It took several weeks for us to stop finding tufts of Tucker’s white fur in odd places — under the sofa in my office, for example, or in the corner of a closet. Now, save for a single white strand here or there and the box of ashes out in the garage (awaiting interment in Julian early next month), the physical traces of Tucker’s presence have disappeared. The emotional reverberations too are fading. Now it really feels like Steve and I are living with only one dog.
Over the almost-45 years during which we’ve lived together, we’ve gone through a few spells without any dog. For less than half a dozen years, we had just one. Throughout most of the last 30 years, however, we’ve lived with two dogs, and occasionally more, when we hosted doggy houseguests. Each of the 8 CCI puppies we’ve raised has almost always roomed with some other canine.
So having Adagio as the only animal presence in our life feels novel. We’re eager to see how this will impact him. We’ve come to wonder over the years if more of our CCI pups would have graduated (only ONE out of Adagio’s seven predecessors) if each had been the only dog in our house. Every one we’ve raised has adored other dogs. (They all worshipped Tucker, and when we got him, Tuck was crazy about our existing black lab, Pearl.) It felt like Tucker’s very presence commanded each succeeding CCI pup’s highest level of interest. Would they have imprinted more on us if he hadn’t been there? Now that Adagio is an only dog, will he ultimately perform better?
As always, it’s impossible to know what Adagio made of Tucker’s sudden disappearance. In the first few days, we could see him scanning when he returned to the house after outings. Where was Tucker? He didn’t look sad; just…puzzled. He used to love snuggling up to Tucker for naps. At night now, confined to his kennel, we assume he probably misses the comforting smell of another dog, nearby. But now that a few weeks have gone by, does he even remember Tucker? We doubt it.
His absence is probably affecting Steve’s and my behavior more. We’re showering all our affection on just one dog, and we’re feeling filled with resolve to do a better job at readying him for advanced training. Taking stock of Adagio after our long absence in the fall, we’ve been impressed by what an excellent young fellow he is — so easy to live with, napping quietly near us throughout most of the day, never chewing up our stuff, not even digging or eating (much) garbage out in the yard. He learns quickly enough and wants to please us. He’s got a few bad habits (jumping on people when they come through the front door; losing his mind at the sight of other dogs; popping up when he’s supposed to be maintaining a Down Stay under the dining table). But Steve and I plan to work hard at changing these behaviors.
I’m sure November 1 will come all too soon. But for the moment, it feels like we have a lovely ocean of time to live with our only dog.
“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.
Our puppy may be afraid of his water bowl, but last Monday night Adagio was unfazed by more traditional scary stuff. We saw this on our outing with our puppy class instructor Kay Moore (who has a genius for coming up with alternatives to the traditional class meetings.) This time more than a dozen dogs and their handlers assembled at the Clairemont Square Shopping Center and followed Kay through venues such as Petco and Body Works that were filled with interesting smells. But our time in the Spirit Halloween store was the most diverting.
The store is full of lots of bizarre sights…
But the only fixture in the place that routinely made almost everyone (puppies and humans) jump was a seemingly ordinary doghouse. When you stepped on the mat in front of it, a demonic animatronic beast with glowing red eyes lunged out, snarling.
This surprised most of the pups, but to their credit, none of them barked or lunged. Most just stared, then strolled away.
The worst moment of the night for Adagio came when we were returning to our cars in the dark. I ordered him Up on a metal bench, and he got his paw caught in the grillwork. That made him scream, but it didn’t appear to do any physical damage.
We won’t see his reaction to his first real Halloween. Steve and I have just embarked on a huge travel adventure that will take us away for more than two months. I’ll be reporting on that in my travel blog, but Adagio will be having his own adventure. Several experienced puppsitters and raisers will be hosting him serially. He’ll have a much better time with them than he would with us in India and Sri Lanka.
(Although I wrote this post on my way to LAX last Wednesday, technical difficulties prevented me from posting it until just now.)
Fear periods are something we’ve heard about a lot throughout our years of raising puppies for CCI. According to my Puppy Raiser Manual, one such period occurs when pups are between 8 and 11 weeks old. Then a second kicks in between 6 to 14 months. “Corresponds with growth spurts,” my manual reads. “May be frightened of new things or even known things.” Aside from the fear of stairs with open treads — which have terrified several of our pups — no previous puppy of ours has suddenly become afraid of something. But once again, Adagio is breaking new ground. Two entities currently frighten him:
The Dog of Death. This one is somewhat understandable. At least we know its genesis. Our walk to the neighborhood coffeehouse often takes us past a house where, months ago, a dog would usually spring to its feet at our approach and bark ferociously at Adagio through the wooden fence. It made even Steve and me jump a couple of times. It startled Adagio, and he put his ears back, but we always quickly moved on past the house.
One day, the house seemed empty. The dog appeared to be gone. Yet at some point — weeks later — Adagio began acting afraid at our very approach to the house. He whimpered. We pointed out to him that this was silly. The scary dog was nowhere to be seen. But over time, Adagio’s reactions grew more and more extreme. He began to scream and yelp and cry as we approached the fence. Here’s a glimpse of what it looks like:
One day we realized there was indeed a dog in the yard, where new owners seemed to have moved in and begun a backyard renovation project. When we turned and walked up the alley that runs behind the house, we could even see this dog, a friendly soul who wagged its tail and never so much as emitted a snarl, let alone any menacing barks. One day, when Adagio was squealing in terror as we passed the house, we even met the dog’s owner, who told us its name is Rile. (I’m not sure that’s how it’s spelled.)
To this day, Adagio continues to make a spectacle of himself every time we walk anywhere near the house. Steve and I should probably just avoid it. My manual says, “Don’t force dogs into fearful situations. Ignore the scary thing so dog won’t be afraid. ” But it seems so ridiculous for him to be terrified of the Dog of Death, as we have come to think of poor Rile. We keep walking by ever so often to see if Adagio has finally come to his senses.
In the meantime, last week he began to act afraid of…
The Bowl of Terror. The bowl in question is his water bowl — i.e. the large metal bowl from which he and Tucker both have been drinking for all of Adagio’s life. We keep it on the patio and typically fill it with water a couple of times a day.
When walking back to the house from the lower yard (where we typically go for his toileting breaks), I realized one recent day that Adagio was veering over to the outdoor fireplace. It took me a while to realize he was doing that to avoid walking close to the water bowl. I could scarcely believe this. It’s such an innocuous fixture. It’s given him so much pleasure — quenching his thirst! — over the course of his short life. Moreover it’s his only source of water. He’s never been one to drink from toilet bowls or the pool.
But afraid he clearly is. Happily, we’ve observed that when he gets thirsty enough, he walks right up to it and drinks. Once sated, he bolts away.
What can I say? He’s a weirdophobe.
I also comfort myself with the thought that he completely got over the fear of open-tread stairs. Now he ambles up them without a second thought. We can hope he’ll also make his peace with both Rile and the Bowl of Terror.
We’re coming to the end of the season for our magnificent Mission fig tree. It was here when we moved in 41 years ago, and every year since, in the late summer and early fall, it has yielded hundreds of pounds of fruit. Crows feast on the bounty at the crown; Steve plucks figs from the middle and lower zones and eats them on his cereal. Some years I make jam, and we always give away as much as we can, but figs still fall off the tree and litter the ground around it. Tucker typically has gained at least 5 pounds every fig season, and every CCI puppy we’ve raised has discovered the deliciousness. Except Adagio.
It’s hard to say why he has resisted them. This year when the figs started to ripen, we took pains to limit his contact with the tree, taking him down to that part of the yard on a tight leash. But we’ve done that with all our CCI puppies. Allowing them free access to scavenging opportunities inevitably results in dietary disruption — not fun for them or us. Still, we inevitably let down our guard, and during those moments everyone except Adagio has quickly availed themselves of the morsels of pleasure.
Whenever we’ve seen Adagio approach one, we’ve sternly reprimanded him. So I wonder: is he more obedient than all the other dogs? Is his culinary palate less refined — or more? (Somehow that theory seems implausible.)
In recent weeks, it seems to me he’s been more eager to get near the tree and sniff around. A few times, we’ve seen him returning from its vicinity licking his chops. Still, we doubt he could have eaten more than a half-dozen pieces, if he got any.
Adagio is not scheduled to leave us and go on to his Advanced Training until November of 2019. If that doesn’t change, we’ll live with him through another season of the forbidden fruit. Somehow I’m guessing he’ll be less resistant to its charms the next time around.
The organization for which Steve and I raise puppies — Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) — takes pride in the fact it was the first to train dogs to assist folks with physical disabilities. CCI started in 1975. But Guide Dogs for the Blind began decades before then, in 1942. We’ve known CCI puppy-raisers who previously raised “seeing-eye” dogs. Steve and I have always heard that training is even more demanding than what CCI dogs undergo. The dogs must learn not only to obey complex commands but also when to disobey an order to protect their human (for example, refusing to walk them into the path of an oncoming bus). Steve and I haven’t known much more than that about what’s involved in the training. However this week we learned a lot.
A new documentary film, Pick of the Litter, takes a close but wide-ranging look at the process. Tuesday afternoon Steve and I and Adagio saw the movie, along with several friends and other puppy-sitters and raisers. Adagio didn’t seem at all interested, even when the big screen was filled with squealing, yipping youngsters. But the rest of us were riveted.
The film opens with the whelping of a litter, then follows the progress of its three male and two female members. It’s suspenseful (some of the gang graduate as guides, but some don’t make the cut), and we were surprised by how familiar many aspects of the experience felt. Some commands are identical — “let’s go!” for one example. Another: the Guide Dogs for the Blind puppies wear halters just like CCI requires.
Other parts — like traffic training — are very different. What shocked me most was that the GDB puppy-raisers apparently can flunk out along the way. They don’t appear to take their pups to twice-monthly classes (as we do), and we saw no signs of the vibrant puppy-raising community CCI seems to foster. Instead, they’re observed by a professional every three months, and the organization can (and does) summarily take puppies back. It made me much less interested in ever raising a seeing-eye dog, as enthralling as their work is.
Before seeing Pick of the Litter, I was a bit worried that our documentarian friends Alberto Lau and Bob Schneider might be discouraged from continuing with their project. For years, they’ve been filming Steve and me raising successive puppies, with the plan of creating a film about the puppy-raising experience. They attended this new film with us and didn’t seem bothered by its coming out first. Although they have shot countless hours of footage, they haven’t yet wrapped up their work because they’ve been waiting for ONE of our trainees to graduate (something that hasn’t happened for eight years.) Adagio may not have been enthralled by Pick of the Litter. But Steve and I are still hoping he’ll be the next star.
Tucker, who was our first CCI puppy and whom we adopted 11 years ago when he was released for excess energy and distractibility, never was much of a ball-player. In his youth, he would chase a thrown ball a few times. But he invariably got bored and would wander off to do something else.
One thing he did was to invent a variation of ball-playing that we came to refer to as The Pool Game. Tucker never cared much for swimming either. But during swimming season, The Pool Game gave him a novel way to engage with the water. When one or more of us were in the pool, he would find a ball, bring it to the edge, and bark insistently, demanding that the human in the pool pick up the ball and throw it. If we ignored him, he would often drop the ball into the water and bark louder. For some reason, this activity entranced him; the older the got, the more he seemed to like it. In recent years, the mere sight of one of us in swimwear and with a towel sent him into a state of quivering, barking excitement.
This summer, the heat drove Steve and me into the pool more than normal. Tucker will be 14 at the end of November (98 in dog years), and he spends most of his time sleeping. His back hips are failing, and most of the time, when he walks at all, his pace ranges from slow to glacial. So the first time we got into the pool, in June, we were mildly astonished to see him as eager as ever to play The Pool Game. Our routine went like this:
One houseguest exclaimed, “I didn’t think he could move like that!” Sometimes he seemed sore after the fun was over. But it didn’t deter him.
It’s been sweet. But now the hot spell has ended; night seems to come earlier with each passing day, and in response to these changes, our solar-heated pool’s temperature has been dropping. Steve swam Wednesday, but we suspect neither of us will do that again this season.
Tucker may survive to next summer. We hope he does, but I can’t imagine how he could play any games by that point. Unless it’s in his dreams. The other day, I glimpsed how dreaming transports him to better days. He was on his bed, but running at full tilt. I imagined he was galloping through the woods, strong and joyful. Maybe next summer he’ll play that way.