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.
“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.
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.
Steve and I have mixed feelings about dog beds. For old Tucker, whose joints clearly ache, we agree they are essential. Tucker has beds spread all over the house, and usually he prefers to be sprawled out on one of them.
Dog beds for puppies are another matter. Every time we’ve gotten one for any of our charges, they sooner or later wind up ripping it apart. This leads Steve to declare that no more puppies should have beds. But I think that’s unfair. My philosophy is that each dog should have a chance to prove he or she is better. More sensible.
So it was that I bought the bed below for Adagio at Target.
He adores it; spends more time than any previous puppy curled up in it, snoozing. Sometimes he drags it around and wrestles with it, but so far he has resisted harming it.
We’ve wondered how long he will continue to fit, but now we have our answer: maybe forever. We burst out laughing the other day when we walked into the sitting area and found this:
Tucker weighs almost 90 pounds. He couldn’t squeeze in his whole rear end, but he appeared to be trying. Rather than looking sheepish, he mulishly refused to move. We found him occupying it again yesterday, and I had to haul him off it.
Steve’s theory is that this is Tucker’s way of retaliating against Adagio for shamelessly moving into (and often taking over) Tucker’s beds. He thinks Tucker resents Adagio getting his smell all over Tucker’s space, and this is Tucker’s revenge.
I wonder if, instead, the takeover doesn’t express a Tuckerian desire to return to the womb… or at least return to the pampering we give to the puppies. Or does he just think it’s funny? (We do.)
People often ask me how Tucker is tolerating Adagio. I am pleased to report that yet again, even as a nonagenarian, Tucker seems not just resigned to the little guy but almost fond of him. He wags his tail when Adagio returns from some outing. He allows Adagio to snuggle up and nap next to him on his dog bed. To our astonishment, Tucker even initiates play from time to time.
Adagio, for his part, seems sensitive to Tucker’s rules. After being reprimanded harshly (by Tucker) once or twice, he has learned NEVER to try and horn in on any dish Tucker is eating from. He even waits, politely, while Tucker drinks from their water bowl (although I’m all but certain Tuck would willingly share consumption from it).
As far as Steve and I are concerned, the grossest thing about life with Tucker is the way he drools. He has long been prone to this, but it has become markedly worse as he’s moved into his dotage. It’s not uncommon for twin fangs of saliva to swing from his jowls. Don’t ask me why. It doesn’t have to be mealtime. Whenever we see it, we invariably grab a paper towel and clean him up, lest one of the slimy ribbons wind up on one of us. It’s disgusting.
Also disgusting was the habit that Beverly developed for cleaning Tucker up. For reasons that defy comprehension, she came to routinely lick up the drool, whenever she noticed that it needed attending. This grossed us out but, perversely, served our interest (by sparing us the clean-up chores.)
And now Adagio is following in her footsteps!
Does the Tucker drool taste good to puppies? Is it thirst-quenching? Surely that’s unimaginable. My best guess is that it’s some twisted doggy sign of subservience and fealty. “Allow me to tidy you up, master.” Tucker permits such ministrations with the equanimity of a lord being attended by his manservant.
Meanwhile, in the two-steps-back-for-every-one-step-forward department,
— We have stowed away the exercise pen that we used at first to confine Adagio in my office. It now feels unnecessary.
— We have put the puppy carriage back into storage in our garage. Although Adagio rode in it for a few minutes yesterday, he walked beautifully for most of our three-plus-mile long Sunday walk. We’re confident he will be able to make it completely on his own by next week.
— The backward step relates to my sheet labeled “Toileting Errors” on the refrigerator. It was empty all week long, but now it has two entries, added yesterday afternoon. Steve and I consider both to be instances of operator error; in each case, we forgot to take Adagio out to pee (and he failed to make his need known.) If only Tucker could read his mind for us.
I struggle to pick the best phrase for that oh-so-important task of all new puppy-raisers. In my youth, we called it “house-breaking,” but that sounds retro, if not downright violent. “Potty-training” seems coy; “toileting instruction” too stuffy. Whatever you call it, we’re making progress at it with Adagio.
I think he pooped indoors maybe twice in his first days with us. (He arrived four weeks ago this coming Wednesday). But he never does now, and yesterday, for the very first time, neither one of us found any puddles in the house. That’s not to say we won’t see any more ever. We only have to let down our guard and fail to take him out immediately after he wakes up. Or too long since the last outing. He still doesn’t know how to alert us of a sudden urgent need to relieve himself. But we can all but see his little mind working; he’s beginning to understand that there are rules.
We felt particularly exultant this past weekend when we drove to Julian (in the local mountains) for an annual gathering in a cabin owned by some friends. They are generous about inviting our CCI trainees. Tucker came when he was less than one year old, and he has come every year since for the past dozen years. (He gave us our worst experience ever as puppy-raisers there in 2012). Julian is one of Tucker’s favorite places on the planet.
Our friends’ house is beautiful, but frighteningly, off-white carpet covers the floor of the main room where we congregate. To forestall it being sullied by Adagio, Steve and I brought a big blue tarp with us, along with a portable pen in which we confined him. We also took him outside frequently for toileting breaks.
It worked. He never even had any accidents on the tarp.
As another tactic, I bought him a new puppy bed. Every time we’ve had one of these before, our pups have ended up shredding them. But I have argued that everyone deserves a fresh chance; we shouldn’t assume that the sins of puppy predecessors will be repeated every single time.
Adagio certainly seems to like the bed. But mostly, he has enjoyed wrestling with it and dragging it around, like this:
Day 11 of Life with Adagio. Things are going well. He’s a champion sleeper, which means we’re not chronically exhausted. We also appreciate his appetite for long daytime naps. Mistakes are still being made in the toileting department, but mostly Steve and I are the ones making them (forgetting how often we need to take the puppy out to relieve himself.)
I’m also fascinated by the way our canine housemates are training each other. Although Tucker initially greeted Adagio with a smile and a wagging tail, we think he’s begun to think of the little one as a houseguest who has overstayed his welcome. (“Um, isn’t it time for him to leave now?”) In the first day or two, Adagio tried pestering Tucker to play by barking at him loudly. That didn’t go over well. Here’s one example of how it played out:
Note that Tuck never laid a tooth on Adagio. He just scared him off.
The interaction between Adagio and 7-year-old Darby (whom we raised years ago and are hosting for a week) has been a quite different. Within a day of her arrival, I watched Darby and Adagio having a great time together in my office, despite the difference in their sizes:
They’ve continued to play, and I’ve noted that Tucker has begun standing nearby. Occasionally he emits a geezerly “WOOF!” Adagio seems to be catching on that this is the old guy’s idea of fun. Adagio responds by flinging himself down, belly exposed, the very portrait of submission. Then he bounces up. Tucker does it again, and Adagio follows suit.
Even sweeter was what I witnessed the other night. Tucker had curled up on his dog bed in our bedroom, and Steve brought up the puppy. But at first we didn’t kennel him. Ever so cautiously, he crept onto the bed and inched close. Fractionally.
Tucker is now so old that when he falls asleep at night, he’s in a state of consciousness approaching comatose. So I think he was unaware of Adagio’s presence. We didn’t push it, but after a minute we locked Adagio in his kennel. But I’m confident that soon the very old and the very young dog will teach each other that it’s safe to snuggle.
Almost 13 years ago, we received our first CCI puppy, a shambling little guy whose goofy good nature was evident from the instant I first met him. Steve and I had made the decision to raise a CCI puppy for several reasons. The most potent was that I was sick of seeing our beloved pet dogs grow old and get so feeble we felt compelled to euthanize them. I knew it would be hard to give away a dog we’d raised for a life of service, but it seemed better than the alternative.
What I never expected is that Tucker would flunk out. Throughout his time with us, he seemed a wonder — far more attentive and well behaved than any other dog we’d ever had. Maybe 6 weeks after he’d gone to Advanced Training, when the puppy program director called to inform me Tuck was being “released,” I felt the blood drain from my face. It was like hearing that one of my children was being expelled from college. We knew that if a CCI puppy fails to graduate, the folks who raised it can adopt it at no charge, but we never expected to face that choice. Still, we didn’t hesitate to welcome Tucker back as a permanent member of our household.
Today is his 13th birthday, and it’s hard not to feel a little irony in our current life together. In the 18 months since he had a cancerous tumor removed from his side, he’s done well. But he’s also aged so much. He’s deaf now, and he sleeps so deeply it’s often hard to tell if he’s still breathing. Once again we’re living with a very elderly animal (“91 in people years!” Steve often reminds me), and wondering if we’ll have to make the dreaded call to the vet about him.
We’re not there yet. Yesterday Steve and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Riverside County tree farm for a fresh-cut Christmas tree, and Tucker pushed his way into the garage, determined to accompany us on our outing. (He didn’t know the destination; he didn’t care.) He shared the car kennel with Ressa (the little seven-month-old CCI pup whom we’ve been sitting), and at the farm, he tried to smell everything.
He still wags his tail at every puppy we welcome into the house, and he plays his silly game with them, emitting gruff, old-man “WOOFs!” that make them race around as if they’re scared of him. And he still loves to eat. This morning, in honor of the day, we served him turkey and other scraps from my post-Thanksgiving stock, mixed with a little leftover fettuccine. Tuck looked a bit startled by this change from Eukanuba (even after Steve removed the candle), but he gobbled it down.
We figure he could slip away in his sleep two days from now. Or he could live another two years (any more than that is pretty inconceivable). Whenever he does go, we’ll miss him terribly. Maybe we’ll vow to never again have another pet dog. Maybe we’ll even mean it this time.
In two and a half months, Tucker will turn 13. That’s geriatric for a Labrador retriever. Our encyclopedia of dogs says the average lifespan of the breed is only 12 to 14 years. Tuck’s not dead yet, but we worry about his often-labored breathing, his failing hips, the depths of his slumber. One thing that makes me happy, though, is his still-evident affection for the puppies with whom he so often shares our house.
Beverly, is a particularly easy girl to live with; she never jumps or chews on him the way some of her predecessors have. I’ve seen Tucker use her as a pillow…
…and sometimes they serve as each other’s back rests…
At night, she loves to climb into his bed and curl up with him. Before turning out the lights, we make her go to her own bed because we think Tucker prefers sleeping alone, but he never growls or snarls at her incursions.
They even play together for brief interludes (though this activity mostly consists of him woofing at her to make her run away, in mock fear.
When he stops doing that is when we’ll really start worrying about him.
Tucker tolerates all our CCI puppies. Many times he actively appears to like them — wagging his tail when they return from being out, for example. He only growls at those who try to take food away from him.
But we think he seems particularly fond of Beverly. In the last week or so, he has even been playing with her daily, something he’s almost never done with the others. The game goes like this: he stands and emits woofs that make him sound like a grumpy old codger. She acts like this is terrifying. He does it again. She reacts by running away, as if crazed with fear. He woofs again. Occasionally she jumps on him or (rarely) barks back. This interplay goes on and on, for 15 or 20 minutes. I captured a bit on my phone this morning.
We speculate that for him it’s a little like working a remote-control toy — you push a button and the toy moves. It may wreak havoc with our wood floors and area rugs. But it’s soooooo much fun, they say.