VIDEO: Farewell held for popular Langley assistance pooch

Rumor’s service can continue, albeit unofficially, as Langley’s popular working dog retires.

She’s probably the best known dog in Langley.

She’s not a search hound or police officer. She’s not an award-winning show dog. Nor is she’s a celebrity canine.

But Rumor, a purebred yellow Labrador retriever, is extremely well-known in this community after eight years of serving as an assistance dog for Fernridge’s Zosia Ettenberg.

Rumor is, in dog years, a senior, and she is being retired from duty later this month, just shy of her 10th birthday.

She will no longer live with Ettenberg. Instead, Rumor will go from working with one well-known community volunteer to simply being a companion for another recognizable face in town – Doug Penner.

Doug is 14-year-old Langley Christian School student, who is the namesake for the Ride for Doug. That’s a motorcycle fundraiser in its 11th year of raising money and awareness for muscular dystrophy.

Doug was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy when he was two. It’s a commonly fatal genetic disorder that has resulted in his muscles weakening, and his strength and endurance diminishing in the past few years.

In his application to adopt Rumor, Doug and his family said he’d look forward to cuddling on the couch and watching videos with the dog.

Terribly saddened about having to say goodbye to Rumor, Ettenberg said she’s still excited that the dog is going to remain in Langley and said she can’t think of anyone more fitting to adopt Rumor – having known the family for some time.

There were a number of people who applied to adopt Rumor.

That group was whittled down to three a few weeks ago, and after visits each of their homes, and conducting in-person interviews, Ettenberg said the decision was even harder. She noted that Rumor’s puppy raiser – who still sees Ettenberg and the dog several times a year – was among the applicants.

The ultimate decision wasn’t solely Ettenberg’s to make.

The search was primarily led by Pacific Assistance Dogs Society, the organization that first matched Ettenberg and Rumor eight years earlier – and which still holds title to the dog until the adoption by the Penner family goes through next month.

PADS’ Ron Tymrick was involved in all the interviews, and said he was particularly swayed by the fact that there was an individual in the Penner home living with a physical disability.

They settled on “one family who, we felt, would not only enjoy having her as their pet. There is also a possibility that Rumor will still be able to continue with some of her service dog skills within the home on a limited basis,” he explained.

“My life changed when I got her,” Ettenberg said of Rumor.

Now, she hopes Doug’s life can be changed by her furry and friendly companion.

She’s confident Rumor will relish the love and attention offered by the young boy and his family, and revel in watching TV and chilling, Ettenberg said.

Set for retirement

“Rumor is a very healthy dog,” and still well-behaved, polite, and anxious to play when allowed. But, she’s not so keen to work, said Ettenberg, a 71-year-old grandmother who is primarily wheelchair bound.

“She has been slowly letting me know that she was ready to retire.”

Rumor used to get very excited to go to work, grabbing the leash and opening the door instantly upon command.

But since Easter, Rumor has been telling Ettenberg in different ways “that she doesn’t want to work anymore.”

It was “hard to make that decision,” Ettenberg said, not only because she’ll miss Rumor terribly, but because she’s not sure when she’ll get another PADS dog.

While she wished she could keep Rumor, Ettenberg noted there wouldn’t be room in her small home for two large dogs – as she is expecting to get another PADS assistance dog in the near future – and fears it would be unfair (and evoke severe separation anxiety) after all these years to suddenly be leaving Rumor at home while taking another dog out with her everywhere.

Plus, she added with a chuckle, taking two labs for a walk in a power chair would be logistically impossible.

“I’m just so happy that we’ve found a really nice home for her, where she can be retired and have fun, and be a pet for a change.”

Fans far and wide

Since Ettenberg is a retired physiotherapist who remains “pretty” active with a number of committees and organizations, she has consequently introduced Rumor to hundreds of different people in Langley through the years.

And likewise, Rumor’s personality has won her many friends of her own.

“So many people seem to know her… she had a little more notoriety than most other dogs, but that’s probably because of my lifestyle,” Ettenberg added. “I believe Rumor is the best known dog in Langley.”

She felt it was important to give people an opportunity to say goodbye to Rumor, thank her for her years of service, and to meet her new family.

Consequently, Ettenberg is hosting a send off for her pooch.

Rumor’s retirement party is set for Saturday, Aug. 19, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Paw Street Market, in Murrayville (#101-22259 48th Ave.).

Hot dogs and hamburgers are available between noon and 2 p.m. for a “nominal charge” with all proceeds to Langley Pos-Abilities Society.

“I hope a crowd will come out, but I don’t know,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

“I believe that Rumor has changed more than just my life,” Ettenberg added, wanting to provide a chance for people to say their goodbyes. “She has touched a whole lot of lives along the way.”

What a difference she made

Ettenberg credits Rumor with giving her increased self confidence and said the dog’s presence simplified her life in so many ways.

“It was a very significant change. A pleasant change,” Ettenberg said.

Since that initial training day in November 2009, the pair have not been apart for more than a few hours.

While there have been so many advantages to having Rumor in her life, Ettenberg acknowledged it hasn’t been without its challenges, too.

As an example, it’s almost impossible to estimate how much time Rumor might need to “do her business.” Likewise it’s difficult to predict travel time to any public destination because invariably many people along the way want to say hello to Rumor – so getting to places on time is almost unheard of in their world.

“I hate telling people that we don’t time to stop,” Ettenberg said, anxious for any opportunity to explain the basics of working dogs and what services Rumor has able to offer in her life.

It’s always stop-and-go in public, she elaborated, noting that when people simply reach out to pet the dog, she’s quick to stop them.

“She’s a working dog, please don’t pet her,” Ettenberg will say, again taking time – when she can – to explain why assistance and guide dogs can’t randomly be approached.

Ironically, Ettenberg said, since she was confined to a wheelchair permanently 16 years ago, she noted how she’d become “invisible” to most.

“People don’t see you for some reason,” she said, suggesting it might be that she’s sits lower than the eye level of most people.

But, with the introduction of Rumor to her life, she’s noticed much more. At least for now… but as she prepares to retire Rumor at the end of the month, she admits that invisibility has become one of her worries.

“People can’t help but notice Rumor,” she said. “What happens now is when I’m going through the mall, I hear ‘oh, look at that beautiful dog,’ and then there’s a pause and then they say ‘oh, hi’.”

Rumor has invariably launched hundreds of otherwise unlikely conversations and even spawned several meaningful friendships, Ettenberg said.

“When you’ve got a dog, people recognize you more,” she said.

She’s delighted to see working dogs becoming more accepted and common. For instance, Ettenberg has gone from having one of few working dog in the community, to having one of four at her church: an autism dog, a training guide dog, a service dog going to a school in the U.S., and Rumor – an assistance dog.

She hopes she and Rumor have helped, in some small way, in bridging that gap in public awareness.

How it all began

In June 2009, Ettenberg learned that someone in a power chair could benefit from the aid of an assistants dog. Later that month, she applied to PADS, and had an interview by mid-August of that year.

By the end of that September, she received a letter saying she’s been accepted and could be expected to be matched with a dog withing two months and two years.

“I proceeded with the rest of my life, not expecting to get my dog for two years… Two weeks later, the call came. PADS was asking ‘do you want to meet your dog?’”

Visiting Ettenberg’s home, Rumor came in, checked out the house, chased the cats, and quickly settled in, laying her head on Ettenberg’s foot.

“That’s when we knew that she was my dog,” she said.

They’ve been together 24/7 ever since.

As for Rumor, her adventure into service started a few years earlier.

Rumor came to PADS, along with her brother, Romeo, from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif. – as part of an international breeding exchange program between assistance dog schools, Tymrick explained.

She arrived at the Vancouver airport as a three-month-old puppy in November 2007 and was raised by a volunteer family. There, she was socialized and trained for approximately 11 months, attending attended puppy-classes each week at the PADS campus, and learning her basic obedience before entering advanced training at PADS in Burnaby in fall of 2008.

She was placed with Ettenberg one year later.

Because the personality of the dogs and humans have to mesh, some matches take longer to make than others.

In the case of Rumor and Ettenberg, the pair were both described as an obvious match, Tymrick said.

“She was a brilliant dog, but particularly stubborn,” Ettenberg said. “What they needed was someone who was as equally stubborn.”

Having pets as she grew up, usually boxers, Ettenberg understood basic obedience and could handle big dogs.

“After reading how [Ettenberg] had battled through many difficult personal problems and health issues, I felt that she would have the confidence and determination to deal with our stubborn little girl,” Tymrick said.

“Despite a few challenges along the way, my hunch was correct and they have done well ever since,” he added.

By November 2009, the two-year-old dog knew 60 commands. Ettenberg knew none.

During the two weeks of training that followed, Ettenberg said one of the hardest things to learn was how to go to the bathroom in a public washroom.

“It’s not so easy…You don’t leave that dog outside the door,” she said.

Transition period

There will be a transition period for Rumor and her new family.

It will start with a few longer visits, work up to a weekend visit, then – sometime in September – she’s expected to make the move permanently, Ettenberg explained.

It’s a birthday present, if you will, for Doug – who turns 15 next month, said his father Cam Penner.

“What kid doesn’t want to have a dog,” said Dad. “Doug has a love of animals. One of the careers he talks about is becoming a vet assistant. There is just something in his make up that is kind and compassionate to animals. “

Doug and Rumor have a fairly long history. They have known each other for years through church.

“It’s not like they hang out all the time, but whenever we see Zosia and Rumor, (usually weekly), Doug will take a few minutes to connect with Rumor. They seem to get along quite well,” Cam explained.

“I think that Doug and Rumor have a connection. Rumor is usually working when Doug sees her, so it’s not like they’ve played catch, or interacted that way, but Doug knows how to scratch her head the way she likes,” he explained.

“ As part of the application process, Rumor visited our house. It wasn’t long before she was lying on her back getting her belly scratched. She certainly seemed comfortable.”

Admittedly, Dad said they’re not sure what Rumor’s role will be, beyond a companion.

“At the same time, it’s unlikely that she will want to just lay around all day every day,” Cam said.

“Our hope is that Doug and Rumor will work out a comfortable level of family pet vs. service dog. Our expectation is that Rumor will be given the opportunity to explore life as a family pet. We can see her providing a calming influence. Perhaps there are small roles she can perform. Doug’s thinking about getting her to fetch remotes for him so he doesn’t have to get up off the couch,” Dad said.

“We’re thinking about Rumor providing Doug with more motivation to stay active and go for walks.”

The fit with the Penner family is a good one, Ettenberg said, explaining that it might prove hard for Rumor to adjust to an average family, where everyone is gone during the day.

In the Penner’s case, both parents work from home, meaning Rumor – who is used to 24/7 human contact – won’t be on her own often.

“That can be a difficult transition for a dog that has been used to being constantly with people,” said Cam.

They hadn’t been planning to adopt a dog, but said this opportunity “was too good a match to pass up on.”

Both parents had dogs growing up, and “we’ve always kind of wanted our kids to have the experience of bonding and responsibility that dog ownership brings,” Dad said.

“The circumstances have never been quite right. I think our whole family will benefit from Rumor joining us.”

Knowing that the family shares a passion for motorcycle riding, Cam joked that Rumor might have to join them.

“Where does one go shopping for sidecars?”

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rhooper@langleyadvance.com

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