The high point of cuteness of my week came Tuesday morning, when Adagio and I participated in a fundraiser for Canine Companions for Independence (the organization that owns him). This event, a fun run, was organized by La Petite École, a French-language immersion school located off Aero Drive that adopts a different local beneficiary for its community philanthropy each year. Adagio and I were among the seven puppy-raisers and their charges who showed up to cheer on the kids. The Moment of Maximum Cuteness came when we mingled with the preschoolers. They gently patted the dogs, who seemed barely shorter than them, marveling at the softness of their ears and fur. Adagio seemed to enjoy this attention greatly.
Then we moved to a large field, where the older kids did laps and took breaks in which they delighted in our dogs’ ability to Speak and Shake and do other “tricks” (their terminology.) We learned that close to $6,000 had been raised, with some hope that a bit more money might trickle in over the next few days.
Going to such events, when possible, isn’t mandatory, but it can be fun. And it’s a pretty good training experience. After a few hours, when we gathered for a group photo, neither the other dogs nor the kids were distracting Adagio. He was quite content to flop down in the sun and rest.
I’ve gone so long without blogging about Adagio that a friend asked me the other day if he’s okay. He’s fine! I’m the one who’s remiss. After writing about Steve’s and my adventures in puppy-raising for almost 10 years, I may be running out of steam. Or maybe I’m just in the doldrums of our final few months with Adagio. Unlike when we’re struggling to civilize a baby dog, learning something new about his or her personality every day, life with a fellow like Adagio (now 18 months old) is calm. Not much news develops. But I don’t want to drop altogether the narrative thread of Adagio’s journey, so here’s a brief update.
We will turn him in to the staff at CCI to begin his advanced training on August 9, exactly 11 weeks from yesterday. What makes me quail even more is that we will only live with him for 7 more weeks! Next month Steve and I depart on a four-week trip to South America, and once again Adagio will go to trusted puppy-sitters while we’re on the road.
The prospect of saying goodbye to him already feels heartbreaking. Both of us think he’s the easiest CCI puppy we’ve ever lived with. His half-sister Beverly (our last dog before him) came close, but she was more vulnerable to digestive disruption (and ultimately we got the terrible news about her malfunctioning kidneys).
Adagio always seems content to curl up and sleep whenever we haven’t suited him up for some activity. He has almost no bad habits; never digs or hurts our plants or tries to steal food or sniffs out other mischief. He learns quickly and wants to please.
As far as we can see, he has one bad quality, and we’re worried it may torpedo his chances to graduate. Although birds, cats, even the rare squirrels don’t much interest him, the sight of other dogs invariably redirects all his brain cells. If he thinks he might get to play with one, he literally moans with pleasure and excitement. Sometimes he yips or emits a happy woof!
This may be cute in a pet, but a service dog must concentrate on his human. Steve and I have been so concerned about this failing we even arranged for a counseling session last week with Becky Hein, head of the local puppy program. Over Skype, we described to her how easily Adagio appears to lose his mind when he spots a potential playmate (namely any other dog) while out for a walk. She offered a number of suggestions (put more distance between him and them; give him sharper corrections), and we’re doing our best to work on them.
We’re already thinking about what we will do with him if he fails to graduate. But that’s a complex decision, and we hope that gloomy call doesn’t come. Better to focus on enjoying the dwindling days we have left together.
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.
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.
I’ve enjoyed Adagio ever since we got him (a little over a year ago), but in recent weeks my affection for him has been building. Maybe part of it is losing Tucker. But Adagio also has reached a stage where he’s almost pure pleasure to live with. He wakes up in the morning bursting with happiness; happy to go for a walk or (if he’s very lucky) run around the nearby field for a short spell. Then he settles down, mostly snoozing throughout the day but ready to venture out if an opportunity arises. He does almost nothing wrong. We have a few things to work on to prepare him for a life of service — getting him to better ignore other dogs on the street; extending the time when he reliably stays down on command. But we’ve been relishing the thought of having until November 1 to work on these things.
That’s the date we were told he would have to be turned in for advanced training. (CCI includes this information in the paperwork, when they deliver each baby dog to its puppy-raiser.) By November 1, Adagio will be less than two weeks from his second birthday — a little older than most of the other CCI pups we’ve raised. I was aware that sometimes this “turn-in” date gets pushed forward, but I shoved that possibility from my mind. Then last week I received an email from the puppy program administrators at our local CCI training center. Adagio’s new turn-in date would be August 9, it announced. “Thank you so much for your flexibility! Rest assured that in the past dogs have turned in at a younger age. If your turn in was moved sooner, this change of a few months is not significant in relation to their potential success!”
At a couple of gatherings with other puppy-raisers, I soon learned that Adagio was not the only puppy who’s been moved up. His sister, Apple, has too, along with two other dogs close to Adagio’s age. Most of their puppy-raisers seemed more blasé about the news than us; they’d been half-expecting it. But Steve and I felt crushed to have three months less of life with Adagio. We love him!
As if to remind me that he hasn’t yet reached absolute perfection, Steve found this on Adagio’s bed yesterday afternoon:
Those are the mangled fragments of a set of earphones. Happily, Adagio found them in Steve’s garbage can. They’d stopped working, and Steve had discarded them. So no real harm was done. Still, the difference between stealing earphones from the trash or stealing something like that from a desk is close enough to remind us we’re not done with the task of civilizing him. We just have three months less to do it.
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.