Stories by category: Learning Grace

I’m starting a new series. Learning Grace. It’s going to be all about a girl and her dog. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, I just didn’t know where to start. Then I was asked by a site called upwave (which is sadly now defunct) to contribute a post called–

Why I Made My Dog a Therapy Dog

GraceTess

I’ve always been a dog lover, but I’ve never been a dog owner. After twenty years of successfully denying it, I could finally recognize dog avoidance for what it really was: my deep-seated fear of falling in love with a precious being that would open my heart completely and then leave me too soon.

When I fell, I fell hard, and in May of 2010, I brought home a squirming, untamed mass of hair, teeth and tail that I didn’t know the first thing about caring for. I named her Grace because I felt like I needed some. I can assure you, this 8-week old Labrador scared the hell out of me. The only thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t just want a dog; I wanted a well-behaved dog. So I took to training her like a recovering alcoholic takes to meetings. And despite my dogged effort, it was clear to me that I was not the teacher in this relationship.

Learning Grace has been an astonishing journey. From day one, she has refused to respond to aggression in any way. Instead, she meets harshness with defiance, and softness with submission. As a result, she forces me to be patient and tender at all times. She also has an uncanny ability to make friends with anything. Once, in a store, Grace got all wiggly and dragged me to the mannequin in the corner. She nosed the mannequin’s hand, and its arm moved up and down, which got Grace even more excited so she nudged the hand again. And darn if that mannequin didn’t stand there for several minutes petting my dog!

After a year of hearing people glow about her, using words like soothing, healing, calm, gentle and magical, I decided we could put that goodness to work.

Therapy dog certification is partly a teamwork and obedience evaluation, but really, it’s a stress test. Grace was put through a series of increasingly more confusing and tense situations, and if she responded with even a hint of aggression, she would fail. But not my dog, of course. When a crazy crowd of people wearing funny costumes, throwing crutches and yelling loudly came rushing at my dog, she wagged her whole body in anticipation. She couldn’t wait for them to get at her.

As a volunteer with Love On 4 Paws in Los Angeles, Grace has visited with amputees, severely disabled children and people who are grotesquely disfigured, terminally ill or lost in dementia. Her approach with all of them is the same. She wants nothing more than to jump up next to them and eek out a smile from beyond their pain and misery. That’s the stunning beauty of therapy dogs: they have no capacity for judgment or pity.

Among the many heart-melting moments we’ve experienced, one stands out. There was a young woman who’d been in isolation for a week. Her doctor approved a therapy dog visit but, since we couldn’t go in an isolation room, she came to us. She walked out into the hall wearing a mask, took one look at Grace and dropped to the floor in tears. Grace moved on in and expertly licked those tears away, turning them into laughter. That girl clung to my dog like she was a life raft. And I will never forget it.

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(This story is part of a continuing series, Learning Grace, about a girl and her dog. The first part begins here.)

I don’t mind that people think I’m crazy. My only child is a Labrador Retriever, and nothing makes me happier than her happiness. Grace Lola Lou Hicks Clark was born on March 16th, 2010. It was another agonizing eight weeks before I could bring her home though.

While waiting for daily photos to appear in my inbox, I did a lot of reading to prepare myself for her arrival. The canine version of What To Expect When You’re Expecting is How To Raise the Perfect Dog—or basically anything written by Cesar Millan.

Baby Grace
According to Cesar, bringing a baby canine home comes with a checklist of considerations. For instance, when you introduce your newborn into her new environment, you don’t want to give her full access to the house too soon. It’s overwhelming. So the responsible parent gets a small crate and stocks it with things like a piece of fabric that’s picked up the scent of the surrogate mother, snuggly toys that replace the writhing siblings she’s come into the world with, a hot water bottle to seem like there’s another warm body in there with her, and maybe even a battery-operated furry thing that emits a heartbeat so your innocent child who’s known nothing but her surrogate mother and siblings won’t cry all night like she’s being tortured and stripped of everything she’s ever known in the world causing you sleepless, tearful, fretful nights feeling like the most horrid person on earth.

Good grief.

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(This story is part of a continuing series, Learning Grace, about a girl and her dog. The first part begins here.)

The first time I poured food into a bowl and set it on the floor, Grace ate like the fat man in a hotdog-eating contest. To be fair, her only mealtime experience before me had been first scrambling for an available teat, and then shoving and shoveling her way through a mound of food alongside five hungry siblings. Judging from her girth it clearly hadn’t been a problem for her, but now that she was at my house she’d have to learn some ground rules.

So day two began with her first training session.

GraceSits
Fortunately for me, a food-motivated dog is an eager learner, and mine was voracious. Upon waking, I let her sample a few treats, then I held one above her nose and pushed it back over her head. She tracked it with her eyes and automatically rocked back into a sit. Once her butt hit the floor, I said sit so she could assign the action with the word. Until she knew what the word meant, saying it first was just human noise.

We did that a dozen times or so, took a break to run off some energy, and then tried again. And again. And again. After one of our breaks when she wasn’t particularly paying attention to me, I casually walked toward her and said, “Sit.” I could see her eyes light with recognition. She immediately dropped back into a sit, and I quickly gave her a reward before going bonkers with excitement. “You did it, Grace! You did it!” She bounced, matching my enthusiasm, and we celebrated with abandon. But was it a fluke? I wondered. To make sure, I became still and waited for her to calm herself. Then I said, “Grace, sit.” She snapped to attention, dropped her butt to the floor and looked up at me with those sweet, expectant eyes, the ones that suggested that I was the center of her universe. Me and the raw, grain-free, wild-caught salmon treats.

I was completely blown away. My baby dog was sitting on command in an hour! Yes, I know it’s the easiest trick in the book, but it was also the first step in our journey of communication. And both of us seemed so earnest in our desire to understand one another.

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Small interruption in the story of the birth and growth of Grace. She’d like to show you one of her favorite activities in the world. Enjoy!

I’ve written before about Grace’s love affair with Mark, the FedEx man. She can be in the dead of sleep and then jump up immediately upon hearing his truck. She simply can’t contain herself. Here’s a brief look.

Last year I pulled out the Dremel tool and got serious about carving a pumpkin.

It was good. People loved it. But I secretly thought, Oh, I get it… Just wait ’til next year!

So, it’s next year…

Halloween 2015