August 14, 2015

A Taste of What it Takes

During the final week of school as summer was nearly knocking at the door, I had the opportunity to do something really exciting -- an opportunity to puppy sit a service dog in training for a Puppy Raiser with Canine Companions for Independence for several days.  I thought it would be a great chance for my children to love all over an adorable puppy to their heart's content to make up for not being able to touch Bridger's service dog, Ty, as much as they would like.  

A fluffy yellow lab named Watson came to our home, complete with his yellow "Service Dog in Training" super cape.

We were spoiled having Ty come to us fully trained.  I shouldn't have been surprised that the miniature yellow cape didn't magically make Watson behave like a service dog.  He has the potential to be an amazing skilled companion one day, but at that moment he was very much a puppy - and a very cute one at that!  Even though I only experienced a small taste of what it takes to be a Puppy Raiser, my appreciation for those elite volunteers grew enormously!

I was exhausted after just a few days.  Our fun time with Watson made it just so crystal clear what complete patience, devotion and sacrifice it takes to be a Puppy Raiser.

Puppy Raisers for Canine Companions for Independence are volunteers that receive the 8 week old puppies that have been bred into the program.  They attend training sessions, provide medical care at their expense, train and expose the puppies to everything imaginable - from bright lights and loud sounds, to big crowds and everything in between. They teach them core commands and prep them for Advanced Training which they will receive when they are 18 months old.  In a nutshell -- they do the hardest part, and then pass over the leash and walk away.

In the many conversations that Ty elicits from others, over half of them are from people curious as to what is involved in being a puppy raiser.  It all sounds very exciting to them -- until they get to the part about having to return the dog they have just devoted the last 1 1/2 years of their life to.  

"How do the Puppy Raisers do that?" they ask.

I don't know.

But I suspect it is because of what they see.  They see through what they are doing to who they are doing it for.

During the time we cared for Watson, I was signed up to be the guest reader for Eliza's kindergarten class, so I decided to make a splash by reading a book about service dogs and bring Ty and Watson in.  

Ty, Bridger and I visited a few classrooms, including the art room.  As Bridger was telling his art class about his dog and demonstrating what Ty did for him, I noticed through the corner of my eye that the art teacher was crying.  As we left the class she came and stopped me in the hallway to thank me and to explain her tears.  She thought the relationship with Bridger and Ty was so remarkable and she wanted to be a part of the work that changed lives like that.  She was interested in being a Puppy Raiser.  Watching Bridger and Ty, she could see how it was possible to hand over the leash and turn the other direction and walk away.

Ty's Puppy Raiser, Ms. H, is at the Canine Companions for Independence facility as I type, turning in CC, her 3rd puppy that she has raised.  CC will live at the facility now and receive her advanced training for the next 6-9 months after which time she will then be matched with a person with special needs, whose life CC will forever change.

Ms. H will return to her home, pick a few pieces of black dog hair off her sofa, stare at the empty dog bed and try not to think of the little hole in her heart that just formed that weekend by saying goodbye to what she had just devoted her complete energy, time and money to for the past 18 months.

Even through the separation, those puppy memories will always be strong in the mind of both dog and Puppy Raiser.  I will always be grateful that I was able to witness the strength of that memory.

I saw it first hand on the day of the big graduation for Bridger and I at Canine Companions last year.  We were all dressed up and going into the kitchen of the facility for breakfast before the events of the day began.  To get through to the kitchen, however, we had to slide past a crowd of people lined up at the end of the hallway.  It was the eager group of Puppy Raisers that had been invited there to spend a few last moments with the dog they had raised before the graduation event when they handed the leash off to the person that the dog had been paired with.  I hadn't met Ty's puppy raisers yet, but I watched the trainer walk down the hallway from the kennel with Ty and watched his ears perk up when he heard the voice of his Puppy Raiser, Ms. H.  He charged her and his entire body was wagging.  He remembered every moment he shared with her for those first 18 months of his life.  There was a love and excitement oozing from an otherwise emotionally neutral dog -- such strong emotions that I had yet to see in our two weeks getting to know him.   I don't think she ever saw me, but my sideways glance watching that moment felt a little intrusive, so I turned the corner into the kitchen with Bridger and fanned the tears that were already welling over in my eyes.  I was overwhelmed with gratitude.  Seeing her and Ty was such an important part of Ty's life story, that was becoming part of our life story.

Ty has changed Bridger's life.  By doing so, has changed my life and my other children's lives. By using Ty to gain his independence and fill his needs, Bridger is less dependent on his siblings and myself.  It is a process Bridger is still learning and Ty is patiently learning with him.  Ty came to Bridger knowing what to do.  Bridger was the one that had to learn what to do.  He had to learn how to take this amazing resource and put it to work in his life.  Step by step and day by day, he is.  

Ty is his companion and his helper.  He is his easel, he is his door opener and his picker-upper.  He is his pillow and his footrest, his protector and his playmate.  He is his shoe removal and his retriever. He is his pusher and his tugger, he is his goodbye and his welcome home.  He is his sedater, comforter and his guardian.  Ty is his ambassador.  He comes before him, stands beside him and waits behind him.  He fields the questions, takes the brunt of curious onlookers so Bridger isn't the subject of such. 

Every day Bridger asks me the same question, "Mom, can I keep him?"

My same answer, every day, "Yes, forever."

After watching the adorable Watson for those several days, I had an even deeper gratitude for Ms. H and all of the Puppy Raisers out there.  They have mastered the emotional ability to think beyond what they are doing, to who they are doing it for -- which then makes it possible to hand off the leash and walk away.  Thank you, Puppy Raisers.

Thank you, Ms. H, for handing us that leash.