Buona Sera, Gennaio

People ask how I got started in this business. I explain that I joined the Peninsula Humane Society in the SF Bay Area as a member of their senior team in 1998, following a few years as a high school teacher and administrator.  Truth is, my animal welfare ties go back a decade earlier, to college and a gangly black lab puppy.

I was a senior at Stanford, living with three fellow seniors in a rented house off campus.  We talked about getting a dog, but we were at least somewhat responsible. First, there was convincing the landlord. Also, none of us had plans beyond graduation and we recognized we could be going separate ways, which could leave a dog in a tough spot.

Maybe not. While driving home to San Bruno to spend Christmas with family, a radio spot caught my attention. A nonprofit called Canine Companions for Independence, which trained and provided assistance dogs, was recruiting puppy socializers and their six-month commitment lined up perfectly with graduation in June. That is, if we all graduated.

I received a letter from the Registrar’s Office informing me I hadn’t fulfilled my foreign language requirement. I knew this; it was my albatross for three years. I studied Italian my first two quarters freshman year (Buon giorno, mi chiamo Scott!), and with one quarter left to check that box, I bumped Italian for another class, figuring I’d complete that final quarter later.  Il disastro! Total sciocco (translates to boob, sap, nincompoop).

With the Registrar’s letter tucked in drawer and a loose plan to complete Italiano filed “upstairs” in my testa, I called a meeting of the housemates. Everyone was on board.  C’mon, four guys with a puppy we could tool around campus with as our wingman — we would actually be encouraged to do this and the dog’s yellow service vest would be our golden ticket.

Next up, the landlord, Mrs. Haffner. Picture Eddie Haskell working Beaver Cleaver’s mom. Times four. We played up the humanitarian nature of our “work” and she buckled.

Step three, the application and interview process. The nonprofit was based in Sebastopol, CA, on the edge of the Wine Country.  “You guys would be perfect,” our interviewer explained. We tried not to look shocked and just went with it. “You can take the puppy to classes, walks in the Quad, grocery shopping…she’ll be exposed to people riding bikes, people on skateboards, big crowds, stairs…” Darn right we were perfect.

One week later, we were the official puppy socializers for a 4-month-old black lab puppy named IO (eye-oh), the first two letters of her ID. They apparently ran out of clever names for her litter. No problema. IO quickly became Gennaio (jen-eye-oh), the Italian word for January, her first month with the fab four. At least one of us knew a similar-sounding name was important.

Expected adventures and misadventures followed. In a crowded field, we were “the guys with the dog,” which was much better than “the guys.” We exposed her to people, places, sights, sounds, dorm parties, house parties, car rides, (never saw a dog vomit as much as she did after a trip to the beach and windy road back home), and a library visit or two. We completed our assigned homework and helped her learn a list of commands. Our favorite was “better go now,” the cue for going potty. She ate one condom and one piece of mail, unfortunately a passport. For the record, neither was mine. She chased a seal at the beach. The day we had to return her, she pooped in the nonprofit’s office. No one said “better go now.” Piove sul bagnato (when it rains it pours!).

Those last days with Gennaio were crushing and gave me an invaluable lesson in what it’s like to foster, something so many special SPCA volunteers eagerly do. I was also crushing on my late 40s, blond Italian instructor, Professore Dina Viggiano, which made Italian interesting. Not exactly a Mrs. Robinson situation, but a college kid who just saw The Graduate for the first time can hope.

We were encouraged to visit Gennaio during her extensive training phase and even allowed to take her for a weekend. One of the fab four was working as a counselor at Stanford Sierra Camp on Fallen Leaf Lake just below Tahoe, so we made a surprise visit.  I can still see Gennaio flying down the boat dock. Steps from the end, she put on the brakes, and slid off — pawing at air — into the lake, making a belly flop contest look graceful by comparison.

I passed Italian somehow (molte grazie, professore!), but we felt like we failed Gennaio. We were informed a few months after graduation that she didn’t pass her extensive training, but not to feel bad because the bar is quite high for assistance dogs and she had already been placed in a wonderful home.

Six months and a special cane none of us will forget. Non ci piove.  Literal translation: it doesn’t rain on it. English equivalent: no doubt about it.