Owning a properly trained dog guide can provide support, independence, and freedom for people living with medical or physical disabilities
Janet Marissen is a director with Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, a registered charity.
Part of what she does is to provide information about the foundation’s different programs, to help Lions Club members understand how important their donations are to the organization.
“We ask our Lions to raise a lot of money for the Lions Foundation, but they don’t always know the impact of their dollars. I can tell you it changes the person’s life. We call that person who gets a dog its ‘forever person,’” said Marissen.
“It changes the family and the community. The person who gets the dog can quite often now do things for the community that they couldn’t do before they had whatever support the dog is giving them. It is not just about one dog, one person. It is one dog and the whole circle around them.”
The programs include canine vision for people who are blind or visually impaired, hearing for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, seizure response for people who have a seizure disorder, and diabetic alert for people who have a form of diabetes called hypoglycemic unawareness.
“Their blood sugars drop, and they don’t know it and the dog can smell it and alert them. And there is a program for people who have a mobility issue. They could use a walker or a wheelchair at least part of the time so they need some support with picking things up, opening doors and things like that. And then we have a program for children who have autism,” explained Marissen.
The average cost to get a dog from puppy to being matched with their ‘forever person’ is $25,000.
“The really big money comes in because they have a professional trainer five days a week until they graduate. Pet Value has taken over providing all of the food for the puppies and all of the materials so we can hold our walks to raise money,” said Marissen.
”So, all of the money you put on a pledge sheet goes right to the foundation. None of it goes to pay for the advertising or the pledge forms or any of the other stuff because that’s all covered.”
Before spending time with a professional trainer, a dog is placed with a volunteer foster family for about a year.
Once a puppy is old enough to enter the fostering program, foster parents like Linda Kittmer who is fostering a dog named Shay, will spend the first year preparing the dog for their future as a working dog guide before it is turned over to a professional trainer.
It can be tough when their time with the dog is over.
“It is an emotional experience because we definitely get attached to the dogs. Knowing that they’re going off to change someone’s life makes it that much easier,” said Kittmer.
“And then we get a new puppy, so that helps to soften the blow,” added Anne McDougall who is a foster mom to young Freddy.
“I had always thought we would get a dog when I retired. When the time came I kind of thought my kids have just left home, I want to travel. Owning a dog is a 15-year commitment. I had a neighbour friend who was doing this, and I thought ‘let’s give that a try’ and now I’m hooked. I’m on number eight. It works perfectly with my lifestyle because if I travel there are people to look after the dog or I could take a break if I wanted to. It is only a one-year commitment at a time, so if circumstances change, or I decide I want to do extensive travelling, I just wouldn’t take another one.”
Matching a dog with a potential owner takes a little bit of magic.
“The person who has been approved to get a dog goes to the foundation. It is like a hotel. They live there and get their meals there. The first couple of days the trainers watch, particularly with canine vision, how they move. Are they a fast walker? Are they a slow walker? Are they tentative? Are they having difficulty? They have trained a string of dogs, so then they do the magic and try to match the dog that they think walks the best, is the right height,” said Marissen.
Training is done at two facilities. One is in Oakville and the other is located near Guelph.
The foundation tries to graduate 200 teams annually.
Melanie Pigeau is a member of the Widdifield Lions Club and is the Walk for Dog Guides chair in North Bay.
“We are currently waiting for a canine vision dog here locally. We’ve had many dogs come to the area. I am finding every year I am seeing a new one. They are mostly the hearing ear or the canine vision dog guides. Those are the ones that we see a lot more need for in this area,” said Pigeau.
This year’s fundraising walk is this Sunday, June 2nd starting at noon at the Rotary picnic shelter at the waterfront.
“Our website is walkfordogguides.com and you can register there. You can collect pledges until walk day and come on out and walk. There will be lots of activities during the walk day as well,” said Pigeau.
“We have people showing up without a dog who are walking, others with a dog, and some just stop by with donations. Everything is greatly appreciated.”
New this year is a doggie game zone. People can also purchase by donation pup cakes, a treat for the dogs donated by Sugar Daddy’s. And of course, a barbecue and silent auction.
Last year’s walk raised $10,000.