Monday, May 6, 2013

2013 Graduation

On April 26, all of the service dog teams that graduated in the past year were honored in our graduation ceremony, held at the Dauphin County Technical School. It was a lovely evening. Each dog’s puppy raisers formally presented the dog to their new partner, and then everyone enjoyed a slideshow of photos about the dog as they grew in to the service dog they are today. We also recognized all of our wonderful volunteers. Without them, we would not be able to do what we do. After the ceremony, everyone gathered for a reception with delicious food.

At every graduation ceremony, we have a keynote speaker. This year, our director, Nancy Fierer, gave a presentation. Below is a reproduction of her keynote speech.

Welcome to the Annual Susquehanna Service Dogs graduation and celebration of our twentieth year. It is so wonderful to see all of you gathered here tonight. Please remember that each one of you, whether you are a new guest or a longtime volunteer, is a part of what makes SSD successful. Tonight is your celebration. These are your successes. I am honored to speak to you.

You just watched nine service dog teams, three facility dogs, one in-home service dog, one companion dog, three breeding dogs, one CIA dog, and one ATF dog graduate—19 in all, and each has touched many lives already. All of you have touched theirs in some small or large way.

The other day I was driving around listening to NPR and they were interviewing Sheryl Sandberg, who wrote Lean In, a book encouraging women to take their place at the corporate table. She said when men are asked the question how they go here, they say that they are good at what they do, and a woman will answer that she worked hard, was lucky, and that there are many who helped her get there. In the car, I yelled “And that is so true!” It is hard work and luck, and many, many people who step forward and help. It is never, ever one person, so each celebration when I start up here and say “Please remember that each one of you, whether you’re a new guest or a longtime volunteer, is a part of what makes SSD successful. Tonight is your celebration. These are your successes.” –it is so very, very true.

So those of you who struggle teaching that pup to loose leash walk and then do it all over again, remember it is hard work, but there is success around the corner!

I love the little stories of success, especially the ones with a touch of humor, like SSD Shamrock’s exciting visit to the zoo when his partner declared to the other animals that his dog was “off the menu.” And then there are the bi-weekly follow-up reports to make sure the partnerships are progressing.

SSD Dyson’s partner reports that he can already see how his dog has impacted his life. He says, “Dyson is slowly becoming my shadow and I can see the difference in just the time we have spent together. Yesterday at the park, we did sit-stays with other dogs running around, and he wouldn’t move until cued. It has been such a blessing, more than I had hoped, and I know things will get even better as time goes on.”

All these little stories tell us that things are going okay. They are practicing, going out in public, and developing a good relationship with their partners and benefitting from the tasks their dog was trained to do.

And then we have the stories at the end, the ones that tug at our hearts. On the training room wall, we have a little framed embroidered piece that was presented to SSD at SSD Maggie’s graduation. Those of you that come to the kennel should look at it. This past year, we received this note:

“I’ve dreaded when the day would come that I would have to say goodbye to my precious Maggie. She lived an impressive 16 years and I was blessed to have her for 14 of those. Ironically, she passed away the week of our 14 year anniversary that we graduated from SSD training. For those next 14 years, she went with me to graduate school in Pennsylvania, Alfred University in New York for my first post-grad job, and to Ithaca, New York where we lived for the last 10 years. Throughout the past years, she traveled on many planes, trains, boats, and automobiles with me to work-related conferences, beaches, amusement parks, the Adirondacks, and the zoo. (Yeah, in hindsight I realize that last one wasn’t the wisest choice!)

“For nearly 13 years she was an amazing hearing dog. She helped me in ways I didn’t think possible. She offered me security throughout a time when I lived alone. She really was my ears, alerting me to all sounds, good and bad. She allowed me to do things and go places that I might not have otherwise gone. I could not have asked for a better partner.

“I have to admit, during SSD training, I thought it was weird that SSD called service dogs ‘partners.’ How could an animal be a partner? But I came to realize just how true that term is. She was my partner, my alter-ego, my companion, my mirror, and eventually, my ears, all in one.”

And what makes these partnerships really more that pets and companions is that they are truly partners.

Together they do many small things that give each person more independence—a more typical day, month, year. We are all part of creating this team in tiny ways. We train the pups, dogs, people; raise funds and spread the word; and do a million tiny pieces.

Think about when you look into the sunbeam and you see all those little pieces, flecks of things floating around, landing everywhere, touching everything, unknown and unseen. Think of that—you may wonder how you are going to change this person’s life with this goofy pup you work with every day, and you have this big dream that may or may not come true, but that little speck has already landed somewhere, already touched someone, and you have no idea. Some part of you, a part of SSD, has already touched a life.

Let me tell you a few stories about my specks of unseen dust.

Standing in line at Costco with SSD Meade the other week, a girl ringing up customers in another line was happily explaining that Meade is an SSD service dog in training, that he has been coming to Costco since he was a pup and she has watched him become a good dog. She was obviously proud.

Last month we heard from a lawyer that a woman left us a bequest in her will. Years ago she saw someone out with one of our dogs training, and she loved watching. We touched her heart without even knowing it, and we never even met her.

In a chat one day, I told Joanne from the Eastern Star about my failed demonstration for the Lions Club at an Old Country Buffet years ago—and she said that that is how the Eastern Star ultimately got connected to Susquehanna Service Dogs to donate funds for our program. Joanne’s friend had been in that room at that demo, and that started the connection. So you never know when you’re going to touch someone’s life.

I can also say that while filling out the certificates for today, I thought of all the moments what many of you have touched my heart, so thank you for that kindness. You have all touched many others.

And don’t laugh—there is something else that touches you in many ways. Clicker training! When you try your very best to practice this appropriately, you are looking for the right way, how to get the right behavior, how to see the positive and how to ignore the negative. Slowly this moves into your daily life and again there are changes in how you look at things. It affects your life forever.

SSD is always growing and trying to improve. Soon, we will be placing a court house dog in York to work in the drug court, the mental health court, and the veterans court where individuals are given the opportunity to be on probation and to successfully complete a recovery treatment program. The dog will work with them while they are meeting with the judge and their counselors. We are very excited about this new venture. This has been a collaborative effort with individuals who pioneered Courthouse Dogs in Washington State.

We have hundreds of stories of change, of small and larger moments of independence. We have placed over 207 teams and 111 are still counting on us for continued support. Many will need successor dogs in the future.

We have a dynamic position in the assistance dog world that continues to amaze me. We have a young, eager staff growing daily, ready to carry this excellence forward and always improving.

SSD touches hearts but also needs funds to move forward, so here I am appealing to you to keep up your support. We have three large fundraisers annually: Black Tie & Tails, PawsAbilities, and the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community. The Walk is on Saturday, May 18. Our goal is serious this year--$20,000 and total participation from all our volunteers. Either be a walker or a virtual walker. It is not about how much you donate or raiser but that you do it. Please take the time to read our next email, go to the website, follow up on this. We need this support to continue doing what we do. We want each one of you to participate.

We change individual lives one tiny step at a time forever, and this is so important. Together we help make the world a little closer to the way it really should be for all, and that is so worth everything that you all do.

Thank you!

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