August 15th, 2014 started much like any other day. I woke up, and snuggled up close to Helaine. We got up to start our day. We walked downstairs for her to hurry, and came up so she could devour her breakfast. The main difference in this day was that we were preparing for a farewell. I had slept poorly the night before, and snuggled her all night long. She slept like a log, and enjoyed the love and attention she was getting. This was also our last night in this particular hotel, and so we had to pack all of our belongings and get them down to my car so we could head to the Canine Companions campus.
After loading up the car, we met our dear friends and Kolby down in the hotel lobby where breakfast was being served. I was filled with so many nerves and emotions, I felt like I was jumping around like a child jacked up on sugar. I was hungry, but eating was a chore. I wanted to keep the morning light, but the thought of turn in looming on the horizon had me in a numb state. It was nice to laugh and talk with my favorite family before we headed off to CCI.
When we arrived on campus, the first order of business was to get our puppies checked in. We were to replace our own personal leash and collar with a CCI blue set, and we were also handed matriculation capes that each puppy entering Advanced Training would wear for the day. We were checked in by a sweet husband and wife duo from our chapter, who recently moved down to California. They were the very first people to ever puppy sit Helaine, and it was wonderful to see them. We were escorted to the building where we met a photographer to get our official photos. Once that was taken care of, we were free to walk around the grounds. It was my goal to get as many pictures of this final memory with Helaine as a puppy in program.
Charles Schulz and his wife have donated a lot to Canine Companions throughout the years, and even though Charles has passed, his wife Jeanne still works with CCI. They donated the land that the Northwest Region’s campus resides on. With that said, Canine Companions has tributes to Schulz and his wife around campus. Near the main courtyard, resides a Snoopy and a Woodstock statue. Almost every puppy raiser seems to make their way over for photos in front of them. Of course, I was no different. I had honestly been dreaming of this for a very long time. Even though I wasn’t ready to turn in, I was partially ready for the memories I had been creating in my head (if that makes sense.)
Snoopy is where we met my dear friend Kim, and I got to meet Helaine’s brother for the very first time. Helaine and Harbaugh seemingly remembered each other, and sniffed head to toe. Now, I don’t know if dogs will truly remember their parents or siblings, but I would like to think that they knew they were siblings and were catching up. You can totally tell they’re related if only by the way the stubbornly refuse to look at the camera. I have gotten a lot of nice photos of Helaine but it’s not without putting up a long and tiring fight. She hates the camera and it takes a lot of work to get good ones. No trick works twice with her unfortunately, so what worked in one photo, won’t work in another. Sigh. We also took an opportunity to get some more photos of just Helaine and I. My best friend did a stellar job getting some candid shots, and I will cherish them for the rest of my life.
We enjoyed a great Panera Bread lunch that was put on in honor of all the puppy raisers who were turning in puppies that day. It was nice to fellowship with friends, share sweet memories and provide encouraging words to one another. We were truly able to laugh and smile, knowing that our long journey was nearing completion, and the next part was about to begin.
A trainer met us for a campus tour, and following in my sweet friends footsteps, I will not share photos here. I am so glad that she never shared photos of the tour with me, because it added a certain level of magic when I was finally on campus. I think anyone who has the ability should make their way to Canine Companions and tour the facility. It is truly a special place, where people make magic every single day. I will share just one tiny little photo, because what we saw when we entered the food room reduced Elle and I to tears.
To most, this just looks like a feeding schedule. Totally random, totally informative. To us, we knew that we were in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. You see, this isn’t just a feeding schedule. It also tells us who each puppy is kenneled with. Canine Companions had no idea the relationship between Kolby and Helaine, and how close they are. The folks at CCI must be trained mind readers, because Helaine is rooming with Kolby’s sister, Kolby is rooming with Helaine’s brother, and they are right next door to each other. We couldn’t have asked for a better sign that this was written in the stars. I still get chills when I look at this board.
After the tour, it was nearing time to head off to the Center for Spiritual Living where graduation is held. At this time, I was getting more and more nervous because I knew that we were getting closer to the end. We settled in for what was a heart wrenching, inspiring ceremony that left me totally grounded and even further in love with the Canine Companions mission. I was still in agony over turning in Helaine, but I also was able to finally see the connection and the miracles that are our graduates. It was truly beautiful, and I will encourage absolutely anyone who is able, to make their way to a Canine Companions graduation because it is truly the most magical experience ever.
Helaine was wonderful and sleepy while we listening to the class speakers. She snuggled in close and rested her head on my crossed ankles. I was of course still up and down on the emotional roller coaster, and with the highs came the lows. I really wish I had the ability to truly and clearly explain just what those emotions are like, but until you’re a puppy raiser I don’t think anyone is able to fully understand.
After graduation, it was truly time to wind down. Our schedule had been completed, there was nothing more for us to experience, and no more places for us to be other than the south training room sometime before 5 pm. It was time to feed Helaine for the last time, get in some last minute snuggles and say our farewells. 17 months together had come down to this one fleeting moment, and whether I was ready or not (I wasn’t) it was nearing time to hand over that leash. I found my favorite family, and we each handed our puppies off to each other. It was my time for me to say goodbye to Kolby, and their time to say goodbye to Helaine.
There is something truly special about developing a deep relationship with another puppy raiser or puppy raising family. It’s comforting to know that there is always someone in your corner, who is ready to support you and lift you up during all that each puppy raising journey brings. Elle and her family have become an extended part of mine, and it has been a true blessing seeing our puppies grow up together, become friends, and begin their next adventure together side by side. However, with that amazing and special relationship comes another thought. We not only have our puppies to say goodbye to, we had each others. Thankfully Kolby was being goofy and didn’t want to say goodbye to anyone. He made it easy. But it was somber knowing that I wouldn’t see that big beautiful boy anytime in the near future.
After that part of the goodbye was over, we walked to a bench and my emotions were finally able to fully and completely escape. I hugged tight to my girl, and sobbed into her neck. She enjoyed the attention for only a moment, but I think she knew she was on to bigger and better things and really was ready to start this phase of her life. I will never ever forget the way it felt to cling to my dog, knowing that we have a whole unknown world ahead of us that we are going to have explore separately.
I had taken her cape off, and spent some quality time just loving on her. I whispered many words of thanks to her, for teaching me so much about life. She taught me that happiness is what I make it. She made me a better puppy raiser, dog trainer, and human being. Most importantly though, she showed me that every day can be the best day ever if I let it be. She was mine for just a small while, and a she left me with fond memories and a heart full of love. If it’s possible to find a soul mate in an animal, I found it in her. She will always carry with me a piece of my soul and I have no doubts I will carry some of hers.
I had finally gotten up the courage to go and hand over the leash when I realized one main thing. I forgot to feed Helaine. Her dinner time is usually at 6:30 every night. It was only 4:30, and she wasn’t reminding me it was dinner time and I was certainly not in the right frame of mind. So, I had to dry those eyes and find her food. We went and sat in the grass and she ate so painfully slow. Perhaps she was dragging out her time to get a few more minutes with me. It worked. After she ate, I gave her some more love, and some belly rubs.
The time came, that I truly had to take her and pass that leash over. We walked across the parking lot, past the now lonely and vacant statues, through the silent courtyard and found ourselves in the South training room, just where we were supposed to be. Helaine came in, sat down and looked at the three trainers, tail wagging furiously with excitement. They commented on her small stature, and I got her all checked in with the puppy program staff.
After giving James, our puppy program manager, some final tidbits about Helaine, it was truly time. I reached down, gave Helaine one final pat and told her I would see her later, which is true. Regardless of her outcome in the program, I will see her again and I cannot wait for that day.
With a giant hole in my heart the size of a 52 lb yellow Lab, and hot tears streaming down my face, I found the courage to hand over the leash and watch her walk away for only a moment. She did what every puppy raiser hopes for, she walked straight into her future, head held high and tail wagging, without even looking back.
After we handed over the leashes, Elle and her family joined my best friend and I for a dinner filled with many stories and much laughter. We were able to continue on together, remembering our last 17 months with dry eyes and full hearts. My home still feels empty, and I’m trying to find a new normal. I never realized just how much love, light, and life she brought to my home. It seems unfathomable that we have already been apart for a week, but I’m surviving. Another puppy raising family had posted a picture on social media with the caption “Give Until it Hurts” and it really resonated with me. As puppy raisers, we love big and give fully, and it indeed hurts. But the potential outweighs the pain on this roller coaster ride that is puppy raising, and as I roll into the station face damp from tears, a smile on my face, and excitement coursing through my entire body…I simply say “again again!” and away I go, onto the next…and the next…and the next.