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  • Writer's pictureMindy Schwartz

A Story For The New Year About A Special Pet...

Happy Holidays! I hope your celebrations were wonderful, and that you are looking forward to spending the New Year together with your furry best friends!

Since it's a special time of year, instead of writing a post about pet nutrition or health, I'd like to share a story I wrote about my 5-year-old Lab/Golden mix, Alma. I hope you enjoy it, and that it reminds you of why every day should be a holiday where our pets are celebrated...

Alma Came Home

“That’s a wonderful thing to do, but I don’t know how you can give up your dog!” Almost every puppy raiser for service dog organizations has heard that more than once.

I’m a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). Puppy raisers get our charges when they are eight weeks old, and we raise them until they are approximately eighteen to twenty months, when we turn them back in to CCI for advanced training. Hopefully, after another three to six months these puppies will graduate and go home to give life-changing assistance to a person with a disability.

During the time we have these puppies, we are expected to teach them thirty commands which will be the basis of their potential career as a service dog. These commands include “hurry” (urinating and defecating on command), waiting for permission to eat (“okay”) waiting for permission to go through doorways (“out”), and walking calmly by our sides.

My puppy raising journey began when I attended my brother’s graduation with a CCI service dog. I met the wonderful people who raised his puppy, and for the first time I understood how puppy raisers can give up these dogs. As soon as I arrived home, I filled out an application to be a puppy raiser, and eagerly awaited the call telling me that my puppy was on her way.

That call came on my birthday. I was getting a black, Labrador / Golden Retriever cross. A few weeks later I learned that her name was Alma. In January the day arrived when I went to CCI to pick up an adorable bundle of black fur. Our pet dogs had different reactions to the new arrival. Nicky, who was twelve and considered herself the queen of our house refused to let Alma get close for a few weeks. Eight-year-old Rocky was delighted to have a new playmate.

The next eighteen months went by quickly. We attended puppy class twice a month and practiced our commands every day. An important part of a puppy raiser’s job is socializing the puppies, so Alma was my constant companion. She accompanied me to the grocery store, to restaurants, to shopping malls, doctors’ offices and movie theaters. We practiced walking on grates and uneven sidewalks and lots of different surfaces. Then, one day the letter I’d been dreading came. Alma was scheduled to be returned to CCI in just a few more months.

Those months were filled with “lasts”, our last trip to the veterinarian, our last train ride, our last visit to our favorite restaurant. Too soon, Alma’s matriculation, or turn-in, day arrived. CCI always schedules matriculations in concert with their quarterly graduations. The beauty of this is that while the puppy raisers’ hearts are breaking at the thought of saying goodbye to the dogs we love, we also see the difference they can make in the lives of their graduates, the people who need them in order to live more independent lives. After graduation was over, I tearfully handed Alma’s leash to another volunteer and she trotted away to her new life in advanced training.

At home, while I enjoyed the break from training, I missed Alma’s energy and loving nature. After having a constant companion for a year and a half, I found myself looking for her in the back of my car. I waited eagerly for Alma’s first monthly report on her progress in professional training.

Then, as it often does, life took a turn. Rocky ruptured a ligament in his knee and required surgery and an extensive rehabilitation. Nicky was diagnosed with cancer and needed surgery and radiation. While I still hoped that Alma would succeed as a service dog, I found myself whispering “Alma, I need you, please come home.”

When Alma had been gone for six weeks, I got the call I’d been dreading and hoping for at the same time.Alma had decided that the working life was not for her. She refused to do the commands she knew so well and made her unhappiness very clear. Because CCI never makes a dog work who doesn’t want to, she was being released from the program and was coming home if I wanted to adopt her. I excitedly answered that I could be there in fifteen minutes to pick her up, but she was already at the vet being spayed, so I had to wait a few days.

When the day arrived, I could hardly contain my excitement. I burst into CCI and waited impatiently. I first had to meet with the puppy program manager and sign the adoption papers. Finally, they brought my girl out. When she recognized me, she hid behind my legs and leaned against me. We cuddled the whole way home in the car. Alma’s first day home she happily said hello to Nicky and Rocky and then clung to me until bedtime.

By the next morning Alma had figured out she was truly home for good. After the three dogs and I returned from a walk, she gleefully raced around the yard, jumping on Rocky and Nicky and grabbing her favorite toys. She quickly adapted to being a pet and doing all the things that had been forbidden before, like jumping on my bed. Most importantly, Alma snuggled with Rocky while he recuperated, gave Nicky kisses when she wasn’t feeling well, and made me smile when I wanted to cry. When we finally lost Nicky, I realized that Alma had really come home for Rocky, who would have felt lost if he’d been left alone without another canine sister.

We always say that the pups end up where they are needed the most. Alma knew that we were the ones who needed her, and I’ll forever be grateful that she decided to come home.

(Originally published in Ruff Drafts, the newsletter of the Dog Writers Association of America.).

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