A few years ago my dog Wallace and I started volunteering with Canine Inspired Change, an organization that brings dogs into schools, juvenile detention centers, and shelters to create a healing connection between dogs and youth. The organization and the volunteer opportunities I have experienced with Wallace have truly changed my life. We have had the privilege of working with kids with emotional and behavioral disorders, youth in a juvenile detention center, and disadvantaged populations. It’s been such an honor to spend time with these kids. Not to mention it’s created a deeper bond between Wallace and me.
We currently volunteer once a week at an elementary after school program with a group of fourth and fifth graders. Each week Wallace and I are teamed up with a group of five kids. Every session we work on obedience skills and guide Wallace through an obstacle course. The multi-week program leads up to a final performance in which the kids get to show off their skills to their classmates and family members. It’s incredible to witness the kids gain confidence, develop clear communication skills, and establish a trusting relationship with a dog.
Each session begins and ends in a circle. We connect at the beginning and reconnect at the end on everyone’s state at the moment. On a scale of 1 to 10 the kids let us know how they’re feeling. At the end of the one-hour session there’s no surprise that those who came in feeling closer to a 1 are end up closer to a 10.
The end of the session also asks the kids to say something nice to the person to their right. The first few weeks always include chuckles and laughter of discomfort. In the first week of our current session a kid in my group looked at me and said, “Him? I have to say something nice to him? I don’t know what to say!” I encouraged the student to comment on their neighbor’s good work with their dog. My recommendation was met with reluctance. We were simply asking the kids to say something nice to their neighbor. The task, to them, seemed daunting.
A few weeks ago Wallace and I supported a CIC session at a juvenile detention center. I had no idea what to expect. I was told these kids were typically caught in the act of a crime and were sent here. When the kids walked in I was amazed by how young they all seemed. My mind, of course, was flooded with questions about what circumstances led them here at such a young age. The majority of them came off as disinterested in the program. With time, however, they warmed up to the dogs. It was a pleasure to work with these kids alongside my dog. I don’t know what led them to their present state, but I do know they had an hour with some very loving and compassionate dogs.
At the juvenile detention center we started and ended our session just as we do with the after school kids. What’s your name? How are you feeling today? To wrap things up, say something nice to the person to your right. Just like the fourth and fifth graders I work with every week, these kids struggled with saying something nice to their neighbor. They laughed with discomfort. They looked to the ground with no comment. Danielle, the incredible driving force behind CIC, looked at the kids in our group and acknowledged that being kind might feel weird. She reminded them that although society might tell them differently, they have the ability to be kind, compassionate men. Saying hurtful things might come easier, but kindness has more power.
I left that session intrigued by the idea of kindness. It’s not just the kids who have a hard time saying nice things to others. We all have a hard time saying nice things to others. It’s so easy for us to go straight to the negative. We talk badly about others behind their backs. We gripe about all the negative things that happen at work, at home, with our families and friends. I am 100% guilty of all of this.
If we look around us our entire world is filled with negatives. Our political state is a mess. The environment is in disrepair. There’s innocent people around the world seeking asylum and safety due to war and conflict in their home countries. And just this past weekend 11 lives were taken by a shooter in a Pittsburgh synagogue. It’s pretty unbelievable. To top it all off we struggle with simply saying something kind to those around us.
If you’ve taken a yoga class that includes chanting there’s a good chance you’ve heard the phrase Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. It’s described in many ways, but at its essence it’s a call to action. It’s an encouragement to be kind in your thoughts, actions, and words to uplift all beings everywhere.
So here’s my challenge for you, start saying nice things to those around you. Even those who challenge and frustrate you, say something genuinely kind. And while you’re at it, be kind to yourself. Kindness won’t change our political climate overnight. Kindness won’t undo centuries of deforestation. Kindness won’t magically eliminate discrimination and violence based on sex, class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, and age. However, tiny steps toward a happier, healthier world could start with saying one nice thing to the person next to you.