I love the nights of Canine Assistant graduations. I’m just back from seeing the November 2015 class of dogs and recipients graduate after their two-week camp. It’s emotionally draining, especially if your foster dog has matched.
Our CA volunteer team is like a family of friends. We have an active, private Facebook page where we post pictures of the puppies on outings, share funny tales, seek advice from others, and cheer each other on. We are rarely at the farm at the same time, so the FB site is our best way of becoming familiar with other volunteers. We get to know each other through our dogs—which aren’t our dogs at all—and at no time is that more apparent than graduation.
When the dog’s name and its recipient is called, the standing-room-only crowd applauds as they see the “couple’s” picture on the big screen. Everyone is happy for them, overjoyed even, but for the volunteers there is an extra hidden layer of which casual onlookers aren’t even aware. Eighteen-plus months of service comes down to one sentence when staff-trainer Kevin, a volunteer’s first-line of contact with the organization, announces, “Fluffy was fostered by so-and-so.” We hang on that one sentence. That one sentence is a volunteer’s seal of approval, diploma, and compensation all in one. That verbal “attaboy” conjures a mixed flash of pride and agony and loss and accomplishment and how-can-I-even-breathe followed by the last moment when you muster the will to look that brown-eyed puppy dog in the face and tell him or her to “go and do great things” as the hand who now holds the leash is no longer yours.
I didn’t even have a dog in camp tonight—no “skin in the game,” as they say, but I felt the emotions. My heart broke for those fosters. It’s not so much heartbreak as it is this overwhelming sense of love that floods the room. Support for the volunteers. Congratulatory words. Adoration for the canines. Compassion for the recipients. And an all-around adulation for Jennifer Arnold, founder of CA. When you see that dog who you’ve worked with all those months or even on occasion, being held by that boy or girl, or man or woman whose limbs are bone-thin, mangled, prosthetic, or not there at all, the pain in your heart is assuaged and replaced with a complete sense of “THIS!” We want to shout, “THIS IS WHY WE DO THIS.” And our hearts feel at ease.
I’m reminded of long ago when my father was a Shriner and drove a mini T-model car in parades with these words painted on the car: We ride so children can walk. Though that slogan didn’t make too much sense to my 11-year-old mind, I completely understand it now. People often say to us: How can you do that? I could never give the dog away. I’d want to keep it.
It is part of the process, and we know, it’s not about us. It isn’t for us. When we see the recipients, the answer is right there breathing in living color. That’s why I love going to graduation. It’s the best place ever to empty out our hearts and fill them all back up again. It’s the reason we do what we do. Graduation is our chance to renew ourselves to our commitments to the organization, strive to work harder, give more of our time, and go “two hands all in.” We do it because they can’t.