Man’s Best Friend

Raising Guide Dogs for Canadians with Disabilities

By Corie Benjamin

guidedog Since they were first domesticated, there has always been a close bond between humans and their canine companions. Dogs have been bred for all conceivable purposes and have served us as shepherds, guards, draft animals, hunting partners, and simple companions. As technology advanced and lifestyles changed, dogs have come to fill new positions in our lives as rescue team members, therapy partners, and abilifying agents. Specially trained canines have taken the place of eyes and ears and guided thousands of people across the world.

On November 5, 1927, the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post published an article by a Ms. Dorothy Harrison Eustis on the idea of training dogs to guide the blind. She had been inspired by the Pottsdam school in Germany, which trained several guide dogs to assist World War II vets who had been blinded in battle. Little did she know that her idea would spark a movement still in motion today. When confronted by one Morris Frank of Nashville, Tennessee, who challenged Ms. Eustis to train such a guide dog, she presented him with Buddy—a female German shepherd and the first North American seeing-eye dog. In 1929, the first guide dog training school was established through the efforts of Eustis and Frank, and over the years other countries followed their example and developed training schools capable of giving a large measure of freedom back to visually challenged individuals.

LionsFoundationOakville In Canada, one of the primary organizations providing trained assistance dogs is Dog Guides Canada, founded by the Lions Foundation of Canada. This initiative, begun in 1985 with the launch of Canine Vision Canada, was swiftly followed by the addition of the Hearing Ear Dog Guide program in 1988, and then the Special Skills Dog Guide program in 1991. To date, more than 1,700 teams of assistance dogs have graduated from their programs, with an annual goal of graduating 160 teams in each discipline. Recently, the Special Skills program has introduced a program to train Seizure Response Dog Guides who assist individuals with epilepsy, in addition to their newest program, Autism Assistance Dog Guides, to provide comfort and stress-relief while promoting independence and social interaction for children 4–12 suffering from autism. Dog Guides Canada and other organizations continue to strive for excellence in providing individuals with companions who suit their needs and increase their quality of life.

The freedom granted through four-footed companions is an immeasurable gift, both to those who receive their new ‘eyes’ and those who assist in the process of building a Dog Guide team. Participating in this charitable endeavour is not limited to monetary donations and requesting or training a team. Fostering a puppy for the Dog Guide program is a donation that gives back to the giver. As a four-time participant in this program, with four graduated Dog Guides currently out working with clients, I can attest to the rewarding satisfaction and joy gained through raising these amazing dogs.

The foster puppy program involves placing puppies with individual foster families from the age of eight weeks to approximately 16 months. The Lions Foundation offers assistance and basic training classes to support the foster families, and thanks to sponsor Nestle Purina Pet Care, veterinary care and food are also supplied. Breeds used in the Dog Guide program are generally Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, or Standard Poodles. For a year and two months, the family cares for the puppy, socializes it, and introduces it to situations and places it will encounter as a working guide dog. With their green Dog-Guide-in-Training jackets, these puppies are allowed anywhere a full-fledged Dog Guide can go: public transit, movie theatres, churches, restaurant, malls, escalators, elevators, streetcars, subways, grates, playgrounds, libraries, offices, vehicles, and community centers.

dogguidepuppyFoster puppies must learn to interact with other dogs and people. In addition to offering practical guidance, Dog Guide companions offer emotional support to their clients. According to Dr. Alan Beck, director of Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, “the companionship of animals decreases loneliness and stimulates conversation…by encouraging touch, interaction with animals stimulates…exercise, encourages laughter, and facilitates social contact,” leading to an improved sense of well-being for those with animals in their lives. Clients experience freedom in the sense of motile independence and also in the sense that they have another living being, a friend, who also can serve as a bridge to build relationships with others.

If you happen to come across either a green-jacketed foster puppy-in-training or a fully trained canine companion working with a client, think of the Dog Guides program, And don’t forget, always ask before you pet a working dog!

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