how to cope

Yesterday, I met an eleven year-old girl whose life this far has been an extraordinary journey.  

Stephanie lives with chronic pain due to serious complex medical conditions. Her entire family is living testimony to strength, courage and perseverance. 

But their lives were changed, especially Stephanie's, when Flare came along two years ago.

Flare is a C.O.P.E. (Canine Opportunity People Empowerment) dog.  

C.O.P.E.'s mission is to: provide a remarkable education program that engages communities and empowers students and others in the training of service dogs that will transform the lives of people with disabilities. (

As an animal lover who grew up with pets and married someone who I think loves animals even more than me, I thought I understood the power that an animal can have.  

But seeing the relationship between Stephanie and Flare reaffirmed the fact that animals are highly intelligent, sentient beings. 

Stephanie's mother, Denise, recalled how two years ago Stephanie had essentially given up. She was in too much pain. Too tired to fight. Then they found out they would be getting Flare and everything changed, for the better.  The dog gave her hope, purpose, comfort.  

The dog gave her a reason to live. 

I've had cats most of my life and granted, you doing see a lot of working cats out there.  For one, they wouldn't wear that vest.  Cats seem to live, and give, on their own terms. The two I have now dole out their love and affection as they deem necessary. 

But they know when something is up. 

They'll come in for a pat just when I seem to need it most. They'll curl up on my husband's chest while we're watching a movie. They'll sit in my lap when I'm reading.  It's a relaxing feeling of being needed, often kneaded, and provides a soothing sense of calm.  

I see the effect dogs have on my husband, who, for different reasons than Stephanie, also lives with chronic pain. He lights up when he sees a dog on the street. Always stops to ask the owner if he can say hello.  He knows all the dogs in our building by name.  They distract from his pain, help him find joy. The same thing Flare does for Stephanie.

Although we're not in a position to own a dog, someday we might adopt a pair of rescues that can't be separated.  A couple of underdogs.  

Rick Mercer recently did a piece profiling the working dogs at the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides in Oakville.  In my opinion, these animals are nothing short of genius.

The camera operator I worked with yesterday told me how he once filmed a story about a seeing eye dog.  When entering Tim Horton's the Standard Poodle knew whether to get in line or go to the cash.  The cashiers knew the dog and tapped the counter so he would know where to go to be served.  An employee brought the order to their table.  A table the dog chose.  He liked one against the wall, so he could lie against it, out of the way of traffic and have a rest.

Stephanie told me that Flare helps her with her pain.  Flare doesn't judge, or look at her funny, or question her.  Flare is a presence that helps more than she knows.

On second thought, perhaps Flare knows exactly what she is doing.

In this video life partners explain how their C.O.P.E. dog is a friend, a companion, a helper.

These dogs give physical and emotional support from a place of unconditional love without judgement or pretense.

They are trained by humans, but I think it is we who have a lot to learn...from them.