I named her Tres, because she was my third Angel Service Dog, but in an ill-conceived bout of inspiration, I engraved “Tres-E” on her bone-shaped stainless steel ID tag.
Over the past year, as she’s progressed through a series of Angel Service Dogs guardians and trainers in Colorado Springs, Tres-E has morphed into Trac-E, but no matter how you spell her name, it’s pronounced Tracy. To me, her puppyraiser, Tracy will forever be Tres, my Number Three. As time has passed, and other puppies have come and gone, I’m pretty sure Tracy was my one-in-a-million dog, the puppy with the soulful amber eyes and boundless canine spirit that padded into my heart, circled three times and nested; for whatever reason, she chose me exclusively as hers, bonded with me like no other animal probably ever will.
Funny thing is, Tracy was an accident. Credit Gunner for that. Kim and Mike Piedt’s purebred Labrador retriever, an intensely driven hunting dog with a luminous coat a-ripple with muscle and a vertical leap of five feet or more, had escaped from his kennel at Killara Ridge Breeding & Research Center one summer day in 2010 while his owners were away. A helpful neighbor found Gunner ranging through the brambles of Portland’s West Hills and returned the AWOL Lab to Killara Ridge. But instead of leaving Gunner in his kennel, the neighbor mistakenly locked him into an adjoining pen with Sammy, a supersweet shaggy multi-gen Australian labradoodle I think of as Mrs. Snuffleupagus, a female in heat that had already been bred with another multigen labradoodle and was in the early stages of pregnancy. Gunner did what any intact male Lab would do in such a situation, so when Sammy gave birth that September, half the pups emerged from her womb as fluffy as Muppet Babies while the others were miniature Super Labs, flat coat carbon copies of Gunner. In November, after I had left Gus, my second Angel Service Dog pup, with trainers in Colorado Springs, I loaded my kids in the car and drove up to Killara Ridge to claim our third service dog puppy. We chose a Gunner pup, a seven-week-old chocolate girl with flecks of gold in her then-grey eyes; in the kennel, where collar colors serve as placeholder names, she was known as Purple, then graduated to a larger collar and was called Pink. When I picked her up, held her close for the first time, she claimed her name:
Before she could leave the kennel, the pup needed to be vaccinated, and I volunteered for the job. Here’s a video of Kim Piedt watching over me as I give a trembling little Tracy her first shot:
At home, I plopped Tracy down on the hardwood floor of our puppy nursery, a corner of the living room behind the couch that’s segregated from the rest of the house with a baby gate, where I introduced her to her fleece-lined crate, and a bevy of new toys–including a yellow rubber binky for teething–but at first, all she wanted to do was curl into my daughter’s lap:
And so like the dogs before her, and the others that have followed, Tracy became part of my family. As days merged into weeks and the weeks blurred into months, Tracy grew, and her training advanced in a rapid, and sometimes not-so-rapid, succession of firsts: learning to nose the bell hanging from the knob of the back door when she had to go outside; leaving her playpen to explore the house–including counters and the dishwasher; graduating from obedience school and into a red Service Dog In Training cape; then socialization forays in public: grocery stores, movie theaters, libraries, public schools, restaurants, buses, trains and escalators. And whenever she wasn’t working, we played, endless games of fetch and Frisbee (athletic like her sire, Tracy loves nothing more than to soar through the air) at Vancouver’s eight-acre Ross Off-leash Dog Recreation Area, road trips to Mount Hood to romp in the snow or climb a fire lookout, chasing seagulls through the surf on the Oregon coast.
After six months, when she was inseparable, glued to me like a tail, it was time to say goodbye, with a final test: a plane trip to Colorado. Wedged beneath the seatback at my feet, she rested her nose between my knees and shivered with fear as the jetliner roared into the sky; eventually, she struggled to stay awake, eyes blinking once, twice, then with a heavy sigh, she drifted off to sleep. Just before the Angel Service Dogs commencement ceremony at the Colorado Springs Marriott Residence Inn on May, 13, 2011, I handed Tracy’s leash to Roberta Swanson Ross and her teenage son, Adam, the guardians who would school her for six months until she was ready for her scent detection trainer. As Gus, my second pup, graduated and received his blue-green service vest, I stood in the back of the ballroom, and tried not to notice that Tracy was scrambling under the chairs, straining at the end of her leash to get to me. I saw the confusion and pleading in those amber eyes. Yet somehow, I found the courage to turn my back on her, and walk away.
Exactly one month from today, when I return to that very ballroom with another dog, and watch Tracy graduate with her forever family, the Nicholses of Minnesota, these will be some of the images running through my head: