Learning Gratitude from Service Dogs
Can you stop and think of all you take for granted?
You wake up. You rise from bed. You feel tired. You shower and dress yourself. You make your own breakfast. You drive to work. You have a job. You feed yourself lunch. You make phone calls and write e-mails and speak fluently to your colleagues. You hear the world around you. You drive home and sit with your family. You brush your teeth. You go to sleep.
Your day may or may not resemble what I’ve described above, but chances are, if you are able to perform even just a few of those basic tasks, you do so with little regard to their significance.
What if you couldn’t do a few of those things on your own?
What if you couldn’t do any of those things on your own?
What if you depended on someone else to help you dress yourself or brush your teeth, or transport yourself? What if you couldn’t turn on a light switch or pick up your keys when you dropped them?
We face an infinite series of “what ifs” that we take for granted during our daily lives that we barely give any attention to.
Though I possess many valuable attributes, I’m the first to admit that I have more than a few serious flaws. One I am continually working on is my lack of mindfulness and the ability to retain gratitude for all that I have. I’m often embarrassed by my incessant search for “more” and “better” when I should be content with the comforts of my immediate surroundings.
When you work with animals, it’s easy to be humbled by their approach to life. Sure, a dog may wish for “more” food or a cat may long for a “better” belly rub, but overall, pets are happy just being alive. Though there’s certainly reciprocity in the connection between an owner and his or her pet, as they require humans to provide them with shelter, food, and love, ultimately things are significantly lopsided when you consider how little they ask for in return.
Now consider service animals. Those legitimately trained to perform specific tasks for people who would otherwise be unable to do so, or aid in their ability to withstand certain social and professional situations. Think of the nature of the relationship between the handler and the animal in those cases.
I’ve encountered service animals on occasion during my professional and personal life, but only recently had the privilege of learning firsthand how remarkable the bond between handler and animal truly is.
Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) is a non-profit organization that trains and provides assistance dogs for individuals with disabilities. Dogs are trained in one of four categories: service, hearing, skilled companion, and facility.
CCI responsibly breeds its own puppies, selecting for traits that include intelligence, calmness, and willingness to help. “Puppy Raisers” are responsible for their initial training and socialization from about 8 weeks of age to 18 months. At that time, dogs enter into their advanced training stage, which is performed at one of six regional training centers located across the United States.
Certified CCI dogs have been in training for over two years and know approximately 40 commands including opening doors, activating light switches, and retrieving dropped objects.
On May 15th, each of the regional training centers for CCI held their quarterly graduation ceremony. The event is the culmination of an intensive, residential, two-week Team Training course for each of the new human/canine partners.
The day is also significant as it is the time when “Puppy Raisers” return their dogs to CCI so they may begin their formal training period.
I was invited to attend the ceremony held at the CCI training center of the Northeast region as part of a networking opportunity. These events are free and open to the public without reservations, so my attendance wasn’t anything particularly unusual.
It would be impossible for me to catalog the magnitude of inspiration and emotion I felt just from my simple role as a casual observer of the day. I’ve had a surprisingly difficult time describing the event — a thoroughly unusual attribute for a writer.
There were typical feelings of recognizing all I have that I take for granted each day and the associated “guilt” about my self-centered tendencies.
I felt empathy and sadness for the people giving up their dogs to be trained
I felt overwhelmed with happiness at the joy expressed by the human partners receiving their dogs.
I felt enlightened to experience something so intimate and meaningful, yet also felt as though I barely understood the depth of emotions I witnessed.
And most of all, I wondered how I could help.
The few short hours I spent alongside the numerous volunteers, staff, handlers, etc., was nothing short of exceptional. We tend to take so much for granted every day. It’s surprisingly easy to have your mind reset to a more grateful plane when surrounded by those who remember all you tend to forget.
In the days that have transpired since I attended the event, more than once I’ve caught myself settling all to easily back into my self-centered ways. I know it shouldn’t be such a struggle to remember that I have nothing to complain about.
Fortunately I spend my days around four-legged comrades who constantly figure out ways to remind me of just that.
For more information on CCI please visit www.cci.org
Dr. Joanne Intile
Image: OneSmallSquare / Shutterstock