Geoff Fierce and his guide dog, Greta, who helps him navigate life with his hearing disability. (Submitted)

For some, dogs aren’t just man’s best friend but a companion that makes life easier to navigate. That’s why several Lions Clubs all over Westman and across the country are hosting fundraising walks for its dog guide foundation.

The national event raises money to help train dog guides for Canadians with visual, hearing, medical or physical disabilities, and each walk is organized by volunteers with support from the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.

On May 28, the communities of Binscarth, Birtle, Dauphin, Minnedosa, Russell and Wawanesa will host their own PetValu Walk for Dog Guides.

Seeing how many Lions Clubs are taking part in the fundraising walks is an exciting thing to see, said Willie Brown, who is the director for the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides Manitoba, Northwest Ontario and Nunavut chapter and a member of the Oakburn club.

“It’s awesome. We’ve got a lot of clubs in this part of the world who are participating in it.”

Since one in five Canadians live with a disability, dog guides are in high demand, said the foundation’s events manager, Andrea Stevens. The organization relies on the fundraising walks to serve Canadians who need them.

It takes around $35,000 to breed, train and place dog guides with qualified applicants, which is why fundraising efforts are so important.

“With this year’s goal set to $1.4 million, the organization needs the public’s support now more than ever,” Stevens said in a press release.

Brown first became involved with the Lions foundation after seeing how dog guides improve the quality of life of people with disabilities.

“Whether they are visually impaired, or for someone who may be handicapped in a wheelchair, there’s all kinds of dogs,” Brown said. “We have about 1,000 dogs across the country at any one time working, so it’s important.”

The proceeds go directly to the seven dog guide programs the foundation runs — canine vision, hearing, service, seizure response, autism assistance, diabetic alert and facility support.

The foundation receives no government support and is funded entirely through donations and sponsorship, Brown said. All guide dogs are trained in Ontario at a school that is fully accredited for training assistance dogs through Assistance Dogs International.

“Our dogs are well trained and can deal with situations. When you see our dogs in training, you can put food down in front of them and they won’t touch it — even pizza,” Brown said. “They won’t choose balls, either. They’re designed to be there for their clients. When you see them do their work, they are incredible.”

As part of the foundation’s intensive training program, all dog guides and clients must pass a public access test. This enables them to exercise their public access rights, essentially allowing the assistance dog to go anywhere their handler goes. This ensures the foundation’s clients can fully rely on the support of their canine assistant in every aspect of their daily life. Public access laws can vary by province.

The foundation trains golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and standard poodles, since those are the breeds that exhibit the best combination of stability, intelligence and willingness to work, the foundation’s website says. Those breeds are alert, confident, loyal and easy to train to perform various tasks. Standard poodles are specifically trained for clients who have allergies, since they are hypoallergenic.

But it’s not just the dogs that work hard to make disabled Canadians’ lives easier, Brown says. From the people who work at the puppy training school in Oakville, Ont., to local volunteers, it takes a huge effort to ensure this service is available.

It’s a service that Geoff Fierce, a 67-year-old who used to live in Souris but now calls Winnipeg home, can’t imagine going without.

Fierce got his first dog through the foundation, a pooch called Nestle, in 2012. When it was time for Nestle to retire, it was a difficult decision, but the right one, Fierce says.

“Once a guide dog retires, you can’t keep it because you can’t have two trained dogs together,” he said.

This can often lead to confusion in both dogs, who can end up competing to perform their tasks, or just having fun and playing too much — even though Fierce and other clients make sure their guide dogs get plenty of love, attention and play.

When a dog guide retires, many are adopted by their client or a family member or friend. Otherwise, they are placed in a program for external adoption.

Fierce’s new dog, a poodle named Greta, fulfils all the same duties that Nestle did, including alerting their companion to the sound of a fire alarm or smoke detector or letting him know when a timer goes off or someone is talking to him.

“I wear a hearing aid and cochlear implant, and when I go to sleep at night, both those are off, so basically I have one per cent hearing in my left ear,” Fierce said. “Greta is also trained to wake me up to an alarm clock.”

Having Greta in his life means Fierce has much more opportunity to navigate the world as a person with a disability. An avid wildlife photographer who has plans to hold a photography course and go to university soon, Fierce said Greta makes his life much easier.

“She gives me freedom. She gives me a lot of confidence to go out,” said Fierce, who walks in the morning before putting his hearing devices in. “Our bond is extremely, extremely strong.”

And while everyone forms a bond with their pets, there’s something different about the relationship between a dog guide and their companion, Brown said.

“I’ve had dogs all my life. But I feel the bond I’ve had with my service dogs has been far more than I ever felt with a pet, because I rely on them.”

To register for a walk or donate to the foundation, visit walkfordogguides. com. Participants who don’t have a walk happening in their area can join the national virtual team online.

By Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 12, 2023 at 08:26

This item reprinted with permission from   Brandon Sun   Brandon, Manitoba
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