I’m not gonna lie. It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me and Spike.
I’m not fully back and feeling like my normal high-energy self after my cancer surgery. My medications are still being “tuned,” leaving me somewhat lethargic and out of sorts.
This is difficult in many aspects of my life and in particular with Spike, who I'm helping to train as a service dog for Canine Companions for Independence. I so want him to be the most amazing service dog ever, but I feel like he’s not getting the best of me right now, and that could reflect upon his success. Good training progress at this stage of his life is key to him eventually graduating and becoming a working service dog.
The Canine Companions for Independence graduation ceremonies happen quarterly at all six regional training centers, and the most recent ones were last Friday. This event celebrates two of the significant transitions in the life of a future service dog.
First, puppy raisers like myself turn their puppies in, to begin their advanced training, or “college.” All the dogs and puppy raisers get called up on stage for the matriculation ceremony, and the dogs even have graduation gowns!
Then, the dogs that have successfully completed 6-plus months of advanced training are matched with the human partner they will support for the rest of their working life. The puppy raiser of that particular dog gets to go on stage too, and hand over the leash to the graduate. It’s a powerful moment, and there isn't a dry eye in the house.
While I couldn’t personally attend last week’s ceremony, my social media feeds were flooded with posts from other puppy raisers and graduates. And, as expected, those posts ran the full gamut of emotions, from sad and hopeful to excited and inspired.
Kathy, a five-time puppy raiser, gave a speech about her dog Fleet, who was graduating that day. Fleet is the fifth service dog Kathy has raised, but only the first who has passed. The other four were “released” from the program, meaning they failed out of school. It's heartbreaking for a puppy raiser to hear that a dog is being released after all that work, but in actuality, about half of the dogs don't pass.
But Kathy, who watched her beloved pups fail four times in a row, has kept at it, and Fleet finally graduated.
I just wanted to hug her.
Then I saw this absolutely exhilarating graduation speech from Ron, a Canine Companions graduate who was getting a successor dog after his first CCI dog was retired. He thanked all the puppy raisers out there for parting with "a member of your family," but it was all worth it to see how enthusiastic, and positive, and grateful he was to the raisers — he was basically yelling about it from the top of his lungs.
"I am so excited today. You know why? Because I get to take this dog home! Like all the other graduates!" he said.
"I get to take him home!" he kept shouting. "He's my dog!"
I also got to meet this week two Canine Companions puppies and their raisers from the Washington, D.C. area. Lisa and Emma are raising Admiral and Clint, and their employer — PenFEd Credit Union — is not just supportive of them, but actually paying all of their expenses and holding company-wide events involving the pups, to spread word about the incredible difference service dogs can make.
Emma also knows, firsthand, about how important it is to give back: She was adopted from an orphanage, and she explained how that one moment, and that one caring decision by her mother, changed her life. She linked this to her own choice to raise Clint, hopeful that the decision can better someone else's life.
All of these powerful connections helped remind me that this is long journey — a roller coaster, really. During Ron’s graduation speech, he also screamed, “Folks, I hit the jackpot!" prompting a fellow puppy raiser to respond underneath Ron's video on Facebook, writing, “My dog could be somebody’s jackpot.”
This is exactly why I’m raising Spike. These dogs make a difference. I want nothing more than for Spike to be somebody’s jackpot.
But I know how hard it is to get there, and if he doesn’t make it, that's OK too.