Three Dogs at a Graduation

(Click on photos for full size.)


I’m very, very busy, and full of fresh emotions. In what feels like a very short span of time we sent Finnegan (Goldendoodle superstar) off to college, accepted a unique, tiny Havanese female (Fresca) at the end of her training, and began work with the youngest pup so far, an energetic yellow Labradoodle I named Chili.


Finnegan’s path to find a perfect partner was not straight. You might remember from earlier articles that he was first expected to be a mobility assistant for a vet who had chosen and bonded with him as a puppy. Once Finn was grown, they weren’t properly compatible in size. The last time I wrote about him, it looked as if he would be the companion for an autistic boy. (  But that family had another established dog, and Finnegan and the other dog were competing for hierarchy in their home. The best match for both dog and handler came on his third attempt.

As our mentor-trainer put it, “When it’s really right, it’s magic.” Finnegan and Kaylen chose each other, and connected profoundly from their first meeting. Kaylen’s got Cerebral Palsy. It impacts her voluntary muscle control enough that she was unable to get around without using a wheelchair, or leaning on an adult. She’s 16, a sophomore in high school. Every teenager I know is intent on achieving independence, on becoming an adult. Kaylen is no exception. Having a canine assistant for walking stability and small tasks who she commands, who depends on her for his care, was the right solution. She’s excited to be the only student who gets to bring her dog to class.  They need each other, and together they can achieve more. It’s already an epic tale of love and persistence.

Kaylen’s parents both work in service professions. Dad’s a policeman; Mom’s a Nurse Manager. Her twin brother, Ryan, is into math and science. She has a good friend her own age who was at the ceremony. They became pals when Maddie organized fundraising to help the family afford the dog. Her dedicated Physical Therapist was at graduation too. Everyone has a role in this process, and all the parts matter. I could see exactly how all good intentions and efforts connect in a system. It’s the kind of lucid moment that confirms I have truly lived, that my life gains value when I do something to help.


In the few months we had her, Fresca taught us a lot. We had never trained (or owned) a small breed, and I was unsure most days that I was doing it right. But she had a personality so much larger than her 6-pound size. She was physically fearless, and it got her into serious trouble once. She dove off the couch in pursuit of our alpha cat, slid partway under a table at full speed, and broke both bones of her forearm. Her Orthopedic Surgeon had worked previously repairing dogs from combat units in the Middle East. She gained a plate and screws, and called a truce with the cat. After the incident, they slept side by side for the rest of the time we had her.

Fresca’s the most gung-ho dog I’ve met yet, enthusiastic and cheerful about everything from eating to affection to training. Even a leg cast and having to wear “the cone of shame” around her neck didn’t get her down. It’s a kind of irrepressible positivity useful in her life with Luis, a charming vet who has an anxiety disorder and diabetes. Before he had Fresca, Luis had more difficulty managing stress, and it was sometimes a problem in his marriage. He told me it’s so much better with her in their lives. Fresca was always able to sense when I was in a bad mood or had a cold. She had a way of being solicitous, while simultaneously communicating, “Snap out of it, man. La vida esta buena!” (In my mind, she speaks with a Cuban accent.)


The third version of how things can work out in unexpected ways is happening right now with Chili. Regular readers might remember how our first service dog trainee was a spectacular failure at 19 weeks, and how upset I was over it. (  I have a different perspective now. That dog (Lilah) was just expressing her own personality, and we didn’t have enough experience to help train her using her own strengths. Now we’ve got one with a very similar personality, and the same set of challenges.


Chili’s whip smart, but extremely “mouthy”. She can be affectionate, but during play she sometimes goes wild, almost as if she’s attacking us. We’ve got a LOT of little puncture wounds on our arms and hands from those pin teeth, and there are dozens of new bite marks on furniture and the deck, divots in the lawn, and destroyed plants. The problem is that Chili is an infant with muscles and weapons. She craves love and interaction, doesn’t know how to focus her enormous energy, and doesn’t understand her destructive capability. It’s a bit like having a miniature professional wrestler in the house, one that doubles in size every few weeks.

On the very day we were considering giving up and having Chili sent back for “reeducation”, we got a card from Kaylen telling us we had helped change her life. Everything good connects to every other good thing. We rededicated to the task, found a new Puppy Kindergarten, took some private lessons with another trainer, and Chili’s behavior has improved vastly in the past two weeks. She’s been to church, and to the grocery store. She was able to make an appearance at graduation too, with sensible “time outs” in her crate. Next weekend we’re going to introduce her to the Port Townsend Film Festival.


Filed under animal communication, Emotions, Ethics and Morality, photos

4 responses to “Three Dogs at a Graduation

  1. Mike, I loved what you wrote to Ralph Koppel several years back, but knowing you work with support dogs, wow! You are my hero!

  2. Son of a bitch, you made me cry.

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