I am happy every day to come home and find Harlow greeting me at the door tail wagging, often will her favorite stuffed toy, Ellie the Elephant, jammed in her mouth. Friday night though, I was especially grateful to see her erratically furry face.
Before the sun came up on Friday I left on a road trip with a BU student named L and her dog G*. When L was dropped back off at home late that night though, G was no longer with her.
I will ease your mind straight away and tell you that G has not died. G, an 18 month old black lab, was being raised by L temporarily. Giving her up at the end of the 18 months was part of the deal, and L knew it was coming.
Friday was the conclusion to a story I have been working on for months now. It started last spring when I was out on campus shooting. I saw a woman, who I assumed was a student, with strawberry blonde hair walking briskly west on Comm Ave with a small black lab by her side sporting a yellow vest. Dogs are a rarity on campus and I chased L and G for about a half mile before I managed to catch them at the campus gym, FitRec.
That’s when I learned that G was a service dog in training (SDT). Born in CA on June 15, 2015 in the breeding program of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), G joined L at just ten weeks old. L, a school of theology grad student, volunteered to raise G, socialize her, and teach her basic commands until it was time for G to continue on to the next phase of her training towards becoming an assistance dog through CCI in Medford, NY, the north-west branch of the organization.
So after spending months photographing the two in class together, taking walks around Boston, studying, attending meetings of various types, going to the vet, and most recently getting a bath, I joined L and E, another CCI puppy raiser who was also giving up her dog, F, for the ride to NY to attend graduation.
I have had a dog put to sleep and that was torture. This scenario is a bit different, because you know the dog is not dying, but actually continuing on to something awesome by helping someone gain some independence. Giving up a creature who you have come to love and bond with however, can still be so very heartbreaking.
L hadn’t slept the night before, she told me, because she was so upset to be saying goodbye. So there’s lack of sleep, then there’s the four hours of riding in a car with little to do but reflect, followed by a two-hour ceremony, and then a few hours’ window of time which she could spend with G before having to hand her over and ride four hours back home, alone.
The graduation ceremony itself was remarkable. All of the SDT sat together with their puppy raisers waiting for their turn to walk across the stage and receive their medallions, signifying their advancement.
This portion of the ceremony was followed by another even more poignant one; recipients in need of an assistance dogs came to the stage one at a time and received their assistance dog from the puppy raisers who had taken care of them for their first 18 months of life.
These dogs were older now with about six months of CCI training under their collars. After their training, they were paired with a recipient through a very thorough matching process. An assistance dog will only go to a recipient who they have a bond with. That recipient would then spend two weeks in a team training program with their new assistance dog. On graduation day, the recipients would be given the assistance dog, ready to venture into life together.
There were about twelve dogs graduating and going home with recipients. When each pair came to the stage, a song chosen by the recipient would be played as the names would be announced. These beautiful dogs are mostly lab and some mixed with golden retriever. Most of the dogs at the ceremony appeared to be lab, either black and yellow. Some recipients chose solemn songs, which frankly, added to the sadness I felt for the puppy raisers. The dogs were mostly quite calm as they contentedly joined their forever partner and left the stage with them.
Until Irvin. As one woman came to the stage, Pharrell William’s Happy blasted out of the speaker, and up trotted Irvin, a mostly golden retriever with long fluffy white fur bursting from his rump and an, indeed, very happy tail. With that upbeat music going, that dog’s backend tossed in time with the music, as if taken over – a Manchurian dog butt – and you’d swear he was smiling too. The crowd erupted in charmed laughter as Irvin continued to display his extreme joy over this thing we call living.
It was pretty great.
I’ll post again once we’ve published the story about G and L’s experience together in BU Today. ‘Should be mid-March.
*Since this project has not yet run in BU Today, I’m hesitant to post full names on this blog at the moment, since I didn’t officially get permission from the subject. She does know I’ve Instagrammed her and her pup and have included their names