Everything I Need To know, I Learned From My Dog
5 important life lessons we all can fetch from Ralph
Three years ago this month, I was on the farm at Canine Assistants being paired with Ralph Lauren, a goofy golden retriever with a fluffy tail and a giant smile. Each year since then I remember and reflect on Ralph's "gotcha day," and what it was like to work with him for the first time. I always marvel at all the love and comfort he has brought to so many patients and their families in the time he's been on the Cook Children's staff. At this point I've lost count of how many times I have said it, but it is truly the greatest joy of my life to walk beside Ralph while he prances into the hearts of so many. The joy I feel as I work with Ralph does not come unaccompanied, however. My silly yet attentive, giant yet gentle, four legged partner-in-crime has taught me more than I ever imagined he would. In fact, everything I need to know, I learned from Ralph.
1. Save your bark for when you really need it. One afternoon when Ralph and I were on a walk through our quiet neighborhood, we were mutually startled by a big dog with an even bigger voice, sprinting back and forth behind a fence, barking ferociously at us. I squeezed the handle to his leash tightly for fear that he may want to take part in conversation with the barking dog. To my surprise, he did nothing but tilt his head, study the dog for a moment, and keep on his way. I was struck with the realization that Ralph barks so sparingly, that surely he is saving his bark for when he really needs it. In life, a lot of dogs are going to bark at you, and a lot of them are trying to get you to bark back, but maybe it's better to tune them out and just enjoy your walk. You can always bark when it's really necessary.
2. Meet people where they are. When I first returned to work with my new constant companion, I felt reasonably unsure of his ability to read the room in an unfamiliar environment. I worried when we were called to see very young patients, I worried when we were called to see very fragile patients, and I worried when we were called to see patients with conditions or diagnoses that changed their appearance. It turned out, of course, that my worry was for nothing. Ralph showed me that he instinctively knew to mourn with families who needed to mourn, to be very gentle with children who were critically ill, and to play with children who wanted to play. He showed no judgment to any child, only the love and reassurance they were looking for. I strive to be as unwaveringly accepting as Ralph has proven to be.
3. A little encouragement goes a long way. In a hospital that has four adorable golden retrievers on staff (who are often confused for each other), Ralph has become known as the one with the silly tricks. In teaching him to do new things, I have seen very clearly the difference between what happens when I am unenthusiastic and directive, versus when I am excited for him, cheer him on, and let him know I believe in him. He now recognizes the words, "you can do it" and "you got it," and when he hears those words, he almost always tries again (usually with more "umph!"). Maybe we should practice that with each other. Maybe we should pay attention to the difference it makes to our family members, our friends, our coworkers, even our pets, when we cheer them on. Sometimes all it takes is one voice saying what you already know deep down: you got it.
4. Seize every opportunity you possibly can. While at times Ralph has seized opportunities I am not as proud of (like helping "clean up" spilled food off the floor), he also seizes opportunities to find joy and make a difference. He beelines in the hallway to people I haven't noticed, who he somehow knows need him close. He photobombs families capturing a memory here at the hospital and by doing so, causes an eruption of laughter. He finds patches of dirt to roll in immediately after his bath. And he literally always stops to smell the roses. To Ralph, an elbow resting on the edge of a table is not an employee paying close attention to their work, it is an opportunity for a nose-nudge to initiate petting. To Ralph, unless it's nap time, every passing moment is an opportunity for something. Thinking about that makes me wonder how many opportunities I miss when I think I'm too busy to notice them.
5. Last but certainly not least, don't take yourself so seriously. I knew from the very beginning that Ralph had excellent comedic timing. One night while still in Georgia for training with Ralph, I was laying with him and telling a story. He reached his long arm out into the air and dropped his paw directly over my mouth, as if to say "shhhhh." He has been making me, and everyone else, laugh ever since. From perfectly-timed audible groans during long meetings, to prancing so wildly that he trips himself, Ralph is one funny dog. And even though he has an incredibly important job, he knows not to take himself so seriously. It's as if no amount of accolades, photos taken or articles written could ever make him arrogant. He does what he does because it is fun and joyful and it matters. It's as simple as that. Oh, and around 4:45 p.m. every day, you can find him rolling on his back care-free in the grass outside the south tower, reminding me as I stand there and laugh, to stop taking things so seriously.
About the author
Kizzy Marco is a certified Child Life Specialist and the Facility Dog Program Coordinator at Cook Children's. She is Ralph's handler. Ralph came to Cook Children's with his sister Chanel. He is known for his big personality and many tricks! A warm and fuzzy hug can help anyone feel better. A dog's healing presence is known to have a positive influence on wellness. That's the driving force behind Sit...Stay....PLAY, the resident dog program at Cook Children's. Click to learn more about the program.