“And that,” I said, “is why I don’t buy bagged romaine lettuce anymore.”
[hum of the tires on the highway]
“Holy cow,” I said. “I even bored myself with that one.”
That’s the trouble with long car trips, isn’t it? What does one talk about for two hours among her fellow captive audience. To keep the drama level to a manageable level, we avoid the usual apocalyptic inducing conversations, such as gender equality, the dismal state of today’s politics, who has the best God, and which brand of dog food is best to feed.
And absolutely we must, all of us, ignore the elephant in the Chrysler, so to speak. This was on the drive to Delaware, Ohio, to return Holly to Canine Companions for Independence’s regional center for her matriculation into professional training.
“How can you give them up?” is a question we puppy raisers are often asked. Well, we do it with a lot of pride, a box of tissues and, for some of us anyway, a big margarita afterwards. And we signed a contract, so there’s that too.
But still. We do it because, oddly enough, this is what we want to do. Every day of the past eighteen months was to prepare the puppy for this day. All the socialization and training was purpose driven. That adorable cotton ball with tiny piranha teeth we once cuddled has now grown into a well trained and mature dog ready for professional training as an assistance dog.
Our work is done. Well, almost. Just this last step to check off.
Yeah, only the toughest, most awful, heart rending thing to do. But did it, we did.
And so we all survived that November afternoon, emotionally and spiritually. It doesn’t get any easier, this turn-in business, seems like no matter how many times you experience it. But it was a done deal. Holly and her fellow Hero Litter mates were now in their respective training centers across the great US of A and totally ready to rock.
Oh, but not so fast there. Our Miss Holly has decided to go off script.
See, this is how it’s supposed to work. In this order, a puppy raiser drops off their charge at the regional training center. Once those four paws enter, they are no longer referred to as puppies. The matriculation process makes dogs out of them. So now, as each dog is making new friends and deciding who gets which bed in the dorm, protocol requires the humans to get their ugly cry accomplished on the drive back home, but done so covertly so to not cause unnecessary alarm to fellow drivers. Many of us are skilled at this by now.
Over the next few weeks, each dog receives a health check, hip and elbow testing, and an initial behavioral evaluation. The dogs are assigned to a professional trainer and the first of their college classes begin.
After six months of professional training (sometimes nine months), the dogs go through a two week team training class with their new handler and will graduate as either a Service Dog, Skilled Companion Dog, Facility Dog, or a Hearing Dog.
It is that glorious and wonderful day, people, that makes the ugly cry the haziest of memories. “Oh, did I take it so hard?” you say, laughing. “I really don’t remember.”
Right. Here’s the part where Holly stopped the graduation train and got off.
There’s something about seeing the 740 area code glowing on the smart phone that puts a puppy raiser into a cold sweat. “Crap,” we say. “Do I answer it or let it go to voice mail?” There are few reasons the CCI regional center would call you. And for those who have a dog in the professional training program, let’s get real here. There’s only one reason.
Your puppy, now a dog, that you worked so hard with and socialized with everyone from babes in arms to men with hats and beards and you finally got to stop twitching at shopping carts in the grocery and follows every single of the thirty commands you taught her and oh my gosh she’s so good with children it’s like she’s gifted and never once ok maybe just that one time toileted in public but that was really your fault for not paying attention and is otherwise the most perfect dog of all time … is being released from the program.
And so you release a silent scream that echoes Noooooo through your brain, yet maintain enough presence of mind to answer the phone like it’s any other day and your world isn’t going to change right after you swipe a finger across the android screen.
The CCI trainers are wonderful about it. They even apologize about the situation and want you to know it’s not anything you did or didn’t do. It’s the nature of the dog. While she is indeed an amazing creature, she is not made of the stuff of assistance dogs.
So after only a few weeks after we planted a good bye kiss on her wet nose, we said “Welcome back, our little Holly Berry. We still have your bed in the same place, because goodness knows, we didn’t have time to move it. Settle in, girlfriend. Make yourself at home.”
Because you are, you know. Home.