Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why we do the things we do

Do you hear that? I ask my Favorite Kid. I turn down the car radio and look into the side mirror. It sounds like someone's yelling, doesn't it?

We're sitting on I-70, a normal highway on any other day. Today however, we're all in supporting roles as this freeway of life impersonates a mall parking lot at Christmas. We're tooling along, kind of, but walking would indeed be faster. But not safer. This snowstorm now upon us was quick, intense and completely unexpected.

It's the people a couple cars back. Derek says as he turns to look behind us.  A lady is shouting out the passenger window at another car.

Are they ok?, I ask.



Yeah, he says. She's telling that one guy to let them over in his lane. 

Huh, I say. Now I feel so old school. Nothing shows your age like the use of turn signals. 

And since I don't have anything better to do at this moment, I watch the car behind, passenger still hollering from her open window, shift awkwardly across three lanes of stop-and-go traffic. They run out of asphalt road on the far right, then proceed in haste along the emergency lane.

What is it that motivates people to do what they do?

Look, I kinda get it. There's something about being stuck in traffic along a long stretch of nothin' to bring up feelings of regret about that last refill of iced tea.

Hey, Derek, I say. I just remembered I need to go the bathroom. Roll down your window and help me get over a couple of lanes, willya?

He looks at me, blinks, and puts his ear buds back in.

Fine, I say, turning the radio back up. Just ... fine.

With Miss Euka sleeping soundly in the back seat, we're driving back home from the Canine Companions for Independence February graduation. Always a grounding experience for this puppy raiser, it's a trip that I mark on my calendar each quarter. Since getting involved with CCI in 2008, I've only missed a slim few of the graduations.

Because, my friends, it's these celebrations that are a reminder of why we puppy raisers are motivated to do what we do.

This little guy is waiting for his perfect
match.
You see, sometimes seeing the bond of the new dog and handler teams brings a tear to one's eye. It's so perfect, we sigh. And then you have last Friday's event, where we were all pretty much using our shirt collars, or even jacket sleeves, to mop up the mess.

The graduation ceremonies mark the end of training for the pups that we put so much love into. At two years old, the dog is fully socialized, thanks to the noble efforts of their volunteer puppy raiser, as well as highly trained in the skills of being a service dog after six months with the professional trainers at CCI.

Not all the dogs will complete Advanced Training, though. Actually, less than half will make it this far. CCI has high standards for these dogs and, honestly, would we want it any other way? It's the best of the best that are out there, y'all.

The elite few dogs that have chosen a career as an assistance dog will next be matched to a person to help mitigate a disability. Or perhaps teamed with a handler as a Facility Dog for such jobs as goal oriented physical therapy. Did you know ... CCI provides four types of assistance dogs? (You can learn more directly from their website by clicking here.)

At the end of the six month Advanced Training program, the next step is Team Training with their new partner. CCI matches the dog's abilities to the needs of an individual, adding and customizing commands over two intensive weeks.

And finally, the graduation ceremony. The ceremonial "handing over the leash" from the puppy raiser to the graduate happens here. Last Friday, we watched as ten children received their Skilled Companion Dog. Another eight adults accepted the leash with their Service Dog.

Oh, but something different this time. Before the ceremony, each graduate was asked to say a few words on what their new partner means to them. These thoughts were recorded and shared at each introduction.
This is the best day of my life, says one young lady.
A mom speaks for her son and, with her own voice breaking, tells us that in the last two weeks her son is now more accepting of human touch.  
Another boy, in his own words tells us that his dog keeps him calmer during the times he feels like acting out.
My dog will be with me all the time, says another. I won't feel lonely. She's my best friend.
And we see ... we see this, people ... the dog walking up to the front of the room with their puppy raiser. That moment when they realize their partner is waiting there. Their step is lighter, the tail goes from happy wag to oh-my-dog it's my person wag. The bond is there and it is strong. It won't be broken. It can't be.

That one moment suspended in time. And yet, it's just the beginning. A social bridge for a child with a disability. An opportunity to reach a goal that was out of reach just a few days before. A new independence. A release of the fear of vulnerability.

So why do volunteer puppy raisers do what we do? What is our motivation?

That some day we can be the one handing that leash over to someone. To know the blessing of having a small part in this miracle of life.

It's a simple as that.

This is what grounds me, especially as I realize this is the last CCI graduation ceremony we will attend as merely spectators, Euka and I.

Miss Euka will be matriculating into the Advanced Training program in May. Three months from now. We're almost there, almost ready.

This dog of mine, who isn't my dog, will be heading off to dog college. Our journey together will come to an end as we take separate paths.

We gave her wings to fly high. To go do great things.

And this is why we did the things we did.

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