Celebrating diversity in dogs

corgi mix dog looking between banister postsFor over a decade I worked at a summer camp in New Hampshire. They were blissful summers, as summer is often remembered by New Englanders who get too little warmth and sunshine the rest of the year. I had different jobs. Some years I traveled with groups of teenagers exploring the world and introducing them to a variety of recreations, alternate years I returned to the camp where whatever my job title might have been, always included days on the waterfront.

The camp was known for the owner’s interest in ‘celebrating diversity’ and one summer I was joined on the docks by a boy from Palestine who discovered the never before experienced joy of sitting in a canoe on a pristine lake and waiting for fish to take the bait. That summer a group of kids from Siberia attended camp, along with a 200+lb chaperone who make me embarrassed for my own self-consciousness about my body as she lazed on shore in a bikini, her pale flesh soaking up the sun like a hiker in the desert finding a cold spring of water.

There were also the kids with different ‘abilities’. One summer a pre-adolescent girl with cerebral palsy attended camp. The route to the waterfront included a long sloping descent that if you forgot your goggles or towel were loath to turn around and head back up. Walking down with the girl who shunned my offers of help I watched with eye widening alarm as she began to gain speed, throwing out her stiff limbs like a tin soldier in an effort to remain vertical. I raced to catch up but didn’t reach her before she lost the battle with gravity. She suffered the tumble with the courage that you routinely see in people who have  lived their lives having no other choice but to get up, wipe their bloody nose on their sleeve and keep going, assuming they have the mobility to do so.

Another summer a boy, recently diagnosed with diabetes, joined us. Fearing the label ‘diabetic’ his parents decided against a camp specifically for kids with the disease. I understood their reluctance to have him labeled but as good as the counselors were we were not skilled in understanding the vagaries of ‘blood sugar’. The night I was awakened to help the nurse because he had tumbled out of bed and could not be roused, I wondered how much better off he might have been if he didn’t have to join us on our learning curve of determining what time was best for a bedtime snack, and how to gauge insulin amounts for upcoming activities. There were camps where kids with diabetes could go where counselors who lived with and managed the disease provided guidance and role models, and where the sight of a kid stopping to take their blood sugar level before a game of softball would be routine. Pretending that a kid isn’t living with a condition that affects their health and well-being doesn’t mean that condition goes away.

I am not a parent but I think I understand their desire that their child be like the other kids. But even if a kid is not like other kids (and heaven knows there are plenty that aren’t and should be proud of the fact) they can learn the skills they need so they can be successful contributors to society and value their own self-worth. My mother frequently remarked, “..as long as you’re/they’re happy, ” when I shared whatever path my life was on at the moment or we met someone with different abilities. Both she and my father often hired developmentally disabled people to work in their business.

When I work with dogs I think my mother was on to something. So long as they’re happy the things they can’t do often don’t matter so much.

9 comments so far

  1. Catherine McBrien on

    Very poignant post. The story of the little girl’s courage in the face of adversity brought tears to my eyes.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      She was quite a nice kid. I only saw her that one summer. I hope that her parents found a good camp for her. Sometimes being the one who stands out in a crowd is not always a welcome thing, the side effect of main streaming.

  2. Jen on

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I think a lot of people get kind of touchy when you talk about differences that dogs have in conjunctions with difference that people have. I think throwing out knowledge that we gain from human interaction is a good way to be blind to individual differences, regardless of the source.

    Those kids were lucky to work with you!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks Jen, you mean ‘how can you make comparisons between a dog and a person?!’ I only wish it were done more often.

      • Jen on

        I wish it were done more often as well. Behavior is behavior, regardless of source. There are also different levels of normal, regardless of source.

  3. Alison Campbell on

    I just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blog. Your deep respect for the individual (dog, person or whatever) really shines through and for me that is a must in dealing with any species (my own preferences being dogs and rats, with humans tagging along there somewhere too!)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Alison. We are never working with carbon copies of anything, as close to the original as they may appear.

  4. Kay Liestman on

    I really enjoyed this blog. After working many years with “differently abled” individuals, having a “differently abled” dog is okay. And I also agree with Alison about your respect for all coming thru, loud and clear. You do great things for dogs and people. Thank you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Kay, Very nice of you to take the time to say this.

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