Seven-year-old Danielle Graczyk sat on the kitchen floor of her one-level house, curled up into her dog, Sally. The blankets wrapped around her comforted the two to sleep.
Sally had been brought to Graczyk’s family by her uncle, who had been wrapped up in drugs and violence his whole life. Seven-year-old Gracyzk begged to keep the dog until her parents gave in. Little did they know the effect this one dog would have on the rest of Graczyk’s life.
Growing up in a household that lived paycheck to paycheck and a neighborhood that with a high amount of poverty and crime, she was oftentimes surrounded by trauma and addictions.
“My family did the best they could,” Gracyzk said. “But you can’t do better than you know better.”
Having Sally at her house was one of the first times Gracyzk felt at peace about her surroundings.
“To me then, in my young mind, dogs meant comfort and love and predictability, and I could really communicate with her,” Gracyzk said. “People represented unpredictability and sometimes danger. You just never knew what you were going to get from them.”
As she grew up, Gracyzk tried a handful of life paths including college and bartending. Both ended up leading her to a lifestyle of partying.
“During that time I was basically just trying to figure out how I can just be with dogs all the time and still party and not have to worry about anything,” Gracyzk said.
It wasn’t until 16 years after she started her career in professional dog training that Gracyzk realized she needed to get help.
“It wasn’t that easy,” Gracyzk said. “It was a series of about two years of me trying to get sober on my own… finally I told somebody that I trusted that this is what is happening and I really need help.”
That is when things began to change. She was given an opportunity at the start of her recovery to bring dogs to a local school that worked with children diagnosed with emotional behavioral disorders.
“I responded yes! Yes! Yes!” Gracyzk said. “It was the biggest yes of my life. I got this email and I was like this is it for sure.”
Being shown in recovery that remaining humble and performing acts of service was the right way to navigate the world, Gracyzk jumped at what she thought would be a one-time opportunity.
After her initial visit to the school, doors began opening for Gracyzk to create her own non-profit business, Canine Inspired Change, to continue to bring dogs to that school and many more.
Canine Inspired Change is an organization that teaches patience, love, and kindness through working and playing alongside dogs in order to boost self-esteem in individuals at all points of their life. The organization moved from an in-home business to the Wilder Center in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The curriculum was formed by both Gracyzk, whose background is dog training, and a licensed behavior analyst, Beth Childs. It focuses on reminding individuals that they matter and, even though life may not be what they expected at the moment, they can get through it with the right tools.
Childs has been in the human services field for 20 years. While working as a behavior analyst as her day job, she serves on the Canine Inspired Change board in her freetime. Recently her dog, Hank, was certified as a Canine Inspired Change therapy dog, so now the pair is teaching some of their own classes.
“A lot of the key components I work with tie into CIC, things like self-esteem, emotional awareness, frustration tolerance, patience,and treating other people with respect,” Childs said.
They use situations that arise while working with dogs to teach tools for real life situations. This gives students a positive experience practicing emotion regulation.
Childs said the way they measure CIC’s success is to see the responses from the participants of their classes.
“Well, are they coming back?” Childs said. “Are they using these skills they’ve learned working with a dog and are they able to incorporate them into their real life day to day interactions?”
Childs said they are seeing a difference being made even through online dog therapy Zoom classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also offering other creative ways to get involved including a brand new podcast, Canine Inspired Podcast, and online dog training.
“There’s still a main focus on the self esteem piece, like I still matter even though I am at home more often and may feel more isolated than the people I normally connect with, I still matter,” Childs said. “A big piece of CIC is saying I matter, so being able to do that on a one-on-one zoom setting is really cool.”