"Not My Dog": Tales from Puppy Raising

Monday, December 25, 2006

Murphy goes public

I wrote this piece for the Maine Sunday Telegram, at my boss's urging. I'd give you the link to the site, but there are no pictures..
So here are the words:

I couldn't help falling in love with Murphy, a soulful-eyed black Lab pup.
Anybody who's a dog person can understand why. What's harder to understand is that I took Murphy into my home with a mission of loving him, spending hours each week training and socializing him -- and giving him away after a year.
My family and I are among the dozen or so puppy raisers in Maine who volunteer with Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Our job is to take rambunctious puppies and teach them good manners and socialize them, and then give them up.
In November of last year, Murphy entered our lives, a wiggly 12 pounds of energy and slobber.
Two weeks ago, he left for the test that would determine whether he'd go into training as a guide dog.
He had matured into a smart dog who loved to work. But was our year of training together going to be enough?
If the light had been green, I might never have been a puppy raiser.
While stopped at a light near the Iris Network in Portland, I saw someone walking a Lab that wore a jacket bearing the words "Puppy in Training" and "Guiding Eyes for the Blind."
I gawked, fascinated.
I have always loved dogs, and the prospect of training a dog -- especially one that could radically change someone's life -- was an appealing challenge.
A few days later, I saw a blind person with his guide dog. It seemed like a sign.
After a lot of persuasion applied to my husband, Bob Sharp, I found the Guiding Eyes Web site and called to find out more.
Most friends and family thought I was crazy. Those who weren't dog people didn't understand why I'd want to deal with mess and fuss -- much less for a dog I wouldn't get to keep.
The dog lovers couldn't see how I could work with a pup so intensively and not love him. And once I did, how in the world would I give him up?
My father was utterly convinced I was going to break my preschooler son's heart.
If the pup doesn't pass training, raisers generally get first right to adopt. But I knew that if I did this, I'd want to accomplish the task and see the pup succeed, no matter how much I loved him.
Before we could do anything, we had classes to learn the Guiding Eyes training methods and rulesand let the coordinators size us up.
The instructors, Doris Dennee and Nina Scribner, were raising their fourth and 12th pups, respectively.
After three classes, they deemed us ready to puppy-sit, another requirement. We arranged to baby-sit Chance, a year-old black Lab, for a week.
At the handoff at the Yarmouth rest area, Chance and his raiser, Ann Walko, seemed blithely unconcerned. Chance jumped into our Jetta and flopped on the floorboard for a snooze.
Bob and I were feeling nervousness second only to the terror we felt when the nice people at the hospital kicked us out to go home with our newborn son.
But we had a great week with Chance, and it was clear that a dog could fit into our lives.
The final hurdle: our son, Andrew, who was about to turn 4.
We talked a lot about how the puppy wouldn't be our dog. We talked to him about how much the dog could help someone.
I wasn't going to do this if I didn't think Andrew could handle the pup's inevitable departure.
But Andrew seemed to get it. "This isn't our forever dog," he said at one point.
Now, we just were waiting for a puppy.
Raisers only get to choose a gender, but I was hoping for a black Lab -- a wardrobe-driven decision, given that we already had two black cats.
We knew we were in line for an "M" or an "N" pup, and one pup was named Murphy, a name we had decided years before would be an awesome name for a hypothetical dog.
I knew there was no way we'd get Murphy.
Then we got the call from Scribner: In two days, we'd become foster parents to Murphy, a black Lab. His brother, Maddox, was going to Freeport to live with Beth and Chris Parker, the other first-time raisers from our class.
The karma looked good.
Murphy and Maddox had already passed an 11-step test to assess a pup's temperament. About one-fifth of Guiding Eyes pups are adopted out at this stage, deemed too tentative or shy to ever make it as guides.
Murphy didn't appear to have that issue. The first word of the trainers' analysis: "wiggly." I didn't need to be a professional to figure that out.
We were off to a rosy start, even though his tiny puppy bladder at first required a
5:30 a.m. wakeup call -- fun when you get home from work after midnight.
He was adorable and smart enough to start picking up commands quickly, almost too well.
Guiding Eyes dogs are taught to eliminate on the command "get busy." One night, I asked Bob, "Did Murphy get busy?"
He hadn't, but when he heard me, he did, right there on the kitchen floor.
We couldn't be mad as he proudly cocked his head in that way that Labs do. But we started spelling out "GB" to be safe.
Sometimes communication was less clear.
Abruptly, he started refusing to walk down our road. He'd plant his feet and whine piteously.
I cajoled, I squeaked his toy, I carried him down the road to show him there was nothing to fear. He wasn't convinced.
Just as suddenly, a few days later Murphy began trotting happily down the road again.
I never did figure out why.
In the middle months, as Murphy expanded exponentially to his eventual 70-pound frame, I began to fear that one of us might not survive.
Other raisers began murmuring sympathetically about him being a "pistol," and, indeed, he could be a real challenge.
He was getting bigger and stronger, but his brain was still firmly in puppyhood. He had a stubborn streak. He wanted to befriend everyone he saw by giving them lunging kisses. He thought I walked way too slowly.
Every three months, Bessie Sheehan, the regional coordinator for Guiding Eyes, visits Maine to evaluate the dogs.
I was on edge about the late-June evaluation. I badly wanted Murphy to earn the puppy-in-training jacket. Many more places will allow you to bring the puppy inside if it's wearing a jacket. It also keeps friendly onlookers at bay, reducing distractions.
Selfishly, with the doubts I was having about Murphy, I wanted a validation, a sign that we were on track.
I knew in five minutes it wasn't going to happen. Murphy spied a construction worker and nearly yanked Scribner off her feet as he lunged away.
Sheehan sighed and all but rolled her eyes, clearly signaling her doubts about Murphy.
On some level, I knew Murphy's disposition was what it was, something Scribner kept emphasizing. But I couldn't help but feel that I was coming up short somehow in the training, especially since Maddox earned his jacket that day.
As exasperated as I was at Murphy, like any proud mom, I was determined to prove he had what it took. I'd already seen flashes of it, such as when he visited Andrew's preschool and remained quiet and gentle among 3- and 4-year-olds.
I've been accused of being stubborn myself, and we were headed for a battle of wills.
A few weeks later, Murphy had to go to New York to have a lingering baby tooth pulled. It was, by that time, a welcome break.
But after his stay was extended when a ride back to Maine didn't materialize, I was at a loss. So I volunteered to drive down to collect him, with my 4-year-old son and Zola, a Lab leaving for training.
Zola had a coat the color of honey and a disposition as sweet. Other raisers had nicknamed her "Zoloft," a nod to her mellow nature.
She was as opposite from Murphy as you could get. It was looking like Murphy could turn into a "forever dog," and I was torn about that prospect.
But on the way home, Murphy lay quietly on the floorboard for the five-hour trip.
Maybe two weeks of kennel life had been a kick in the tail for him, and a breather that I didn't know I needed.
With the support of Scribner and other raisers, things started looking up.
With Andrew in kindergarten, Murphy, who finally got his jacket, became my near-constant morning companion.
We walked in Gorham, at the University of Southern Maine and near Maine Medical Center in Portland. We practiced ignoring tourists at L.L. Bean.
We hung out at Gorham's Baxter Memorial Library, the post office and Target. He grew so fond of the dog biscuits he got at Gorham Grind that he would sometimes look hopefully at its door as we walked by.
It seemed like a switch had been thrown as Murphy celebrated his first birthday, and apparently started to think.
I worked to avoid referring to Murphy as "my dog."
It became harder to think about him leaving and more likely he would be gone for good.
"Just when he's getting to be a really nice dog," Bob said, almost wistfully.
We spent several weeks readying Andrew for departure day, but he handled it like a champ. "Bye, Murph," he said, hugging him. "Be good."
I wasn't sure I'd do as well.
It helped that I was at the drop-off with Scribner, Beth Parker, Walko and Jean Hobart, another volunteer. While we waited for Sheehan, we joked and talked about the dogs, making it almost like a celebration.
The camaraderie is one of the best things about the raising experience. Others are always there to offer advice, cheer you on or take the puppy for a few days if you go out of town or need a break. Scribner in particular had been Murphy's regular baby-sitter, once taking him for two weeks while I was on a business trip. She loved him, as he reminded her of Lance, his older half brother whom she had raised.
When Sheehan finally arrived, I gave Murphy a hard hug and whispered to him that I would always love him, wherever he went. He slurped my ear, thwacked my leg with his tail one last time, and jumped confidently into the travel crate.
It was what he was supposed to do, and yet my eyes misted.
Three days later, Parker and I traveled to New York to watch Murphy and Maddox be tested to determine if they'd be accepted for formal training.
We watched the test on closed-circuit TV, in a room full of Guiding Eyes employees and other raisers. One was Cora Martin, a Connecticut retiree who fosters Wella, Murphy's mother. "I had to see my first grandpuppies," she said.
The testing measures a dog's response to stress, having it react to starter pistols, other noises and a person who suddenly unfurls a large umbrella near the dog.
After a year of work, we could do nothing more, except hope.
Uncharacteristically, Maddox shied and balked at the umbrella. The mood grew somber.
By the time Murphy's turn came, I was nervously biting my thumb. "C'mon, boy," I muttered at the TV. "You can do it."
And he did. A few minutes later, instructors announced that Murphy was officially accepted for guide dog training. They would test Maddox again.
Even though only roughly half of the dogs who enter training actually graduate, it still felt like a huge milestone.
I got to talk briefly with Pamela Cunningham, the trainer who'd handled Murphy through the test. She praised his composure and said she was optimistic about him. As we spoke, Murphy veered between us, not quite sure whom he should be with.
After a few minutes, Cunningham led him back to the kennel. He followed her without a look back.
Was it worth it?
Yes, it was hard work. Yes, it was hard to watch Murphy walk away, even though I always knew that day would come.
But I don't think I've done anything special. Many raisers have done far more than I ever have. Thousands of Mainers volunteer; this is just how I've chosen to do it.
I've made friends and exercised my patience. I believe my son, already a caring kid, has learned even more about helping others.
Even if I didn't always love it at the time, I've seen some beautiful sunrises and gazed at the stars during the last trip outside for the night. I've had the simple pleasure of watching a happy dog chase a tennis ball in the snow.
Will I do it again? I hope so.
I've thought a lot lately about the person out there who could get Murphy, if he makes it.
It probably would be a man, since Murphy is large. I wonder if he might have kids or grandkids, since Murphy is good with them. I wonder if Murphy would be his first guide dog.
But most of all, I hope he will love his dog half as much as I did.


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