|Photos by Lions Foundation of Canada Guide Dogs|
Most people wouldn’t think of a dog as being capable of holding down a full time job, but that is the life of a dog guide. Guide dogs provide vital services to those that need their help, and like many other jobs, there is a lot of training required. This is where training schools, like the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides (LFCDG) come in.
Melissa Eckersley, manager of communications for LFCDG, says that certain breeds of dog are chosen to be guides because of their temperament, eagerness to work and adaptability. “They can go from the foster families …to a trainer …to somebody who might need them one day, so…you want a dog that’s going to be able to go through all of those transitions,” she says. The most common breeds used for dog guides are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, though some standard and miniature poodles are trained as well.
When the selected dogs are eight-weeks-old, they are placed with foster families that care for them until their first birthdays. All the food and veterinary costs are covered by the training school, so the biggest challenge in being a foster family is the time commitment.
“The purpose of the foster family is [to help] the puppy to experience as many things as possible, so that once [the dog is] out in the working life, it’s seen it all, it’s done it all, and nothing really surprises them,” Eckersley explains. Though it can take a lot of time to properly socialize these puppies to many different environments, the hardest part can come when the puppy has to be returned to the school for training. “There are some tears when they have to come back, but [the foster families] are able to meet the client that this dog is going to help.” Once they have seen that their beloved pet will go on to help someone in need, Eckersley says that most families find it easier to give the dogs up.
After foster care comes the formalized training at schools. Here the dogs receive one-on-one training and are taught the specific skills they will need in order to help their future handler. Eckersley elaborates on the dogs’ rigorous training routine: “A trainer could have up to six dogs in their string and throughout the day they would rotate through those dogs, practicing exercises for about 15 minutes and then going back to the kennel and getting another dog. It’s the best way for the dog to learn the skills [without getting] bored or overtired too quickly.”
Training like this usually lasts for six to eight months, and for the last month the client is brought to live at the centre to complete the dog’s specific training and bond with their future guide.The LFCDG is not only the largest school in Canada, it is also the only one to train five different kinds of dog guides, including:
1) Canine Vision
These dogs assist the blind or visually impaired, helping the handler navigate the obstacles of daily life, like busy streets and stairs.
2) Hearing Ear
These guides lead their deaf or hard of hearing handlers to sounds around the house, like a ringing telephone or a crying baby.
3) Special Skills
These dogs are able to operate lights switches and open and close doors for their handlers who are medically or physically disabled.
4) Seizure Response
These pups assist those who have epilepsy, and will bark for help or activate an alert system when their handler has a seizure.
5) Autism Assistance
These dogs help Autistic children by providing companionship in high anxiety situations.
It’s easy to spot a guide dog by the special harness that they wear and it’s important to know that while they are wearing the harness, they are on duty. Despite your natural urges to run over and start petting, remember that the dog is working to ensure the safety of its handler. “Often the dog steals everyone’s attention. That’s wonderful, but the ones that are actually working do have a job to do and any kind of interaction with the public is distracting for dog and could be potentially putting the person in harm’s way,” Eckersley says.
If your need to pet the dog is just too strong, Eckersley says that you must ask the dog guide handler’s permission to touch the dog. “What the client’s going to do is remove the harness so the dog is no longer working,” she explains. With the harness removed, the dog is off duty, and knows he is allowed to interact with other people. At that point, you are free to pet the dog to your heart’s content.
Though many of us have seen dog guides at school or in the workplace, on the streets and even on public transportation, dog guides are allowed in many public places that people may not be aware of. This is especially true for those whose work takes place mainly outside of the home, like canine vision dog guides. According to Eckersley, these guides are even allowed on airplanes and in taxis, so don’t be surprised if you see dog guide in what seems like an unlikely place.
But it’s not just all work for a dog guide. Just like you, they can go home and relax after a long day. When they aren’t on duty, they are just like any other house pet. “There’s definitely opportunity for the dog to relax and be a dog, you know, play fetch in the backyard or whatever it may be,” Eckersley confirms. Even with a large amount of play time available to them, work doesn’t necessarily feel like work to these dogs. Because of the breeds chosen, according to Eckersley, “they’re more than eager to do what you are asking them to do because it’s fun, it’s a game.”
As time passes though, dog guides grow older and deserve their own retirement. “For the most part, a client will notice when the dog is slowing down,” Eckersley says. This generally happens when the dog is eight to ten years old, and at this point the dog is usually taken off duty. Often a family member or friend of the handler will adopt the dog so that it can continue to be a part of that person’s life. Though the general public can adopt retired dog guides, the waiting list can be quite long.
Like most charities, the economic recession has affected guide dog training schools, but thankfully, not enough to significantly disrupt the LFDGC’s efforts. The organization continues to put together 110 dog guide teams a year, a number which is growing. “We still see a great support for people with disabilities and dog guides,” Eckersley says.
But as always, these training schools can use your help. Being a foster family is a great way to help out if you live close enough to one of the training schools. You can also sponsor a team, which helps cover the costs of raising and training dog guides, since the clients receive the dogs at no cost.
There is also the annual Purina Walk for Dog Guides, which happens in as many as 200 communities across the country each year. “One hundred per cent of the proceeds from the walk go directly towards raising and training dog guides for people with disabilities,” Eckersley says. Mark your calendars for 2011; the walks usually take place in May. More information can be found at http://www.purinawalkfordogguides.com.
Dog guides help improve the lives of those with disabilities and should be celebrated for the service they provide in the community. Just make sure that they are off duty before you show them the appreciation they deserve!
By Allison Vorstenbosch