Have you ever seen a service dog and wondered what it had to do for training before it got the gig helping someone? Me neither, but a while back one of my niece’s friends brought over a cute Lab puppy named Bear. She explained that her family was fostering him for an organization called Continuing the Mission that trains service dogs for veterans. They’d take care of Bear until he was out of puppyhood, at which point he’d go into a prison for immersive training by the inmates. After that, they’d get him back for several more months and then he’d be matched with his permanent owner, which would surely be a wrenching moment because by that point they’d probably think of him as their dog. My wife, Heather, heard all that but stopped listening after “free puppy.” Fast-forward to a few weeks later, when a nice lady arrives and hands over a 5-month-old rust-colored Lab named Ella, who’s not the cutest dog. She’s the cutest organism in the universe.
“You should tell her ‘leave it,’ when she’s interested in something she shouldn’t be, but to a Lab the whole world is a ‘leave it,’ ” says Ella’s custodian. “You’ll see.” Then she adds, “We are so lucky to have wonderful people like you to take her in. Thank you so much.” I stand there basking in her gratitude, unsure of what to say. You’re welcome for taking this adorable puppy whose food and vet bills are paid for by a philanthropic organization? Come on, I’m not a hero. Stop calling me that, sheesh. It’s embarrassing! OK, if you must.
A month later, this puppy-fostering thing is working out great. Perfect, really. Except for a couple things that I’ll just note real quick in between yelling “Leave it!” 9,000 times per day at various volumes and tones of voice.
For instance, turns out that if Ella’s feeling lazy, she secret-poops on the deck in a corner behind the patio furniture. Once, we didn’t spot it for a long time and it fossilized and I had to chisel it off with the hose and a scrap of 2-by-4.
Her mouth has 200 percent more jowl than it needs, such that she can’t drink water without slobbering it all over the entire house. When she gets a drink it sounds like the sinking of the Lusitania. We used to have an occasional problem with ants on the floor near the water bowl, but I think they all drowned.
Let’s see, what else? She digs holes in the yard and then tracks dirt into the house. She eats sticks and pine needles and then barfs them up at 4 am. (Always 4 am.) She chews rugs and interior trim. She sometimes makes a noise like a water buffalo and then abruptly spits a tooth out on the floor. She eats deer poop.
Things that I have seen her carrying in her mouth: shoes, toys, entire rolls of toilet paper, contact lenses, remotes, books, an Xbox headset and my phone. She will try to chew your shoes while they’re on your feet. She almost ripped down the curtains, but I stopped her. Attempting to lick a knife, she caught her collar on the bottom rack of the dishwasher and dragged it onto the kitchen floor with a mighty crash. Which at least distracted her, temporarily, from the delicious knife.
Our younger dog, Gary, loves her because they’re on the same page when it comes to skidding around the house at full-throttle and sideswiping your ACLs. And he’s a herding dog, so he tries to steer her away from the bloody jaws of death whenever she blithely approaches a neighborhood Cujo and cheerfully attempts to lick his face, which she does daily. Her move is to saunter up to a bigger dog, wagging her tail, and suddenly lunge at his lips, tongue extended. When, inevitably, she almost gets her face bitten off, she sidles around to the opposite end of her object of interest and jams her snout in his butt, which prompts an abrupt canine midair levitation followed by an even more snarly beat down. She just doesn’t comprehend that if you want to lick someone’s face and jam your nose in someone’s butt, that kind of thing requires an invitation.
I know she’s still a puppy, but her antagonism of giant dogs points to a benign cluelessness that makes me wonder if she’s really cut out for this service animal gig. Like, her owner’s going to ask her to get the peanut butter, and she’ll proudly trot back with a bar of soap. Then she’ll eat that and puke it back up and then eat the puke. Then she’ll poop on the floor and the poop will be blue and he’ll be like, “What the hell is that?” and realize that she ate her “Do Not Pet” service vest.
Hopefully the inmates will get her straightened out. She does enjoy bringing you stuff. She just needs to learn not to bring you a lit stick of dynamite. I’m sure she’ll get the hang of it. But if she’s an utter failure and we somehow had to keep her, I wouldn’t be sad about that. Not as much as I will be when the time comes to leave it. ◆
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