He’s gone

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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. IMG_5348.jpeg

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. DSC07574.jpeg

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.

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I can’t tell you he remembered her. But I can’t say he didn’t.

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.

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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.

 

The final stretch

IMG_4766I’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!

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Never does Adagio experience more joy than at times like this. 

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.

Bad news

IMG_4448I’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:

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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.

 

Stuffing it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into the red kennel

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This is how it started, a little over 16 months ago.

Once before, two puppies ago, we had a female go into heat right before she was scheduled to be turned in for Advanced Training. That was Dionne. The circumstances were a bit different from what we’ve experienced with Beverly. Dionne started bleeding almost three weeks before our scheduled separation, so we had some hope that her heat would end in time for us all to participate in the ceremonies. (It didn’t.) With Beverly just 10 days out from turning in, there was no such hope. Our goodbyes thus felt different.

After confirming Monday that Beverly was undeniably bleeding, I called CCI in the afternoon. Jules, the assistant puppy program director, sounded compassionate, but when I offered to keep Beverly at our home for a few extra days (since the campus is under construction and human/dog teams are already there, working together in preparation for the upcoming graduation), she gently pointed out that the rules are inflexible: all females in season must be in a kennel — either at CCI or some surrogate facility.

I acceded, promising that Steve and I would deliver Beverly at 11 the next morning (Tuesday). But then I was struck by fear: would she be all alone? (Normally no other dogs in heat are present in the kennels right before graduation, since CCI needs all the spaces for the dogs who will shortly be turned in.) The thought of Beverly in what would effectively be solitary confinement horrified me.

Jules said she would check. Less than two minutes later, the phone rang again. “There’s a delightful Golden here already who’s also in heat,” she announced. “She’ll have a great time!”

Feeling slightly better, Steve and I packed up Beverly, her cape, and a few other odds and ends and ushered her into the van for our last ride together. Normally she travels in the cloth kennel that we keep in the back of the vehicle, but this time I invited her to curl up next to me on the floor in front of the middle seat. She snuggled close, casting glances that almost looked concerned, as if she suspected something was going on. (Probably she was just startled by not being in her normal space.)

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Alberto, our documentarist friend who has filmed our puppy-raising activities for several years, accompanied us. Up at the Oceanside facility, Jules ushered us all into the interior lobby, where we chatted for several minutes. Again, Jules exuded empathy for the unwelcome early goodbyes. The puppy program director, Becky Hein, also joined us to express her condolences.

They both offered to dress Beverly up in a fancy “matriculation cape” so we could photograph her in the ceremonial garb, but somehow Steve and I felt too dispirited to mess with that. We did move outside for a photo in front of the facility’s sign.

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We returned inside, gave her final hugs, handed over the leash, and watched her exit toward the kennels, tail wagging vigorously. Like every other puppy we’ve ever returned to CCI, she did not once look back. (And we learned that yet another of her classmates, Helena, also went into heat at the last moment and might also be Beverly’s roommate.)

We drove home and began the disconcerting process of adjusting to life with one less dog. Our home dog, Tucker, will be 13 years old next month, and he sleeps so much it’s easy to forget his presence. As virtuous a puppy as Beverly was, Steve and I both developed an unconscious radar for tracking her presence; we do this automatically now, with all our CCI puppies. So it feels weird not to hear her following us through the house; not to see her curled up in the dog bed next to my desk.

Late yesterday afternoon, I got an email from Becky with some terrible news. Her message announced that Cath Phillips, the longtime North County CCI teacher and ultra-veteran puppy-raiser, has been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer. Apparently, she has very little time left. I don’t know Cath well, but I understand what a key role she has played in this community, and I was moved that earlier that morning Becky and Jules treated Steve and me with such compassionate attention while dealing with this very sad turn of events.

In contrast, Beverly is healthy and (I’m sure) happy. She was bred by CCI for a purpose: to   work at helping people. We’ll find out over the course of the next six months whether she can fulfill that destiny. Unlike some premature departures, her journey is nothing to feel sad about.

Bad news

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Steve and I woke up in a hotel in Menlo Park Sunday morning to a dreadful noise — the sound of someone licking something. Beverly has never much of a been a licker, but I immediately guessed the sound came from her, cleaning up the start of a discharge from her private parts. She’d looked a big swollen to me the day before, and when we turned on the lights and inspected her, the swelling was more pronounced. A quick swipe with a tissue detected a smear of pale pink. It was subtle but clear to us: her heat at long last had begun.

Even though we’d been braced for it, we reeled at the news. As I wrote about in my last post, she’d been due to begin Advanced Training on Friday, November 3. The start of her heat would force us to take her up to the kennels in Oceanside, which in turn would rob us of our final 10 days with her. Those days are special.

Glumly, we packed up for the long drive back to San Diego, reminding ourselves to be thankful the heat hadn’t started four days earlier. At least we’d been able to enjoy this last lovely road trip together.

The motivation for it was Steve’s reunion with his Bay Area high school class 50 years after their graduation. Thursday Steve, Beverly, and I had driven part of the way, to Paso Robles, where we toured an olive ranch…

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…tasted wine, visited friends, and spent the night. The next day we drove north through Carmel, where we kept Beverly on leash even though other dogs were romping free.

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She was ready to have sex on the beach. But that would not have been okay with us (or CCI).

At the reunion parties Friday and Saturday nights, Beverly won countless hearts and prompted all manner of folks to talk to Steve and me about their dogs. Beverly enjoyed the petting and was good about posing in photos.

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Steve and I also drove into San Francisco Saturday and walked with Beverly for an hour or two.

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She got to see cable cars…

 

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Chinese dragons…
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…and to savor countless intriguing smells.

We also learned together that San Francisco is a city of 1000 street grates. Street grates are one of the things that make Beverly nervous. So we seized upon the excellent training opportunity. Lured with many treats, Beverly notably improved.

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She still looked suspicious. But at least she was willing to walk on them. 

Throughout the trip, she was an ideal companion, never intruding, always relieving herself on command, never whining about the long hours in her kennel on the road.

She was joyful to be released from it at the end of the day on Sunday, rushing back into the place that she has come to know as home.

But it’s her home no more. I made the call to CCI Monday, and the rest of Beverly’s adventure with us played out the next day. I’ll briefly report on that tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What now?

101817 J&BSixteen days remain until we turn in Beverly. I’ve been quailing for the past two weeks, ever since our vet declared that Beverly probably had a “silent heat” last spring and would almost certainly bleed normally when her next heat started — likely 9 to 10 months after the first one. I don’t remember exactly when it was that Beverly looked somewhat swollen to us. Was it January? February? Either way, it seems likely she should go into heat again very soon.

So what? people have asked me. Here’s the thing: whenever she does go into heat, we’re obligated to take her to the kennels up in Oceanside. With a normal cycle, that’s not the end of the world. Your girl spends three weeks in Girl Camp (aka Sex Jail), then you pick her up, and puppy-raising life goes on.

At this point in our time with Beverly, however, the start of a heat would mean something very different. If she were to start today, she would not be able to participate in the Turn-in activities. (Girls in season are too distracting to all the doggy participants.) Steve and I have never been big on ceremonies, but I’ve come to believe the ones associated with Turn-in play a helpful role. It’s painful to say goodbye to a puppy you’ve raised, and doing it in the company of others who have gone through the same experience helps to ease the pain. A bit.

You brace yourself for Turn-in, but if your girl suddenly goes into heat two weeks before it, you have to load her in the car, drive her up to CCI, hand over the leash… and never see her again (except maybe briefly at Graduation, if she makes it). The end comes before you (the puppy-raiser) are ready.

In our case, there’s an extra wrinkle. Steve and I and Beverly are scheduled to depart early tomorrow for our last big adventure together. We’re driving to Northern California so Steve can take part in a reunion of his high-school class. We expect to return Sunday.

We won’t cancel the trip just because Beverly could possibly go into heat in the next four days. That possibility has been hanging over our heads for months and months. At the moment, she doesn’t look particularly swollen to me.

We had one other CCI puppy go into heat when we were on the road with her. We were in Arizona at the time. We couldn’t just leave Steve’s business conference abruptly then, so we got our girl to the kennels a few days later. I guess if the same thing happens to Beverly, we’ll muddle through in similar fashion.

But we’re sure hoping it doesn’t come to that.