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Guide Dogs Goes Virtual

May 29, 2020

Leanne Wilson doesn’t go anywhere without her dog, a black Labrador retriever named Kanyon.

The dog guide is not only a beloved companion; he helps the Welland resident, who is blind, maintain her independence.

“Kanyon guides me around and helps me with things like crossing the street and navigating all the sidewalk furniture — things like signs and benches that might be out on a sidewalk,” Wilson said.

Thanks to Kanyon, Wilson no longer feels anxiety before heading out the door.

“Kanyon provides me with my independence and makes me feel safe. I would not go back to a white cane because when I am out and about with my dog, it’s so much easier.”

Wilson found Kanyon through Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, which provides life-changing dog guides to Canadians with physical and medical disabilities at no cost to them.

He is the second dog that has assisted Wilson. The first dog guide Wilson had was a golden retriever named Madison, who was retired from service last year.

The foundation’s annual fundraiser, Pet Valu Lions Walk for Dog Guides, which is scheduled for this Sunday (May 31) will look very different this year. That’s because the walk will take place virtually due to restrictions in place because of COVID-19.

Participants are encouraged to show their support for Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides by going for a walk around the block, lifting some weights, running on a treadmill at home, dancing at home in a living room, jumping on a trampoline or doing anything physically active all while practising social distancing.

Wilson expressed her gratitude for the program, otherwise she might not have been able to afford a dog guide.

Families or individuals in need of a service dog can apply to the Lions Foundation of Canada. It’s there at the foundation’s Oakville-based facility where a person’s need will be assessed and paired with a dog.

Greg Clarke, head instructor with Dog Guides, said the Lions Foundation of Canadian has been greatly impacted by the pandemic.

“These have been really difficult times for everyone and Dog Guides is no exception,” he said.

Dog Guides start training at seven weeks with volunteer foster families.

“During this crucial time, foster families teach the dogs basic obedience skills and socialize them as much as possible (take them on bus rides, to the grocery store, to work with them,” he said.

When the dogs are a year old, they return to the foundation where they are trained for six to eight months and are matched with a qualified applicant.

“Last year we were able to train 161 dog guides and unfortunately, due to COVID-19, this year’s number will be very different,” Clarke said, speaking of the animals.

Dog Guides are trained in one of seven programs to assist people living with vision or hearing loss, seizures, a physical or medical disability, diabetes and autism, or someone recovering from a traumatic situation.

Clarke said spring and summer training classes were cancelled due to safety concerns related to the pandemic, which has an impact on 58 applicants expecting to train with their dog guides.

“They were excited to meet their dog guide and start their journey with their new best friend. However, the safety of all took priority and when we got back to normal, these applicants will finally get to meet their new dog guides,” he said.

Clarke said 120 dog guides in training were sent to foster families and sitters. Instructors also had to figure out how to continue to stay on top of the dogs’ training while remaining physically distant.

Weekly video calls, emails and phone calls were implemented in order to check in on the teams’ status and also provide training exercises for dog guides in training.

Clarke said the foundation relies heavily on donations as it receives no government funding for the programs it offers.

The cost of training each dog is about $25,000 so every penny raised by the walk will go a long way toward helping people who need it the most.

“Now more than ever, we need the public’s support so that when things go back to normal, we can go back to helping more Canadians with a medical or physical disability,” Clarke said.

“This is why the Pet Valu Virtual Walk for Dog Guides is so important; it is our most successful fundraiser.”

Since 1985, the annual walk has raised more than $18 million. The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides supports 328 foster families taking care of future dog guide puppies, 120 dog guides in training and more than 1,000 graduates across Canada.

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