She was eight pounds of cuteness, a velvet-nosed, soft-bellied lab named Yuki. Meeting her for the first time, I held her face up to mine and stared into her dark brown eyes. I was feeling a little nervous because Yuki wasn’t just any puppy. She was a dog guide in training and our family was being entrusted with caring for her over the next year.
When she let out a wide-mouth yawn, my heart melted. That moment was the beginning of what would be an amazing experience. Over the past nine months, we’ve taught her basic commands, taken her everywhere from Chapters and Walmart to schools, doctor’s offices and restaurants, and rode buses too.
The hardest part of typical puppy raising – the house training, chewing and shedding – has been offset by Yuki’s wonderful playful nature. Still, we know the toughest part is yet to come. After about a year with their foster families, dog guide pups go back to The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides office in Oakville where they begin an intensive four to six month training program.
They’re then matched with a child or adult in one of six programs: Canine Vision, Hearing Ear, Service, Seizure Response, Autism Assistance, and Diabetic Alert. Since the program opened in 1985, more than 2,200 people have walked out of the Foundation’s office on Kerr and Wilson Streets with a dog guide that’s given them some newfound freedom.
The dogs become people’s eyes or ears and often reintroduce them to a life they thought they’d lost forever. Dog guides are trained to open fridge doors with their mouths, alert a deaf person to a ringing phone and for a child with autism, they become a calming influence and are often a companion at bedtime.
There are currently about 900 teams of dogs and clients living together across the country, one in every province and territory. By the time a dog is taken home with their forever family, it costs around $25,000 for training and medical bills. There is no cost to clients but long wait times are the norm for all six programs, with the longest for the Autism
The organization receives financial support from several Lions Clubs across the country as well as donations from individuals, corporations and other organizations. That’s why the army of volunteers who foster pups and help out with events is so important.
Yuki is one of about 240 puppies currently being fostered by families. Now at nine months, she’s a healthy 60 pounds and still growing. I’m quite sure she’ll adapt to her noble life as a dog guide. The question is – how will I? I turned to a pro for advice on how to cope for the time when we have to give her up.
Missy Westgate has fostered 32 dog guides, 24 of them for the full year, and often has more than one pup in her Toronto home at a time. “I don’t give them up,” notes Westgate. “I give them a start. I love my dogs but I don’t need them the way some people do. These little puppies we take into our homes can make such a difference in not only one person’s life but the whole family,” she explains.
All the work that comes with fostering is made worthwhile when she looks into the face of the person who will become her pup’s forever family. “It just wipes that out. Besides,” says Westgate laughing, “I heard from one person who took her dog on a cruise to Rome. Some of these dogs are better travelled than I’ll ever be.”
Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, Oakville
Purina Walk for Dog Guides Fundraiser, Burlington & Oakville
Walks: May 31, 2015 – purinawalkfordogguides.com
by Denise Davy