This is not a story of surrender and shelters, but giving a dog a job.
In the fall of 2016, I applied to raise a service dog pup for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). My husband had passed away that summer after a long illness, and I wanted to do something that was giving, and also involved health and youth. I knew about CCI from dog friends of mine who were on their fifth, sixth or ninth puppy, and from attending manners classes that had CCI pups in them.
I decided I would be ready by winter, and on January 13, 2017, I got “the call.” There was a puppy born and assigned to me, name to be known later, a lab/golden male in the G litter. He was eight days old when he was assigned. As the next two months proceeded, I got my instructions to visit the Northeast Region Offices in New York for training and puppy pickup. His name turned out to be Geiger III and on March 8th we met face to face. For those two months I listened to a lot of “How wonderful, I could never do that, I could never give him up.”
This adorable yellow puppy with the rust-colored ears was to be mine for the next 18 to 20 months. I had gone through orientation, received our puppy cape, bag of food, head collar, and instruction manual. I’ve had dogs before, I’m a vet tech and a professional dog trainer, yet Geiger came with a 76-page manual! (And a handy pocket guide to commands.) He came with a timeline of what commands to teach in each month, and the forms for his monthly reports. I was determined to raise him right so he can help someone be independent, and to learn his 30 basic commands so he’d be a success in professional training. After puppies are raised at home by puppy raisers, they “matriculate” back to their regional center for CCI professional training where they learn to open doors, turn on lights, retrieve an assortment of objects and learn tasks they will use to help their person.
CCI dogs have a number of careers they can fulfill. They can serve as assistance dogs by opening doors, fetching things, turning on lights, whatever their person needs. They can be hearing dogs. They can be a skilled companion, an assistance dog for a child or other person who needs a facilitator to care for the dogs. They can be facility dogs, helping in the court system or rehabilitation facilities. And most recently, they can be post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) dogs for a returning veteran. Any of these tasks is a big job for a dog! The pups need to be well socialized, and that’s the puppy raiser role. Teach them to be well mannered family members, able to behave in public in a wide variety of situations. They go to work, go to school, go shopping, on errands, to parties, and everywhere else the puppy raiser goes. As a young pup, the exposure is appropriate to their age and housetraining skills, and gets successively more active as they age.
Geiger’s first visit to school was amazing. He looked at a classroom of 35 vet tech students with confidence and his head up, and I knew I had a great puppy. Confident and hard to fluster. Geiger did many things during his 17 month tenure with me. We went to vet tech school, we went to puppy school, he attended many dog trials riding along with my dogs, and got to meet many new people and dogs. He visited several nursing homes, a few Girl Scout troops, and many classes at a local charter school. He went to meetings, out to eat, and was a favorite at the local diner. Geiger had a special love for that diner; one time a waitress stacked too many plates and a piece of fish landed on his head!
He wasn’t 100 percent the perfect visiting dog. There was one advisory board meeting at school when he was startled by a poster of a yellow lab and succeeded in dumping his anal glands all over the conference room wall. Fortunately everyone in the room was a veterinarian or a tech and all were quite impressed with his distance! There were a few incidents at home, too. I’ve never had a dog before that could eat half a pillowcase without disturbing the other part of the pillowcase, leaving it looking pretty much untouched, until said pillowcase appeared on the kitchen floor.
Geiger and I spent a lot of time explaining the difference between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals. All too often I’d have to explain, that “no, really, you can’t just get a vest online and bring your dog everywhere.” Occasionally I’d have to point out that there are a few requirements, you have to be disabled to have a service dog, and the dog has to be trained to do specific tasks that lessen the disability.
Many well-meaning folks would comment that they could never give him up. I went into this knowing he wasn’t staying. It didn’t mean I don’t love him, I just knew he was meant for bigger things. #welovethemtheyneedthem is the hash tag I often used.
August 10, 2018: matriculation day came quickly. Geiger had grown from a cute little puppy to a big strong tall red dog. He behaved wonderfully on the ferry to Long Island, and our last night together he was a perfect guest in the hotel. We had our moment of one-to-one chat before formal turn in, and some tears were shed. When it was time to turn him in, I handed his leash over to the person who would take him back to his new kennel. He looked her in the face, tail high, head up, and never looked back.
I knew I had done my job well.
I get monthly reports on Geiger’s progress, and he’s doing well so far in professional training. CCI does a great job with the puppy raisers as well as the pups and recipients. Folks getting the dogs come in for two weeks of training with their dog, and at the end there is a graduation ceremony. The puppy raiser gets to meet the recipient, share a brunch, and then attend graduation. In February of 2019, I will walk Geiger across the stage and hand his leash to his new person.
It was not a heartbreaking experience; if anything, it was a heart-expanding adventure. I would I do it again. Actually, Oona II arrives November 21st. She’s also a lab/golden cross, this time a black one. Her starter kit, cape, vest, and instruction manual came today.
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email email@example.com.