Santana: 2007-2019

Santana was my third Canine Companion. How we became a team is a remarkable story.

My second service dog, Lanzner, was getting old. I wasn’t taking her out as much and needed a young, vibrant dog to continue life with. I had already put in an application to CCI for a successor service dog.

Training with another dog was just another thing on my schedule. I knew it would eventually come to retire Lanzner and go back to Oceanside, CA for another two week training course. It wasn’t new for me, but the waiting game is just of the process.

My life was already busy in the spring of 2009. I had just come out of a challenging time, finishing my bachelors, and designing my job in the ministry.

I needed a new dog to begin a new stage of my life.

One day I received an email from Simi, the head trainer at Canine Companions. The subject line was “a proposal.” Interesting, I thought, wondering what it could be.

Simi wrote that a graduate had recently died in Colorado. She had just graduated, and the dog could be placed with someone new if the right situation came along.  Would I be interested in meeting the dog to see if it was a good match? Simi would fly to Colorado to do some training with us. If it didn’t work out, I would remain on the waiting list until the right dog could be identified.

Of course I said yes. 

Santana was in another room when I arrived at the CCI office. When Simi brought him to me, we both fell in love. We worked for only a hour or two on simple commands like sit, down, and here. Santana picked up on my speech right away, and neither Simi nor I had a doubt that Santana would be my next service dog.

I went home that afternoon very excited about my new partner. Lanzner was still living with me at the time, but now she had to move out. It wouldn’t be fair for either Lanzner or Santana to live together. First, I needed some alone time with Santana to finish  boding. Second, it might also confuse both dogs. Lanzner might still try to work, and Santana might be timid and not work for me at all.

Lanzner would live out her retirement years with my mother. I’d still would be able to see her and was there when we sent her over the rainbow bridge a couple of years later. She and I spent a final afternoon together after I met Santana, and I took her for a final walk around the neighborhood. Mom arrived the next morning to take Lanzner to her new home.

An hour later, Simi arrived with Santana, a new crate, new bowls, food, leases, and vests. Coach, as I affectionately called her, spent two days with us supervising our training and solving any problems we had. Santana was picking  up items for me within a day…even retrieving TV dinners and full Dr. Pepper cans!  Those were always hard things to pick up. We took a trip to Walgreens in my van to make sure we could work well in public. No problem! Santana walked beside my chair as if he had been doing it for years and had excellent behavior in public.

Coach declared that Santana and I were a team the next day. Our outing at Walgreens served as our public access test —- the test that made sure service teams were safe. She also reminded me that our placement was very special. CCI doesn’t usually place dogs outside of a two week training course, and the organization didn’t want to set a precedent. I understood completely. I was very humbled that CCI would trust me with this special placement, and I would never take advantage of this opportunity.

The first thing you would notice about Santana was how silly he was. His whole backside wiggled. I nicknamed him “Mr, Wiggles.” He was definitely my most fun dog. He ran all out with his back feet touching his ears. He loved to eat and almost finished his food before it hit the bottom of his dish. I’d find him on my bed laying flat on his back, legs straight up in the air, and the slightest  smile on his lips. San was never in a bad mood. He was always up for an adventure.

I received Santana days before I graduated from Bible college. He walked with me at graduation. Lanzner did all the work (slept in class), but Santana received all the rewards! I introduced Santana to my friends at my graduation party that celebrated both my college graduation and our new team.

The same situation happened with my associates degree, too. My first dog, Nouveau, attended most of my classes at the community college. Lanzner attended a few and walked across the stage at graduation. I humorously predicted that I should be well on my way to getting my Masters by the time Santana retired so that my next dog could graduate with me, but graduate school hasn’t been in the cards.

Instead, Santana helped me with my ministry. Undoubtedly, that meant more time at home while I wrote, worked on my website, or made connections with pastors and colleagues. My other two dogs were much more on the go than Santana, but he still retrieved dropped items, went with me to meet with pastors or speak at churches. And of course, he always stole the show.

On one of our adventures, I led the young adults’ group at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat with my future wife, Kelly. On the first night of camp, each of the teams performed a skit. For our skit, we gathered on the stage and chanted “Santana! Santana!” as if we were waiting for a rock star.  Pretty soon Santana came onto the stage wearing sunglasses and chains…with his tail wagging, of course! 

There were four or five service dogs at camp that summer. Each were well behaved, but even service dogs deserved a little fun. Every afternoon, right after lunch, we met on the back lawn for “doggie Bible study.”

It was always bedlam when the five dogs were “released” from their duties. Some just flopped down. Others found a partner and ran around on big chase jaunts. Santana, of course, ran at full speed with his back legs almost touching his ears. Doggie Bible study never lasted for more than a half hour, but it was always a great and relaxing time for the dogs and their owners.

On that same trip, Kelly, Santana, and I visited Chicago and St. Louis. We inspected the arch and rode a river boat in St. Louis, but Chicago was our favorite stop. Our hotel was a couple of stops outside of the city and we took the train into the city for three days. We visited Shedd Aquarium, went to a Cubs game, and strolled down Michigan Avenue.

One highlight of our trip was visiting Willis Tower and its sky deck on the 99th floor. The views are awesome!  There were four glass boxes that extend 4.3 feet outside the Tower and stand 1,353 feet above the ground. I love heights…the higher the better…and I immediately drove my wheelchair right onto the glass. Santana, however, was a little more cautious. There was no way he was ever stepping out onto that glass no matter how much encouragement I gave him. Nope, no way, no how! Kelly and I just laughed and moved on.

Outside of the Willis Tower, we ran into a group from Brazil. They had never encountered a service dog and couldn’t stop taking pictures and petting San. Cameras clicked. Flashes flashed. My service dog was actually being followed by Paparazzi! I just looked at him and said, “it’s one thing to be a rock star at camp; it’s something else to show off in the middle of Chicago!” And in a way that only Santana could only pull it off; he looked at me with his big brown eyes, wiggled his rear end and got ready for our next encounter.

A couple of blocks later, we met a woman whose daughter had raised puppies for CCI but she had never personally seen the end result. “You made my day,” she said. “Now I know what the end result looks like after puppy raisers turn in our dogs. Thank you for showing me what a working team looks like.”

Life with Santana went on. Things got serious with our friend, Kelly, and Santana was the best dog at our wedding. Kelly’s cat and dog, Angel and Diego, moved in. Our little family became five. Santana finally had a buddy to play with in Diego. They ran, wrestled, and enjoyed each other’s company. They couldn’t eat in the same room…Santana would just gobble up both bowls. Angel just ignored both dogs.

One of my favorite stories is  when Kelly was away on a business trip. I woke up one morning and thought Kelly had turned into a dog. Then I realized it was Santana! Both of us were very happy with our new family. However, things were about to change.

Santana worked for me for a couple more years after Kelly and I got together. We went back to the family retreat in Minnesota, visited Mount Rushmore, attended a disability ministry conference in LA and visited Disneyland. Santana rode all the rides, met Mickey Mouse and all his friends, and slept through several shows.

Santana’s working years flew by, and he began to slow down. Taking him out on dates was like taking your children. There were times when I wanted to be just with Kelly and not have to worry about having to be concerned about commanding a dog. It was also easier to workout at the gym. I could work out on a machine without having to worry about Santana breaking a command and having to stop my workout to correct him. 

Santana officially retired on April 1, 2018. He continued to pick up items for me at home and went on long walks with Diego and me. After almost twenty-nine years of having a dog with me 24/7, I didn’t have a working service dog. San couldn’t legally go out with me. His vest was retired. It was a Sunday. I got tears in my eyes as we were leaving for church. It’s was one thing to leave Santana home by choice, it was totally different to leave him behind because I had to.

His one year anniversary of retirement zipped past without notice. I always enjoyed his presence, and he seemed to be well…Santana. He was always up for picking up something for me or going for a walk with Diego, although a little slower. Kelly and I always loved Santana being apart of our lives and never ignored him.

We took Santana to the vet on March 2019. Kelly had put his food bowl down that morning. He walked right past it, went outside and laid down in the snow. Definitely not like him! The vet ran a second round of blood tests and discovered that his  red blood cells had decreased for a second time in a month. He suggested we take him to a specialist who did a thorough examination including a ultrasound. He diagnosed Santana with cancer.

Kelly and I were stunned. Our hearts were breaking. We stayed in the examining room for what seemed to be forever. I didn’t think the day would ever come when I’d have to say goodbye to Santana. We decided that we would do the minimum treatment plan and make him comfortable. He was, after all, thirteen years old. It didn’t make sense to keep him going.

Kelly was my rock. I was in a daze. I cried. Santana liked to lie down in our backyard, and I sat in the doorway just watching him. Kelly organized all the medicine, food (he was now eating wet food), and kept family and friends up to date. We were hoping that he would hold on until Kelly’s parents came in a few weeks but knew it was a long shot.

We found out about Santana’s cancer only days before Palm Sunday — the start of Holy Week. I went to church that Sunday with a heavy heart. Kelly was helping in children’s church that morning, and I started to weep as communion began. The children’s pastor came up and gave me a hug.

“Did Kelly tell you about Santana?” I could hardly get the words out.

“Yes, I’m so sorry. I’m going to help you with communion.” It was one of the gentlest acts of compassion I’ve ever experienced.

She walked aside me in the communion line. I couldn’t get the tears out of my eyes. I finally took the bread and wine and went directly to the prayer team. Pastor Christy briefly explained what was happening and prayer took over. Kelly eventually joined us for prayer.

It’s unreal to walk through a death during Holy Week. The scriptures, the reflections, and the music all pointed to death. This was overwhelming.

We made an appointment with the vet for Monday, April 22. It was time. Kelly and I agreed on several “benchmarks” that would tell us it was time to say goodbye. They included stopping eating, not taking the medications, and having a difficult time getting up. He met the first two. We were grateful Santana could still get up and move around at the end.

The appointment was for 2:30 on Monday afternoon. We took Diego and Angel with us so they could say their goodbyes too… and frankly so that we wouldn’t come home empty handed.

Nothing was planned when we entered the room. Kelly put on soft music and I played the love chapter from the Bible. Santana, as all my dogs, taught me how to love. He showed it every day. The chapter was a fitting end to his life. The room was still. The vet injected the shot and pronounced Santana dead a few minutes later. Those will be haunting words for the rest of my life.  

We spent a few more minutes with Santana. Diego and Angel had a change to sniff the body. I backed out of the room and gazed at my friend for the final time as the door closed.

Thanks for the prayers and support. I’m actually in more peace now than when he was suffering. I sat by the door looking at him laying in the grass. That was the hard part.

-Tait

I found this statement in my journal recently, “Start unknown. Finish unforgettable.” This sums up my thirty years with Canine Companions. I applied for my first service dog when I was sixteen. It was certainly an act of faith, a step into the unknown. One young man who lives with cerebral palsy, three trained dogs, and a uncontrollable God and the ending can only be…unforgettable.

I imagine the last scene of The Return of the Jedi when Leah finds Luke staring into a fire. What they see is Obi One, Anakin, and Yoda. What are Luke and Leah thinking? What are Obi One, Anakin, and Yoda thinking? Past adventures? Important talks? The love they had for each other?

If I’d look into a fire, there’s no doubt three dogs would be looking at me, Nouveau, Lanzner, and Santana. (Santana is no doubt standing up wiggling!)

The Bible puts it in a little different perspective. Hebrews puts it this way: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses….” (12:1)

With all due respect to my favorite movie franchise, this is how I want to remember my service dogs. They are in the midst of my grandparents, friends, and my dad. My three service dogs are in the midst of God’s great witnesses until I see them again.

As a postscript…this is Santana’s story. I’ve written elsewhere about Nouveau, Lanzner, and my deep gratitude for Canine Companions for Independence. I plan on doing more writing on the subject especially in my upcoming book, “My Name is Tait, and…” Yes, you’ll read these and new stories very soon! I can’t get away from it! 

But even though the wound is still fresh and I’m grieving like no other time in my life, I felt I had to put something on my website about Mr. Wiggles. Call it a memorial or Santana’s last testimony or what ever. This dog was something special and will never be forgotten.