It was a windy, overcast Wednesday morning—but warm enough to wear short sleeves. I rode with my mom to the Little Rock airport, buzzing with excitement the entire drive. I had to skip my classes to make the trip, but I wasn’t even thinking about what I’d have to make up later. I was given his flight tracking number and I anxiously watched as the plane departed California and approached the Clinton National Airport. I was told his name beforehand, but nothing else—not even a picture. The plane landed and we made our way inside to get my “package.” I peered over the cargo loading zone to see a crate that looked empty, until suddenly, a sweet little puppy head popped up with wide, brown eyes. And that was the moment Gibson changed my life.
I’m a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), which is a nonprofit organization that provides highly trained companion dogs to people with disabilities. CCI raises and trains service, assistance, hearing, and facility dogs, each with their own role in a person’s life. I found CCI when I was seeking an opportunity to integrate working dogs into a thesis project, and I’m so glad that I did. I’ve seen firsthand the impact that a CCI dog can have on someone’s life and I’m proud to be a small part of this organization.
My job as a puppy raiser is to love, raise, train, and socialize Gibson so that he will have the best chance possible at becoming a service dog. The quality of my work will directly influence whether he’s able to change the life someone else. Besides the usual puppy care and potty training, I also trim his nails, brush his teeth, and clean his ears every week. I attend regular training sessions with a professional dog trainer, who helps me teach Gibson his 30 commands. I spend time each day reinforcing those commands so that they’re nearly perfect when he returns to CCI. I also take him on public outings to practice his behavior in various settings, which I would say is the most important part of my job.
Gibson is a little over a year old now and his outings are increasingly becoming a regular part of my life. I bring Gibson with me every chance that I get—to the grocery store, restaurants, classes, movie theaters, and even to the voting booth last week. People in public usually respond well and understand that he’s training, but of course I’ve had lots of staring, rude remarks, and even people turning me away from their business. However, he gets a little better each time I take him with me because he becomes more and more familiar with different situations. Sometimes we’ll stand up to leave from a restaurant and I’ll hear people say they didn’t even realize a dog was under our table—which is the biggest compliment somebody could give us, since it took a ton of work to get him to that point.
Raising Gibson for my thesis project has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, but not without hard work. Because my “work” with Gibson is mostly fun, I forget how much time and energy I put into this project. I track the time I’ve spent using an app on my phone, and as of last week, I’ve spent a little over 815 hours on my thesis—and it continues to grow each day. However, I’ve been lucky that my role as puppy raiser doesn’t ever feel like real work.
Next August, I’ll return to California with Gibson to participate in his puppy graduation ceremony. From there, CCI analyzes his behavior in order to place him in the program that best fits his personality. Finally, they will pair Gibson with a person with a disability and they will complete formal training together, tailoring commands to the individual’s needs.
Although the thought of letting him go hurts deeply, knowing that he’ll have a positive impact on someone else’s life makes it worth the heartbreak. I love watching him grow up and seeing the progress for which we’ve both worked so hard. He’s unbelievably smart, patient, sweet, and playful—and I love him like my own. Gibson has brought so much joy and laughter in the short twelve months he’s been in my life; he’s the best kind of study break and it’s impossible to feel stressed when I’m around him. Even though he isn’t mine to keep, I’ll never forget the impact he’s had on my life—all this time I thought I was raising him to change someone else’s life and it turns out he’s changed mine along the way.
If you would like to keep up with our adventures, I post weekly on mydogismyhomework.tumblr.com.