Danielle Graczyk believes in the good in people, and dogs. Through her nonprofit organization, Canine Inspired Change (CIC), she sees that philosophy come to life every day.
Graczyk has been a dog trainer for more than 15 years, first at Twin Cities Obedience Training Club in Minneapolis and then at the Canine Coach on Front Street in St. Paul. While coaching at the Canine Coach, she received an email looking for trainers who would be willing to introduce their dogs to at-risk students. She jumped at the chance to help.
The school brought students into the Canine Coach to visit with the dogs, and KARE 11 television station did a story on the visit. The overwhelmingly positive feedback was immediate, and a new passion was ignited in Graczyk.
“I am proud to say I am four years sober,” Graczyk explained. “Dog training brought me to sobriety and sobriety brought me to service. Working with therapy dogs was the perfect marriage of the two. I realized I could effect positive change in my community through the thing I loved most—working with dogs.”
CIC was born.
Katie Kramer, field representative for Sen. Al Franken, was taking therapy-training classes with her dog at the Canine Coach when she decided to help Graczyk. She created a business plan and filed all the proper paperwork.
“She took care of everything,” Graczyk said. “I could focus on the mission.” Kramer is one of more than 200 volunteers in Graczyk’s database, folks who have had their dogs certified with Therapy Dogs International and can be called upon when a need arises.
At CIC, Graczyk has created a curriculum-based program that “empowers and nurtures participants in a fun and nonthreatening way,” according to its website, www.canineinspiredchange.org.
Volunteers can participate on one of Graczyk’s teams or visit community partners such as the Courage Center in Golden Valley or St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul on their own.
CIC’s structured courses were designed by Graczyk. A 10- to 15-week course meets once a week and is typically made up of five therapy-dog teams and 10 participants, such as students or patients. Each therapy-dog team—a certified therapy dog and its human—is paired with a student who is led through a rally or agility course at each session.
Graczyk believes that the courses inspire self-confidence, trust, teamwork and empathy for the students, many of which are at-risk youth or developmentally challenged adults.
“This time with the dogs help elicit social and emotional connection for these people who may otherwise feel disengaged or alienated in some way,” she said. “They see that people are showing up for them, asking for nothing in return, week after week. There is consistency and reliability in the length of the course. Over the 10 weeks they see that they matter.”
The course also helps participants build confidence as they work through frustration in a safe and supportive environment and learn to work with another vulnerable being, the dog. “They get to be there for someone else, too,” Graczyk said. “Maybe it even builds a desire for volunteerism in them.”
So does your dog have what it takes to be a therapy dog? The key is a love for all people, Graczyk noted. Behavior issues such as jumping can be trained out of most dogs, she said, but a comfort level with people has to pre-exist. Dogs need to be at least 1 year old to go through the training. And there is a lot in it for Fido, too, according to Graczyk. “They get a sense of purpose and quality one-on-one time with their humans and others,” she said. “Dogs need to be a part of a community, just like we all do. They need to belong.”
Funds for the nonprofit are raised through several fundraisers, including a partnership with the Midwest Firefighters Calendar (www.midwestfirefighters.com), whose 2015 calendar benefited CIC.
“Some schools and organizations can pay, some look for funding through grants,” Graczyk explained. “Some people see the good we are doing and donate. I don’t want to turn anyone down.”
The volunteers and their dogs seem to get as much out of the experience as those they serve.
“You show up with your dog, not expecting anything, and your dog becomes the bridge to the community,” Graczyk beamed. “You do it selflessly, but my volunteers tell me how much it changed them. Being of service is good for everyone.”
Alex Lodner lives in Como Park and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.