI outing, all the pups had to be on their best behavior, sitting and walking on loose leashes and staying in Down positions, rather than romping and wrestling, as they would have all preferred. For the most part, their behavior was impeccable, and they got a lot of admiration from the racing fans. But from the doggy perspective, it wasn’t what you’d call fascinating.
His first sight of horses parading around the paddock area did appear to grab Adagio’s attention.
Later, the dogs had an opportunity for an even closer equine encounter. Because one of the veteran CCI puppy-raisers works at the track and arranged for the group experience, the second race saluted the CCI organization. We all got to line up in front of the grandstand and be photographed.
And the puppies were allowed to approach some of the track horses for a nose-to-nose encounter.
At only one moment did he do something unexpected. Shortly before the second race, he barked loudly — twice. I took it as a sign that my hunch about the #2 horse should be followed. Ignoring the 60-1 odds, I put $5 on Chocolate Goddess to win.
And now I have a tip for you: never take the advice of a dog when betting on the ponies.
Sometimes I don’t blog as often as I want because not much is happening. Adagio is growing and learning things, but the changes are barely noticeable. Sometimes, however, we hit a patch where too much is going on, and time for writing is scarce.
We’ve been in one of the latter patches for the past two weeks. First we were happy to welcome my nephew John from Chicago, who arrived for a four-day visit with his wife Lydia and their 15-month-old daughter, Emery. Emery has met several dogs in the course of her short life, but at first she seemed a bit intimidated by our two hulking canines. She’s a happy, determined little toddler, but the emphasis is on little — she’s less than 18 pounds. Together, Tuck and Adagio weigh more than 8 times as much.
They thought she was fascinating, and in their excitement sent her plopping down onto her diapered bottom a few times. But they never made her cry, and Adagio and Emery soon shifted into viewing each other with calm curiosity.
It was hard to tell for sure what either side was thinking……although Adagio clearly decided she smelled intriguing.
Tucker has long adored little kids, so although he’s more than 95 in dog years, he looked happy every minute he was in Emery’s presence……and she was soon responding with hugs.By the end of the four days, Adagio also seemed content to let Emery treat him like a king-sized stuffed animal.
Our entire pack was sad to see them go. But Steve and I had to scramble to ready the house for termite fumigation (a huge disruption that we had not undergone for 20+ years.) We timed the tenting with a trip to San Jose for a convention, to which we planned to drive. Tucker is too ancient to accompany us on such an adventure; he stayed with friends. But we wanted to road-test Adagio, who reached his 9-month birthday during Emery’s visit.
We planned to drive up the coast on Highway 1, something else we had not done for decades. Steve and I had tried to take that route last October, when we drove up to Steve’s high school reunion in the Bay Area. Beverly (Adagio’s half-sister, and our last CCI puppy) came along with us on that trip. But a huge landslide had closed Highway 1, forcing us to use another road.
The news that Highway 1 had at last reopened at the end of July delighted us. This time we traveled north on it. Steve and I loved both the drive and the convention, but Adagio clearly found it vastly inferior to hanging out with Emery. He experienced a few brief interludes of ecstasy, like the walk we took on the deserted beach in San Simeon. We slipped off his halter and let him briefly experience the beach, unfettered, for the first time in his life. It drove him wild with excitement and he zoomed around at top speed over the sand for about two minutes, then returned to us, docile and content.
He also got to walk along a foggy clifftop……and check out Nepenthe, a legendary Big Sur restaurant and bar that Steve had visited as a child.
At the convention, he mostly had to curl up and be quiet on the convention hall floor and in panel-discussion rooms and under restaurant tables, for hours on end.
He didn’t love that, but he did it remarkably well. We returned home feeling optimistic about his future. He returned home overjoyed to see his buddy Tucker again.