About the Author
Sharron Kahn Luttrell is a former newspaper reporter for a mid-sized daily in Massachusetts. She now works as a freelance writer. Her articles and columns have appeared in publications including The Boston Globe and The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. She continues to volunteer for NEADS as a weekend puppy raiser, and will donate a portion of the proceeds from Weekends with Daisy to NEADS.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Weekends with Daisy
MY DAUGHTER SAYS I threw myself at the man with the yellow Lab, but she tends to be overly dramatic. I distinctly remember keeping a respectful distance as he described his role as a volunteer puppy raiser, even if it did require I clasp my hands behind my back to physically restrain myself from patting the dog.
If it had been a few years earlier—when Tucker was still alive, the kids little, and my in-laws healthy—I wouldn’t have reacted so strongly to the sight of the dog. Sure, I would have been curious, but my mild social anxiety would have kept me from speaking up. Instead, I would have strolled by as many times as it took to make out the words on the dog’s vest before retreating back to my shopping list. But on that day, I was feeling desperate. I should have been content. I had a husband who loved me, a good job, two healthy, relatively happy children. But I couldn’t enjoy being with my family that day because the fact that the four of us were together only underscored how rare an occurrence that had become. Our kids were growing out of childhood and pulling me grudgingly along with them. Soon enough, they would be grown and gone, and with them, much of what defined me for the past decade and a half. Without them, I’d have to somehow figure out who I would be next. The sight of the dog offered if not the answer to my fears of the future, a pleasant diversion from them. And at the very least, a possible cure for my CDD.
The man unloaded his groceries onto the belt as he described the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), which trains service dogs. I’d heard of NEADS, had even covered one of its graduations years earlier when I was a newspaper reporter. But back then, NEADS only trained dogs to alert their hearing-impaired owners to sounds like alarm clocks and crying babies. I hadn’t realized that in the years since, it had expanded its mission to train dogs to assist with a range of disabilities: multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder. There really was no limit to whom the dogs could help.
These days, most of their puppies are trained by inmates in prisons and released on weekends to volunteers like the man in the supermarket, who by now had pulled out his wallet to pay the cashier. I said good-bye and he urged me to visit the NEADS website to learn more. I returned to my daughter, who was lurking two lanes away, pretending to study the cover of Diabetic Living.
THAT EVENING AFTER dinner, I settled in front of my computer and clicked around on the NEADS website until I found the page for the Prison Pup Partnership. I learned that NEADS places puppies in select prisons throughout New England, where inmates train them to be assistance dogs. The inmate dog handlers have the most coveted job in prison. In exchange for raising and training a puppy, they get three dollars a day and their own cell to share with their dog. Over the course of twelve months or so, these specially chosen inmates are responsible for housebreaking their puppies and teaching them basic obedience before moving on to more specialized tasks with help from a professional trainer: teaching their dogs to pick up dropped coins, turn light switches on and off, push elevator buttons with their noses, get the phone when it rings, open and close doors, and fetch items from a refrigerator. Because inmates have all the time in the world to devote to their jobs, they’re able to train their dogs in about half the time it would take a professional dog trainer, and at significantly reduced cost.
There is one problem, though, and it’s kind of a big one. Assistance dogs go everywhere with their owners, so they need to be confident in all situations. If all a dog knows is prison, it won’t be able to function in the outside world. Things we take for granted—such as phones ringing, couples hugging, cars, and kids—are likely to send the dog into a barking frenzy or scrambling for the nearest hiding place. This is where weekend puppy raisers come in. On Friday afternoons, each puppy is furloughed into the custody of a volunteer who brings the dog along on errands and outings all weekend long, exposing it to new situations and continuing its training until Sunday evening, when the volunteer returns the puppy to prison.
The application to be a weekend puppy raiser was on the website. I skimmed the questions, looking for anything that might immediately disqualify me. There weren’t any requests for documentation of an advanced degree in canine behavior modification, no trick questions asking whether I’d interrupt my dinner to reward a begging puppy with (a) table scraps or (b) a slab of deli meat from the fridge. The questions were straightforward. How many adults in your household? (Two, if you count me.) How many children and what are their ages? (Fifteen and eleven, but growing up too fast. Sometimes not fast enough.) Any pets? (Two bunnies that live in a hutch outside.) NEADS wanted to know about our house and yard. I described our location in a semirural Massachusetts suburb, emphasizing the total lack of traffic on our cul-de-sac. Then I came to the question “Why do you want to raise a NEADS puppy?”
I closed my eyes and thought about it. Long before Tucker was our dog, she was my aspiration. As a kid, I’d begged for a dog, threatened to run away if I didn’t get one, bargained, cajoled, and whined (a lot). My mother’s answer was always the same: “When you have your own house, you can have a dog.”
It was worth the wait. Marty and I moved into our first home in the month of June and took Tucker, a pudgy eight-week-old puppy with an outsize personality, home in September. We found her in the classifieds of the local newspaper, the product of a secret rendezvous between neighboring German shepherds.
Tucker lived for nearly fifteen years. During that time, I had two babies and figured out how to be a mother. The Tucker years coincided with—and influenced—all of those thrilling firsts: first steps (my daughter was a late walker because of the constant threat of being knocked off her feet); first words (“Tu” for both of my kids); the first day of kindergarten (Tucker rode in the backseat while I followed the school bus at what I hoped was a discreet distance). There isn’t a home video from those years that doesn’t include at least one furry eclipse or scene-blocking shot of Tucker’s snout and an off-camera voice yelling, “Tucker! Move!”
Throughout the changes wrought by parenthood, Tucker was a reassuring constant. She kept us anchored to routine amid the chaos of kids and work. Every morning, Tucker and I went together for a forty-minute walk through the woods behind our house. I’d stand in the kitchen and call out, “Where are my boots?” running the words together so they came out as a single burst of sound. Tucker would push her snout through the kitty door to the basement, trying to reach the ledge by the stairs where I kept my shoes. She would dart forward, pretend-biting my hands while I sat on the floor to lace them up, and race back and forth through the kitchen until I opened the back door. Then she’d streak outside, disappear through the trees, and wait on the path until I caught up. We did this every day, even when our walk was a slog through rain or snow or I had to wrap a scarf around my face to keep my skin from freezing in the cold.
I felt safe with Tucker. I worked for a newspaper, and when I was transferred to the early-morning copy desk and we had to start our walks in the predawn darkness, Tucker would stay close to me while I focused the beam of the flashlight downward to illuminate roots and rocks, feeling as much as seeing the shadows pulse inward on either side of us. I’d draw comfort from Tucker’s steady panting and the sound of twigs snapping beneath our feet, feeling protected by my dog and the noise we made together.
When I was a teenager, I brought three things with me whenever I had to walk anywhere alone: a jackknife that I discovered half-buried in the dirt outside my school; a rock that fit in the palm of my hand but was heavy enough to use against an attacker; and a small, carved wooden lion that my mother gave me after my father moved out and which she said would give me strength. There was no specific reason for me to be fearful, just an awareness that sometimes awful things happened and one should be prepared as best she could. It didn’t help that I was small. Even now I’m sometimes mistaken for an eleven-year-old from behind. With Tucker, I didn’t need a rock or a knife or a wooden lion. She was my talisman, my weapon, and my protector. But mostly, she was my dog.
As the kids grew up, Tucker grew old. The moment of her death was quick and painless, but the months leading up to it were excruciating for her and for us. Our dog, who in her younger years had so much energy that I suspected someone had secretly implanted springs in her feet, would struggle to stand up, then collapse as her legs buckled under her weight. She was incontinent and, I’m pretty sure, heartbreakingly ashamed of it.
Every night I’d kiss the top of her head right between her ears, and in the morning I’d reach over the side of the bed and touch her body lightly with my hand until I felt it rise and fall with her breath. My relief at having my dog still with me would fade, though, at the thought of her suffering through another day.
Eventually, Marty and I accepted that it was up to us to stop Tucker’s suffering. She was at the end of her life. We had to let her go. I called the vet and arranged to bring Tucker after the weekend, on a Monday. That gave me time to tell her everything I needed to say to her. For those three days, I’d lie on the floor next to her and reminisce about her puppyhood, my panic on the first ride home when she wouldn’t stop yelping and crying because she missed her mother and siblings, how lucky we felt to find her, out of all the dogs in the world. I thanked her for preparing me and Marty to be parents, for protecting me and the children, for being our dog.
Marty came home from work early that Monday and we gave the kids time to say good-bye. They cried a little, then drifted off to read or play. Tucker was their parents’ dog more than theirs.
At the vet, Tucker used her last bit of strength to snap at the technician. I was silently proud that my dog was going out fighting. Plus, it was entirely in character for her. Tucker loved going to the vet but hated the exam table. Every time we took her there for shots or a physical, she would race up the steps into the waiting room and greet everyone there with her tail wagging, but the moment we got her on the table, she’d transform from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde and start snarling and nipping—and out would come the muzzle. This time would be no different. The vet, a stony-faced but kind woman, apologized when she handed us the blue cloth muzzle and waited while Marty slipped it over Tucker’s nose. While the vet injected our dog with pentobarbital, Marty and I took turns whispering into Tucker’s ear that she was a good dog, a smart dog, the best pal ever, until the vet removed the muzzle so that, in those last moments, we could stroke Tucker’s nose and kiss the spot between her eyes and scratch behind her ears, which we did until we realized there was no longer life beneath our touch.
Marty, whose decades as a journalist taught him the value of gallows humor in times of tragedy, took a long, wavering breath and said between sobs, “Oh, Tucker! You always knew this place would be the death of you.” The vet’s expression didn’t change but the technician laughed nervously. I put my arms around Marty, shaking from laughter and sobs.
Back home, I washed Tucker’s dishes and stored them in the basement. I used pliers to pry the tags from her collar, then attached them to a long chain and wore them around my neck. The following weekend, Marty and I picked out new carpet. I allowed myself to appreciate the luxury of not worrying about getting home in time to let the dog out even as I hated opening the door to an empty house.
Friends wanted to know when we were going to adopt another dog. We’d tell them maybe someday, but for now we wanted to enjoy our new carpets. Of course that was a lie. Marty always worried about our tight finances and wanted a break from the vet bills. And I didn’t want to start over with a new pet because a dog’s limited years on earth were an uncomfortable reminder of our own. As all endings do, Tucker’s death forced me to look back on my past and forward to my future. Behind me was a life that spilled over with the busyness of a growing family. In front of me, I saw that same family getting older until, in less than half the span of a dog’s natural life, the kids would be off on their own, and it would be just me and Marty left at home.
Oh, crap. I was crying. I swiped my eyes and stared at the question on the computer screen. Why did I want to raise a NEADS puppy? Because I didn’t want a dog who would grow old and die. But that’s not what I wrote. Instead, I typed: I know firsthand how much a dog can enrich a person’s life—my dog was enormously important to me. And I suspect that for a person dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of a disability, a specially trained service dog enhances his or her quality of life even more. NEADS performs an invaluable service and I’d like to be part of it.
I read over what I’d written and, satisfied, saved the application to my hard drive. The NEADS weekend puppy-raiser program, I naively thought, would be an ideal cure for my Canine Deficit Disorder—pick up a puppy on Friday night, return it on Sunday night, a new puppy every year, no strings attached. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
MARTY WAS IN our bedroom, working out a Neil Young song on his beat-up old Yamaha guitar. His face was partially hidden behind a harmonica stand looped around his neck. Marty’s more than a decade older than I am and was already going gray when we met twenty years earlier, but he has a boyish quality that leaves people unsure of his age.
He blew a final note into the harmonica. “Thank you very much. You’ve been a wonderful audience,” he said, deepening his voice to a Johnny Cash twang.
I clapped and settled onto the bed. “Okay, so, you know that dog we saw in the supermarket?”
He unhooked the harmonica holder from around his neck and placed it on his guitar case. “Okaaay . . .” He drew out the word. I noticed he didn’t meet my eyes. Marty is the opposite of spontaneous. He needs time to warm up to new ideas, especially those that might bring extra cost or complication into our lives.
“So, I’m thinking we should do it. What do you think? We’d have a puppy on weekends. They supply the food; we wouldn’t have to pay for anything. And it would be for a good cause.”
Marty pulled the strap over his head and leaned forward to lay the guitar back in its case. I figured he was remembering the recent Saturday afternoon he spent in the Laundromat when one of our canine houseguests snapped at him and peed on our down comforter. “Well, I’m not crazy about it,” he said.
I brightened. He had said the same exact words to me when I was eight months pregnant and asked how he felt about naming our daughter in memory of my cousin Aviva. Fifteen years later, he couldn’t imagine calling her anything else.
“I’ll send you the link so you can check out the program yourself. That way at least you’ll know more about it,” I told him.
“Yeah, do that. I’ll take a look at it to...
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