Friday, May 11, 2012

Graduation: Service Dogs Changing Lives

On Friday, we held our annual graduation and volunteer appreciation celebration. Ten service dog teams and two demonstration dog teams graduated. We also recognized our two new breeding dogs, SSD Opal and SSD Scotia, as well as the two dogs that are now working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Hawk and Sunshine.

Congratulations to everyone who graduated! It has been quite a journey.

We also recognized all of our wonderful volunteers – puppy raisers, the Puppy Raiser Council, puppy sitters, puppy huggers, breeder caretakers, the whelping team, volunteer trainers, team training volunteers, office assistance, demonstration volunteers, PawsAbilities volunteers, Summer Camp volunteers, Black Tie & Tails volunteers, home visit volunteers, canine therapeutic evaluators, retesting volunteers, Vision Quest volunteers, work weekend volunteers, Keystone Therapy Dog volunteers and our volunteer liaisons. Your dedication and support makes all of this possible!

Every year, we have a keynote speaker. This year’s keynote speaker, Gina Battaglia, gave a lovely speech about her facility dog, SSD Jasmine II, and how Jazzie, as they call her, has made a difference in the lives of her students. We have included her speech below, and we encourage you to read it. It is truly heart-warming.

Graduation Keynote - Gina Battaglia

I’m a social worker in an intensive therapeutic program for special education students in a small, rural community in upstate New York. I work primarily with elementary school kids who struggle with social, emotional and behavioral issues. Our program is located in a regular, district-based school, but our students can come from eleven different districts within our catchment area. So our kids are away from their own schools, friends and families when they are with us. We sometimes feel like a little group unto ourselves, watched from afar by the school community with interest and curiosity. People are polite to us, but no one really stops to chat or interact too much with us or our students. We sometimes don’t feel a sense of real belonging in the district.

But that all changed the day Jazzie came along. Actually, it all changed when word got out that Jazzie was coming. And I am absolutely not kidding you! The school staff started to visit us at the end of each day to ask about the progress I was making getting “our dog.” The PTA and local Rotary had a fundraiser to help pay for Jasmine. I put a giant poster of a black lab up on the wall by the main door of the school with a big banner that said Coming Soon!” and at dismissal, the kids would actually stop and talk to the poster and pet it. I saw several children kiss the poster and say “I love you!” while touching it gently. Jasmine had already started to make us more a part of the school just by the anticipation of her arrival. It was really stunning. I remember thinking, “Wow! If this is the reaction she gets when she’s not even here, what will it be like when she arrives?” I had no idea!

The first day Jazzie came to school, I brought her outside to greet the buses. Big mistake! It created a riot! The kids swarmed her and all I could hear was “I can’t see her! Let me see her! What’s her name? Can she come to my room? Jazzie! I love you!” I was worried that she would panic and be afraid. But there she was, in the middle of the crowd of kids, wagging her tail and licking everyone to squeals of laughter and delight. The magic had begun.

After that, the students in our program became the most envied and popular in the school. Everyone came down our hallway hoping to get a glimpse of Jazzie. All the teachers wanted us to visit their rooms and talk to their students about what Jazzie does. Every day for a while, I would take one of my students with me, treat pouch and all, and that student would present Jasmine to an entire classroom of kids, demonstrating clicker training and telling them how Jasmine helps them feel better in class, be happier during the day when they are sad, licks their faces if they are crying and lies down on the bean bag chairs with them while they read to her, her head in their laps. You have to remember, these are kids who often have extreme anxiety, low self-confidence and many worries which distract them throughout the day. Our special education classes are very small. We never have more than six students in a class in order to minimize anxiety and better address individual student needs. Suddenly, our little cluster of anxious kids was talking in front of groups of 21 or more peers and adults with a confidence I had  never seen! They now stop and talk with teachers and high school students as they walk in the hallways with Jazzie because they feel so proud of her and confident with her. Jazzie gave that gift to them. There is no way, as their counselor, that I could ever have instilled such confidence and pride in those kids so quickly and effectively, if ever. That is the miracle of Jasmine!

One day, I was walking into school a tad on the late side with Jazz trotting along. The buses were just pulling up to the loop. Suddenly, I heard the sound of bus windows going down all around the drop off area and kids started chanting “Ja-ZZIE, Ja-ZZIE!” with their arms waving out the bus windows. Jazz and I stopped and looked at each other. I think she was as surprised as I was! She had achieved “rock star status!” We ran into the building as fast as we could to avoid being mobbed. It was official. She had won the hearts of the entire school.

Now, with “rock star status” comes a certain amount of privilege. Jazz had earned the reward of being allowed to walk next to me in school without her leash. She is good about staying right with me – usually.

The following story is a reason why you cannot become too comfortable in assuming that your service dog will always listen to you. We have a door on the lower level at school that leads outside to the playground. It is usually closed, but it was a particularly sunny day and it was dismissal time. The teachers left the door open so the kids could go in and out to play while waiting for their buses. Remember that Jazzie had earned off-leash privileges now. You can probably see where this is going, right? I had been so proud of Jazz walking by my side and paying such close attention to me. I did consider that if she saw a better offer, she might go for it, but that would be okay because there is nowhere she could really go in the building. I could easily get her. Well, she and I both noticed the open door to the sunny day at the same time. I saw the look in her eyes and I knew it was the better offer. As I was saying “NO, JAZZIE!” she was already bolting down the hallway, through the doors and out onto the playground. But did she stop there? I wish! I really should have had my treat pouch and clicker. Lesson learned!

As I said, our school is in a rural setting. There is a large expanse of undulating lawn with a chain link fence preventing children from falling into the abyss of a rather large ravine. The fence does eventually end, but the ravine does not. Pretty scary. Well, I guess in another life, Jazzie must have been an Olympic sprinter. She took off like a greyhound across the lawn, running against the wind with her ears flying back, her tongue out the side of her mouth. She was beautiful! I could see her laughing – she was absolutely gleeful. I, on the other hand, was terror struck. All I could think was, “She is going to fall into the ravine, and Kara [one of SSD’s trainers] is going to kill me for my poor recall ability!” Well, there I was giving my best attempt at recall while running crazily across the lawn: “JAZZIEEEEEE, COME! JAZZIEEE, GET BACK HERE!” And I’m thinking, “Look at her! She keeps looking back at me and running away! Why is she doing that?”

Then I realized there was a crowd of about 150 elementary school kids running in a pack behind me, screaming her name and laughing. It must have looked hysterical. I turned to face the throng and with arms spread wide, yelled, “STOP RUNNING!” You know what? They did! And when they did, Jazzie did. She just stood there, panting and looking at me bewildered, as if to say, “What?” I walked up to her, grabbed her collar and marched her back to the school. Her head was down. The kids all tried to pet her, but I kept going without saying a word. I heard a teacher say quietly, “You’d better just let Mrs. Battaglia get her back into the school. I think Jazzie might be in trouble.” After that, Jazz was back on her leash for a while. So be ready. Your dog may get a better offer someday.

We’ve used Jazzie in many learning situations. Once, I had one of the staff members “kidnap” Jazzie, and I hid clues all around the school so the kids could use their problem solving strategies and team work to find her, which they proudly did. She has walked scared kids to their mainstream classes and stayed with them while there. She has been the “prize” in a monthly drawing (a training session with Jazzie), with tickets earned for showing good character. She has been loved and kissed and cuddled and has brightened everyone’s day just by being herself. She has provided a fun way for kids to learn about themselves, each other and the world and to learn compassion, caring and responsibility. She is an amazing little princess who has given of herself in a gentle, sweet manner that has made all the difference for an entire school.

I would like to say thank you to SSD for providing so many of us the opportunity to live and work with all of these amazing dogs, to the families to whom the puppies are born and the wonderful puppy raisers who raise them knowing that they will someday to on to live elsewhere in service to others. I would especially like to thank Kevin and Carol Molloy, Jasmine’s puppy raisers, who became very dear and special friends to me. We sadly and suddenly lost Carol this past October. Although her passing was and is devastating to all of us, her kind and gentle spirit lives on in three SSD dogs, and her namesake is currently in training. Lastly, I would like to let her know something that she frequently asked me. Yes, Carol, Jazzie still does the “singing yawn!”

Thank you, everyone, and congratulations, graduates!

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