Saturday, June 7, 2008

About Face

When Belle was still in Perfect Puppy, our homework sheets included a place to identify all the different kinds of people we met during the past week; their ages, their skin color, their dress were all documented for her public training record. Why was this important to do for her? Because we don't live in an homogeneous society. People come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and smells and a service dog must be comfortable with them all. We had some fun with this in class - wearing funky hats, funny masks, different styles of clothing all with the point of convincing our pups that humans are indeed a strange breed.

This week I attended an in-service that is part of my new employer's initiative, Facing Race. The speaker, a US citizen with latino in his ethnic background, talked about what the demographics of the rise in hispanic/latino ethnicity means for the future of our community. It isn't a new issue. Afterall, Minnesota's short history is a history of immigration - but with each new wave of immigrants comes a new set of fears. As various methods of community coping gestures were discussed; how to welcome, integrate, educate, and heal the newcomers, the speaker expressed a personal opinion that I think is really the answer to it all. He spoke of his years abroad in a South American country and the primary difference he saw between the culture of his native land and the land of his forebears. He summed it up in a simple sentence; "In the US, it is not customary to talk to those outside of our circle". We don't ask personal questions - how are you, where do you work, how many kids do you have. We talk about the weather.

As I listened to the thoughts expressed around me, I thought too about how we try to break down our barriers by focusing on our differences. Can we ever be fully integrated if we continue to identify each other by our skin color or ethnic background than by our common humanity? Our love of our children, our passion (or not) for our work, the welcome and safety of our home. Talking to each other is so simple - but so hard. So fraught with the fear of "strangers" that was instilled in us as children. It's so hard to know what to talk about when personal subjects are taboo.

In the Helping Paws model there is so much to learn about how to reach out to others. To overcome our own visual handicap of seeing only our differences. A service dog's greatest gift is providing the bridge for starting a conversation. For opening the door to share what really matters by starting with what we have in common - our love, our wonder, our awe at the dogs in our lives. In Perfect Puppy, we teach our dogs to see our common humanity despite our visible differences. Why is it still so difficult to teach ourselves?

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