Last Friday, Canine Companions for Independence held the first graduation class of 2015 at multiple sites across the country. I, along with my wife, daughter, and three puppies in tow, attended the festivities at their facility in Oceanside, California. It was an emotional day as was every other graduation we’ve attended.
The emotional release comes in two phases. The first is when the puppies that have just completed their eighteen-month training period are turned in at matriculation, and will now enter nine months of professional training. Slides are shown of all the matriculating puppies — there were about forty at this graduation — from the time they were eight weeks old until they were fully grown. Ahhhhhhs can be heard throughout the auditorium as each puppy’s timeline is displayed on a big screen. And this starts the first crying session. The families that raised the puppies are obviously overwhelmed at the thought that their sweetest little puppy will no longer be with them. I can’t tell you what that feeling is like; you’re basically losing a child, a four-legged, furry one, but a child nonetheless.
Then phase two begins, where the graduates receive their assistance dog to take home and live with for the rest of the dog’s service life, which is usually ten years. Videos are shown of the graduate describing how he or she fell in love with the dog in a matter of days, and what it was like to have their new assistance dog at their side for the two-week training period that each graduate goes through. They try to explain what their dog will do for them, but don’t realize that they really haven’t experienced all of it just yet, because they’ve spent such a short time with the dog so far. But the smiles on their faces indicate they have a wonderful feeling inside that their life is about to change dramatically. And once again, audience tears start to fall, but this time from the knowledge of what this organization and these dogs do for the graduates, and how it will definitely change the graduate’s life forever. And then the puppy raisers, who raised and trained the dog for the eighteen months, walks up on stage with the dog on leash and ceremonially hands the dog over to the graduate.
The first time I saw a graduation, I wondered why there where Kleenex boxes positioned on every forth seat across every row in the audience. Now that I’ve attended and experienced the ceremony, both in delivering my dog for matriculation and handing it over to a graduate, I really don’t know how the audience — or I — would get through the ceremony without those welcomed Kleenex boxes.