SHORTAGE OF GUIDE DOGS A CRISIS, PROMPTING SEARCH FOR ‘MADE IN CANADA’ SOLUTION
Source: National Post (Extract)
Posted: April 28, 2021
‘We believe every Canadian who needs a guide dog should have that opportunity – at no cost’, says the president of the CNIB Guide Dogs program.
Last year, a fire broke out in the lobby of Cindy Shone’s Toronto building. After hearing the fire alarm, Shone opened her door to find out what was happening. She could feel and smell the smoke filling her hallway, but couldn’t see it. Shone is blind.
Shone quickly put the safety harness on Barney, her Labrador-Golden Retriever-mix guide dog. She doesn’t remember giving him any commands.
“The fire was in the lobby and he just knew not to use the door we normally take to go down to the lobby. He ended up leading us to another door 100 feet away, and down a set of stairs to the back of the building,” she recalled.
“To Barney, it was no big deal, just another day at work,” Shone said. Barney stayed calm throughout the ordeal, she said, and wasn’t afraid to go back inside the building when all was clear.
Shone was a white cane user before being paired with Barney through the CNIB Guide Dog program. “He’s a great dog, super obedient, super willing to do anything. He’s a joy to have.”
Barney is also trained to ignore her commands when a situation is not safe, like walking into traffic. It’s called intelligent disobedience. Shone said her husband of 30 years is amazed at her independence. “I can go out on the streets with this dog, just as if I could see myself — or I was on the arm of a seeing person.”
CNIB started their guide dogs program in 2017 to help blind or partially sighted Canadians live a freer and more connected life. The charity raises, trains and matches dogs with adults and youth, while also advocating for greater acceptance of guide dogs in the community.
But like most aspects of society, the CNIB guide dog program has been impacted by the pandemic. Many guide dogs are bred and trained in the United States, where guide dog programs and training centres are bigger and better established. Pandemic travel restrictions and border closures has meant that many visually impaired Canadians can’t travel to the U.S. to train with, and bring home their guide dogs.
Diane Bergeron, president of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) Guide Dogs program, says the organization has experienced a 375 per cent increase in applications to their guide dog program since the pandemic began, because people are now looking for a “made in Canada” solution as soon as possible.
It can take as long as two years for a guide dog to be fully trained, and cost as much as $50,000 to raise a single guide dog from puppyhood to retirement. CNIB says the shortage of guide dogs has reached a crisis stage, and so on April 28, is kicking off a Guide Dog fundraising campaign at cnib.ca/gdurgent to meet the needs of sight-impaired Canadians.
With a goal of $7.5 million, the CNIB Guide Dog campaign hopes to fund 150 guide dogs into service, hire more expert trainers and expand its program of in-community training for their blind handlers.
“We believe every Canadian who needs a guide dog should have that opportunity — at no cost,” says Bergeron.
Back in 2018, Beth Deer did not have to contend with border closures and travel restrictions when she was paired with Patronus, her black Labrador Retriever guide dog from the U.S. The former white cane user travelled to Oregon to meet him, learn how to walk with him in his safety harness, and what commands to use.
Deer was matched with Patronus by Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), a U.S. charity. Stacey Ellison, training class supervisor at GDB, says 11 per cent of their dogs go to Canadian handlers.
Patronus was bred to become a guide dog. His parents’ temperament and health was carefully screened. He started his training with volunteer puppy raisers, getting socialized, and learning basic obedience commands.
When he was about 15 months old, he was placed with an experienced guide dog trainer. Patronus learned to avoid obstacles, stop at curbs and steps, navigate through traffic, follow directional commands, and disobey unsafe commands.
Like his handler, Patronus has been working from home during the pandemic. Deer is a 22-year-old broadcast reporter in Edmonton. When his safety harness is off, he loves to be petted and sunbathe in the backyard. But when the harness is on, he is all working dog.
In public washrooms, Patronus guides Deer directly to accessibility stalls. He leads her to the sink, then the hand dryer. Patronus knows Deer so well that during trips to the mall, he will stop outside stores that he knows she likes, like Sephora.
“Using a cane I just felt lonely. He’s made me so much more confident, he is definitely an extension of me,” said Patronus.
They have embarked on trips together, travelling to England, Scotland, San Francisco and Palm Springs. Deer feels fortunate that she was able to get Patronus before the pandemic closed the borders and made travel difficult.
Earlier this year, she returned from a trip to London, England, to attend her father’s funeral. With her boyfriend and Patronus, they had to spend three days in a quarantine hotel. It was difficult for Patronus, said Deer, who has a special diet and was not able to get the proper food and exercise he needed.
“At first Patronus was only allowed to go out twice a day, which for a big dog, is not enough,” she explained.
Life still serves up obstacles, but she has Patronus to help navigate them. “He is definitely my magical guide,” said Deer.
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