This is not a eulogy. Frank, named after U.S. Army Air Corps Lieutenant Francis Misciagna, is a dog I’ve been helping to train as part of Warrior Canine Connection, a non-profit that trains service dogs for wounded veterans. He’s finished with training and is moving on to be a facility dog at a veterans homeless shelter, so last weekend I had him over for a sleepover to say goodbye.
Frankie was not the first dog I worked with, but he was the first puppy. He was born about two years ago and he stayed a puppy except he got bigger. His head is as wide as a football, his fur is golden yellow and he has this derpy sort of look, as if he’s always thinking about the last thing you said. I met him as a puppy in spring of 2019, just after my knee surgery. He was small enough to fit in my hand. At the time, our training sessions were basically him playing and me rewarding him every time he responded to his name, me being pinned to the couch with a giant stiff brace on my leg.
I left for a month after that summer and the next time I saw him, in fall quarter, he was huge. A grown boy. He had elbows and droopy ears and a big shaggy tail. The real training started. He learned to walk next to you, not ahead, in case you’re on crutches so he doesn’t trip you. He learned to pick up your cell phone or sock, to press automatic door buttons and to open and close drawers and fridges. He learned to interrupt anxious behaviors — your head in your hands, a tapping knee — and he learned to hug.
Frankie hugs like a person. He’s trained to do that, partly. We practice it by drawing a treat — the lure — across your lap until he’s at just the right spot, elbows between your thighs so it doesn’t hurt. But Frankie does more than that. He leans in with his shoulder. He puts his head on your neck. He licks your face if you don’t stop him. And sometimes, even though he’s not supposed to do this, he’ll sit in front of you, put his paws around your waist and lean chest to chest. He puts his head in your neck, ear to ear, and I swear I’ve met humans who do not hug that well.
Frankie and I trained together off and on for the rest of the school year until Covid-19 hit. After that, we kept training, but had to meet off campus. I remember one day he was practicing staying in the down position. I’d taken him with me to the field one day for my 10 minutes of yoga and he couldn’t take it; he whined and thrashed against the leash every time I stepped away. So we were practicing having him stay put. I’d take two steps away, come back, give him a treat. Five steps, come back, treat. Then more steps, then doing push-ups in front of him, and so on until I could go out of sight and come back to find him still down.
I think I need some of that training now. Frankie is about to graduate and has been assigned to a facility that is not terribly far away, but enough that I will not be able to see him every week. And even if I could, it would be different. It’s like we had this silent agreement that he was always my dog, really, and that everything else he had to do was work, but now the illusion is gone. He’ll be at this homeless shelter with his shaggy hair and big hugs and derpy face, cheering up veterans who need him. I need him too, but in a different way.
Now that he’s leaving, of course, I remember all the times I was frustrated with him. One sleepover he whined for an hour straight while I was trying to do homework. He wouldn’t get into the car to go to dinner. I thought I’d take him places, show him off, but everywhere we went he got anxious and either barked or whined too much to hang around. He’s gotten better, of course. He sits quietly while I do homework at Coupa or talk to strangers. He follows me patiently through the grocery store and lays down if we stop walking.
But it all seems ridiculous now. Like when he didn’t want to go out, we could have just stayed in and played. I could have walked him in less crowded places. And it hurts to know that I’ve done this before with people — my parents, my brothers, my friends: setting expectations for them and being disappointed when they fall short. And it’s always when it’s time to say goodbye that you realize how much time was lost.
Is this all love is? A list of people we can’t appreciate enough until it’s time to say goodbye? Maybe it’s just being 30: You start to understand that you will lose people you care about or they will lose you. I’m choked up as I’m writing this, sitting at my desk, about to walk Frankie down for his pickup. When his dog-mom comes to get him, she’ll have a box of cookies that Antoine’s Cookies sent for me, bless them, and holy crap they are amazing cookies. But I don’t know that yet, and I’m sure I’d be choked up even if I did. Frankie is lounging over by the window. I sniffle, and he looks up. He prandles over — I don’t have another word for his walk — this something between a prance and a waddle. He stands next to me, lays his front paws in my lap, snuggles his head against my neck.