I think any of us would say that when we're out alone or with friends – at restaurants, movies, or particularly when we're shopping – we don't interact much with the people around us. Why would we? Everyone is busy, preoccupied with their own errands and agenda. Not much eye contact or connecting with random strangers. All of these little worlds doing their best not to collide.
The scene is altered when you're out with a service puppy. I'd take Ruby out at 12 weeks old and I knew we'd have lots of attention because she was just so adorable. As she got older, I expected the public's curiosity. But without fail, wherever we are, people see us and smile. They invite eye contact. They start conversations, ask questions, or just say something kind.
I took her to the mall the other day for some training.
A few minutes after I took this shot, an older couple sat down in that seat and watched us work. Ruby and I were really concentrating, totally in the zone, practicing some difficult things with lots of distractions, and she was really nailing it. I knew the couple was watching, but I didn't make eye contact with them until we finished. Then I sat in the chair across from them, smiled, and saw them just beaming.
We started to chat about Ruby and her training. They told me about a person in their church who had also raised a service puppy. I told them about my Kiva. I learned about their precious dogs who had each lived to the exact same age and each passed away on the very same day, fifteen years apart. We talked about movies! We just...talked.
We got to know each other, even if only for a few minutes. I met these wonderful people, no longer strangers, over a smile.
That is what has struck me so deeply. People see us together, they respect us, recognize what we are doing, and they are happy. And that makes me indescribably happy in return.
We tend to think of service dogs for their physical assistance, but they bring just as much, or more, to their partners on an emotional level. One of the reasons I decided to raise a service puppy is because I am so aware of, and so grateful for, the joy that Kiva has brought to my life. Because of her, I wanted to give back, to help bring a unique joy and presence to someone else's life.
Yet raising this service puppy has brought so much to my life as well. To truly enjoy the company of strangers. To meet and know people I otherwise never would have. To have the opportunity to talk with so many people about her training.
To see smiles everywhere I look.
I reflect on the number of people we pass in a day and wonder how many hearts and minds my little service puppy has burrowed into. When someone who has encountered us sees a person with a disability, perhaps they'll think of Ruby. Maybe they'll remember what she was learning, and better understand the challenges that person faces. And rather than look away or stare, they'll smile.
Update: Let's share the message! Please cast your vote for Raising Ruby for "Best Blog Post" at the 2011 Petties Awards and help us spread the word that smiles, rather than stares, can make a world of difference for individuals with disabilities.
Just click here to vote: http://dogtime.com/petties