From a speech delivered when we turned in Roma for matriculation:
She's Not My Dog
When I was little and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them I wanted to be happy. When they asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to make other people happy.
Having a well-trained puppy by my side when I'm working, shopping or just walking through the woods, makes me happy. Raising a CCI pup gives me the chance to make someone else happy by sharing in a miracle.
These benefits, although obvious, came as a surprise to me. My husband Gregg and I became puppy raisers for selfish reasons. After our beloved dog Tilly died, we needed a wagging tail around our house. We also wanted to learn more about dog training, so that when we were ready to replace our beloved pet, we would know what we were doing. And finally, we figured, if the puppy flunked out, we would have one terrific dog.
Now, before you get a CCI pup you have to sign a contract, that basically says, she's not your dog. Those aren't CCI's exact words, but the sentiment is one that came to haunt me over the next 14 months.
"She's not my dog", I told myself when I took this golden bundle of joy out of her crate at the airport.
"She's not my dog", I told my friends when they asked, "how are you ever going to give her up?"
With Abigail, our first CCI pup, the answer came easy. For she was destined to be a professional. She was calm, confident and keenly aware. One day when she was just 12 weeks old, she saw her first wheel chair. Now I don't know if this was coincidence or instinct, but when I looked down, she was sitting perfectly in heel position, looking up at the woman in the chair as if to be awaiting her next command. "how will you ever give her up?" The woman asked. Like I said, the answer came easy, "she's not my dog."
From the very beginning, we knew that if we did our jobs right, nothing would stop Abby from fulfilling her destiny.
Still she wasn't the easiest puppy to raise. I'm sure she was the alpha female of the litter... and for the longest time, she thought she should be the alpha female of our house. She even went so far as to mark on our bed. I think on that day I told my husband, you deal with her, "she's not my dog!!!"
As Abigail grew older, she grew more strong willed, confident, amazingly athletic and did I mention smart? She was far too clever to leave alone even for a matter of minutes. So, we took her everywhere. Our fellow puppy raisers, thought we were very dedicated. In reality, it was a survival tactic.
She proudly wore her yellow cape to dozens of different corporations, accompanied me to video and film shoots. Traveled with my husband on the racing circuit, frequented the sears point raceway down the road, and was even featured on ESPN as the only dog ever allowed into the pits at the Daytona speedway. While many dogs would have been stressed in these situations, Abigail thrived. In fact, she loved it.
A dog that works that hard, needs to play hard too. So every chance we could we let her play soccer with the neighborhood children. All first time puppy raisers make mistakes and that apparently was a big one because Abigail soon became ball obsessed.
We worked very hard to break that obsession. We took her to bowling alleys, volleyball and basketball games. We even made her wear her cape and watch the same children playing soccer without her. This was the hardest thing I had to do as a puppy raiser. It made me cry to think that maybe I was breaking her spirit. Taking away her greatest joy. But I knew it had to be done. Why? Because "she's not my dog." Her destiny was far greater.
When Abigail was a year old, I took her to Massachusetts to meet my family. I wondered how she would relate to my younger brother Eric. Eric has Downs Syndrome. Well, everyday, Eric took Abby for a walk. And to my amazement, the dog who always forged ahead on the leash for me, did a perfect heel for him. Even though he took only baby steps and walked at a snail's pace.
On the final day of our visit, Eric insisted we stop in to see Joe, the old man who lived across the street. Eric knew Joe adored golden retrievers and knew he would love to see Abby. I was surprised at the sight of Joe. He had to be close to 100 years old. He was in a motorized chair with oxygen and IV lines attached.
On command, Abby did a perfect "say hello" and when invited, studied the placement of the lines and tubes before taking the "my lap" position. For nearly 20 minutes, this energetic, athletic golden retriever gave Joe a thrill he hadn't enjoyed in years: the opportunity to pet a dog.
There will never be enough words
to tell you all the times we've shared or lives we've touched. But I
can tell you this, by the time she was turned in, Abby had
accumulated over 35 thousand frequent flyer miles.
CCI tried to warn us, they said, not every dog makes it as a service dog. But we knew something they didn't. Abigail's not every dog.
About a month and a half into her advanced training, we got the news. CCI thought she was special too. She had been unanimously chosen as a breeder. There was silence on the phone. We didn't know what to say. Here CCI was trying to tell us good news and we were devastated.
The problem was that we had always pictured Abigail as a professional. In our minds, she wasn't the motherly, stay-at-home type. We had prepared her for a life of service, not a life of play. And we were jealous because she was going to become someone else's pet.
As graduation approached, Gregg and I still had many unresolved feelings.
Did I mention that puppy raisers are an emotional breed?
But at graduation, something wonderful happened. Gregg and I had the opportunity to stand-in for a fellow puppy raiser who couldn't make it to the ceremony. At the luncheon, we heard graduates talk about the impact their new partners will have on their lives and we heard fellow puppy raisers talk about raising grand-puppies and great-grand-puppies and we heard the pride in their voices as they celebrated the legacy they'd helped to create. For the first time we realized that CCI wasn't missing an opportunity to have one terrific service dog, but creating an opportunity to have several.
Needless to say, we felt better. But we were still worried. We had yet to meet Abigail's breeder caretakers. What kind of life would she have? Would they love her as much as we do? Would she still play ball? Or had I broken her spirit?
When we got to graduation our worries vanished. That's where we met Mark and Ginger Brady and their 3 boys. I couldn't wait to tell the boys about Abby's athletic abilities, but they told me first. "this dog know how to play soccer" they said even before they said hello. I knew at that moment that I hadn't broken her spirit, that she would be loved. In fact, we felt this family would give her a much more fulfilling and happy life as a pet than just Gregg and I ever could.
Tomorrow, we will visit the Brady's again and visit our 10 beautiful grand-puppies, who, by the way, will be looking for puppy raisers in a couple of weeks.
Today, however, we are here to turn in, our second CCI pup, Roma. Roma is the sweetest dog I have ever known. (My husband says she's so sweet that if she cut her paws, she would bleed honey.)
And once again, I find myself struggling with my emotions. It's hard to imagine watching TV without her head on my lap. It's hard to imagine going for a jog without her jogging by my side. It's hard to imagine not seeing her wiggling butt & wagging tail around the house. ... and it's even harder to imagine that someone else will love her more than we do.
Like Abigail, Roma is "not my dog", but she is a part of my family with a permanent place in my heart and I realize that I must let her go if she is to have the opportunity to set someone else free.
I want to leave you now with a
poem. It was inspired by Roma and it is dedicated to puppy raisers
When you say down and she jumps up
Being just a pup she'll do
But if you feel like giving up...
Doesn't know from day to day
So when you're feeling quite fed
She'll be wild, headstrong too.
Could she know and understand
For all too soon it's time to
Be Proud, for you've raised one fine pup.