No, Snap is not a feline, but he falls within a general TGIF-and-animals theme, so here goes. This piece first appeared a year ago, in March 2014, in my monthly Nink column for Novelists, Inc., when Snap, my first foster puppy, was living here.
“You can never go wrong adding a dog to the story.”
—Jim Butcher, White Knight
Snap, 4 months old, on his first day here.
Since I work at home and since this house has a (small) fenced yard, I recently decided to try something I’d been thinking about for a while—fostering a service puppy.
Snap is a golden retriever who moved in with me in the autumn, when he was four months old. He’ll return to the foundation that owns him, 4 Paws For Ability, sometime this spring, when he’s ready to start his adult training to become a service dog for a disabled child. (The specific type of work he’ll do will be determined when he’s evaluated at the start of his skills training.) If all goes as expected, he will graduate from the program after intensive training, be successfully paired with his permanent family, and spend the rest of his life as some lucky kid’s best friend and working partner.
The goal for Snap, while he lives with me, is for him to become a confident, courteous companion in the world where he’ll eventually accompany his permanent human partner 24/7. Therefore, in addition to learning to be a good house dog and attending obedience classes, Snap goes virtually everywhere with me: post office, library, supermarket, retail stores, the bank, coffee shops, my mechanic’s garage, waiting rooms, public lectures, and so on.
Snap at 6 months, invited to a friend’s holiday brunch with me.
This month, he’ll attend a local sf/f convention (Millennicon) with me, where he’ll be at my side the whole time I’m doing all the usual stuff I do at conferences. And I fervently hope that while I’m speaking to audiences, Snap won’t suddenly start gagging, hiccuping, or vomiting—all of which things he, like many puppies, tends to do when you least expect it.
When he’s invited (which is often), Snap also accompanies me to parties and dinners at my friends’ homes. (Actually, invitations these days tend to read, “We haven’t seen Snap in too long! … Oh, and of course, you’re welcome to come here with him.”) There’s also a checklist in my foster handbook of things I am asked to expose Snap to, so they’ll be familiar to him as an adult, such as: elevators, sliding doors, cars, public transportation, the zoo, museums, live music, etc.
So, obviously, there’s a lot I’m supposed to teach Snap in the months that he’s here. But I had not realized until after his arrival that Snap would also teach me a great deal.
For example, the standard best case scenario in my working life is that I write a book, the editor tells me it’s okay (or tells me a few things need to be fixed; or says nothing at all to me), the book then goes into production, and I start writing the next book. Apart from that, in my experience, writing is mostly a life of being rejected and reviled.
So I was skeptical about 4 Paws’ strict insistence on positive reinforcement training, wherein I reward Snap’s good behavior with praise and dog treats, and I ignore his unsatisfactory behavior (or, if it’s problematic behavior, like dirtying the carpet or eating a chair, I tell him “no” and show him the right thing to do—such as go outside or chew on a bone).
This made no sense to me. It would never work! Surely, I thought, when Snap wants to chase his squeaky-toy instead of doing his obedience drills, I should tell him that there are a thousand puppies lined up at his back, eager to take his place if he doesn’t do what I tell him to do—and those puppies will gladly train for half the treats he’s getting! That’s how I was taught to be a working writer, after all. Shouldn’t a working dog also be inspired by similar motivators?
But I was wrong. To my astonishment, this whole “praise and rewards” system is effective. As soon as Snap realizes he’ll get a bacon-flavored goody for sitting when I say “sit,” he’s eager to comply. When he’s off-leash at my local park, he makes a game of running 30 yards ahead of me, then waiting for me to say, “Come,” so he can get showered with praise when he returns to me. Around the house, he increasingly repeats behavior I tell him is good (such as playing with his own toys, lying on his bed, and staying out of my way when I’m cooking) and seldom repeats behavior that goes unrewarded (such as stealing used tissues from the waste bin, which I refuse to play with or let him shred).
Imagine if editors praised us for writing a good story, delivering a clean manuscript, and conducting ourselves professionally. And now imagine if they did it every time we wrote, delivered, and conducted!
Wow. What a wonderful world it would be.
On the other hand, Snap has also taught me that good looks matter more than I want to admit. Snap is a beautiful dog—and this attracts people to him. I know, because everywhere I go, people comment on how beautiful he is—then ask if they can pet him, what his name is, how old he is, etc., etc.
Snap has a service vest he wears whenever we leave the house, which outfit enables him to accompany me everywhere, since there are very few places that service dogs aren’t allowed. The vest engenders a lot (a lot) of conversation with total strangers wherever we go. This amuses all my friends, since—brace yourself for a shock—I am not a people person, and I now typically find myself, as ambassador for my 4 Paws foster puppy, obliged to engage in friendly chat with strangers a dozen times a day. I’d honestly rather be subjected to a Vulcan mind probe, but whaddya gonna do?
Snap at 10 months, looking so grown up.
Once in a while, though, the service vest is in the laundry after getting muddy and we go for a walk without it. And I still get stopped constantly by people who exclaim on Snap’s beauty and want to interact with him. (In fact, whenever Snap is in the car with me, pedestrians wave and shout to me as we drive past, “What a beautiful dog!” On a day when the windows are open, people in other cars in traffic ask me questions about Snap.)
So, yeah, the reality is that looks make a difference. There’s a good reason that so many protagonists in commercial fiction are good-looking, and we shouldn’t feel we’re pandering or “selling out” when we write characters with enviable looks. People are attracted to another being’s beauty. I currently encounter empirical evidence of that every single day.
Nonetheless, Snap has also taught me that, while beauty may attract, character and personality are genuinely where it’s at. I have friends who get choked up at the thought of Snap leaving our lives this spring when he moves on to his next phase—not because he’s physically beautiful, but because Snap has a beautiful soul. And for all that total strangers are attracted by his beauty, it’s Snap’s sunny, gentle personality that makes busy people halt their day to spend five minutes petting a stranger’s dog at the supermarket or computer store. Like any good protagonist, Snap is someone you start caring about within moments of meeting him.
Snap begging me not to make him wear his Xmas costume in public.
Snap’s effect on strangers is also always a good reminder that, even though I’m not a people person, there are valid reasons for pretending to be one when I’m in public. This is particularly true in my professional capacity, since I don’t ever want to become one of those writers of whom readers say, “I used to like her books. But then I met her.”
Above all, Snap has reminded me that every story focuses on its protagonist—and, in this case, that’s not me. The question I am most commonly asked is always some variation of, “But don’t you get attached? Won’t it be hard to give him up?”
Well, yes, and yes. But so what?
This story isn’t about me; it’s Snap tale. It’s also about the disabled child whose life Snap will enrich and enliven–and quite possibly save, as these dogs often do. I’m not a humble person, but it strikes me as self-evident that, in this narrative, Snap and his eventual partner are the spine of the story, and I’m just a secondary character who’ll feel bereft for a while after Snap returns to 4 Paws for his adult training.
Meanwhile, I’m teaching him how to live in the world—a skill we’re all a little shaky on, including me, yet we nonetheless manage to muddle through. Missing someone we love and who is no longer around is one of the things we all have to learn to do—and, after all, I think Snap will miss me, too.
This puppy has a challenging, rewarding, and important life ahead of him, and that’s what I focus on when I think about saying goodbye to him.
I also keep in mind that after he moves on, I will no longer be goosed out of a sound sleep or interrupted mid-paragraph by Snap vomiting on me.
Snap returned to 4 Paws about 3 months later and commenced his adult skills training. He was very successful, as I expected, and now works as a seizure-alert dog with a child who will be his constant companion that rest of his life. Giving him up was indeed very hard, but it was made easier by seeing how much he is loved and valued by his permanent family–who I got to meet at his graduation (the children and their families go to 4 Paws to train together with the dog throughout the final 2 weeks of the course, during which time they become a team). I have asked 4 Paws about Snap several times since I last saw him, since they keep in touch with the families, and they tell me he is doing well and is cherished. (My mom correctly predicted that whoever Snap was placed with, he would promptly have them eating out of his paw.)
If you’d like to read more about 4 Paws For Ability, I first learned about them via this interesting article. If you’d like more information about fostering for them (they’re in Xenia, Ohio, and fosters need to live within 2-3 hours of there by car), you can find it here, including information about their university fostering program (students foster for a semester). Also worth reading even if you live in another region but would like to learn more about fostering service puppies, in general. You can also follow 4 Paws on Twitter or Facebook.