Agency for dog therapy finds permanent home on Lexington Parkway

By Carolyn Walkup

Grady Hughes says he owes his life to Canine Inspired Change (CIC), a local nonprofit organization that promotes social and emotional well-being by connecting people to therapy dogs. Hughes, 27, almost died when at age 8 he was hit by a truck while riding his bicycle. He spent 87 days in the hospital—42 of them in a coma—and underwent numerous surgeries. CIC therapy dogs assisted in his long recovery, and they continue to help him today.

Hughes currently works with a golden retriever named Copper and its owner, Mark Stary, who volunteers with Canine Inspired Change. Although their weekly meetings have been online since the COVID-19 outbreak caused CIC’s in-person classes to be suspended, Hughes continues to benefit from seeing Copper and watching him obey his spoken commands, Stary said.

According to Stary, Hughes “just glows when he sees Copper. It brightens his day, even when he’s having a rough one.” When the classes were in-person, Hughes routinely encouraged the younger students in his group and shared his contagious enthusiasm for life, Stary said.

CIC was founded in 2010 by Danielle Graczyk, a professional dog trainer who realized the role her own dogs played in her recovery from addiction. For the past seven years, agency volunteers have been helping young people who have experienced trauma or have chronic mental and emotional issues by bringing their own trained therapy dogs to small-group sessions at juvenile detention centers, day programs or other participating locations such as the Jewish Community Center in Highland Park. Last month the CIC moved into its new home in the Wilder Foundation’s building at 451 N. Lexington Pkwy.

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Grady Hughes (left) poses with Mark Stary and Copper, his therapy dog team at Canine Inspired Change.

“I liked the type of work Canine Inspired Change was doing, working with at-risk kids,” McMullen said. “We focus on emotional learning goals. Being kind to dogs carries over to being patient, kind and accepting of the people around us.”

In addition to structured classes both in and outside of the Wilder building, CIC is offering its outdoor space to people who just want to drop in as needed, according to Graczyk, CIC’s executive director. That service is especially geared to health care workers and others who are experiencing increased stress due to the pandemic.

CIC “helps young people transcend trauma, social struggles and isolation by sparking meaningful connections with dogs, volunteers and each other,” according to the organization’s website. “Dogs bring out the best in people,” Graczyk said.

CIC program director Kate McMullen runs the day-to-day operations of the organization. A Highland Park resident, she first became involved in the program after meeting Graczyk in a dog obedience class, and she continues to volunteer there with her own dog.

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Among the therapy teams at Canine Inspired Change are (from left) Kate McMullen and Millie, Mark Stary and Copper, executive director Danielle Graczyk and Katie Cramer with Cramer’s pet Rascal, Erin Jorich and Wallace, and Beth Childs and Hank. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“I liked the type of work Canine Inspired Change was doing, working with at-risk kids,” McMullen said. “We focus on emotional learning goals. Being kind to dogs carries over to being patient, kind and accepting of the people around us.”

CIC’s curriculum was developed by Beth Childs, a behavior analyst with a background in working with young adults with traumatic brain injuries. It blends therapy with dog training. Being able to teach a dog tricks can boost a client’s self-esteem and lessen his or her frustration level, Childs said. The goal is to help clients learn how to calm themselves and develop patience, compassion, confidence and communication skills. CIC’s courses are custom-fit to the needs of each small class. Sessions typically last an hour and are held weekly for eight to 10 weeks.

Childs has been on the CIC board for close to 10 years. According to her, the agency’s services are needed more than ever these days due to the isolation the COVID-19 lockdown brought about and the dearth of opportunities for personal connections.

CIC encourages clients who have a dog to use what they learn in class with their own pets. All breeds are capable of becoming therapy dogs, the CIC maintains.

The CIC’s current staff of therapy dogs ranges from Chihuahuas to English mastiffs. All of them have mastered basic obedience skills, display friendliness toward people of all ages and work amiably in close proximity to other dogs.

Anyone interested in enrolling in a class or in volunteering as a CIC therapist may visit canineinspiredchange.org for more information. Scholarships are available for those who need financial assistance.

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