When someone has a severe visual impairment or blindness, they have some options to assist them in safely navigating their environment. One option is having a guide dog: a four-legged partner who will guide them safely anywhere they need to go.
Guide dogs are essential to their human partners, and we recognize their hard work today on International Guide Dog Day.
We were lucky enough to speak with both Alberta Guide Dogs and the Mira Foundation. These organizations have something special in common: they provide guide dogs to eligible youth with severe visual impairments or blindness.
The Mira Foundation was the first Guide Dog School in Canada and the first French one in North America. One unique and wonderful aspect of the MIRA foundation is its youth guide dog training program. Mira was the first training program in the world to give guides dog to youth under 15 years old. At Mira, you can be eligible for a guide dog as young as 11 years old.
BC & Alberta Guide Dogs began in Delta, BC in 1996 as BC Guide Dog Services. Since then, they have expanded to Alberta and now provide not only guide dogs, but Autism Support Dogs, as well. BC & Alberta Guide Dogs breed, raise, and train all their dogs with the ultimate goal of producing support animals for people with autism or severe visual impairments. Their Youth Training Program is for teenagers aged 13 to 18 and takes place over three weeks during the summer vacation.
Both training programs at the Mira Foundation and Alberta Guide Dogs are major commitments. Youth will consider the pros and cons of working with a guide dog for a long time before they make the decision to apply for one. The Mira Foundation tells us that “some youth may be a bit hesitant toward a guide dog when they’re still learning with the orientation and mobility specialist.” For others, they say some youth are “thrilled and motivated to have a guide dog and have been waiting for this day; they can’t wait to meet their new partner and new best friend.”
It isn’t a simple procedure for a youth to be matched with a dog.
“Currently, there are about 1,200 working guide dogs in Canada,” says Trish Lund from Alberta Guide Dogs. “This equates to about 1% of those who are blind or visually-impaired currently having a Guide Dog. Not every blind or visually impaired youth or blind or visually impaired adult, however, wishes to have a Guide Dog. There is a strong demand for more Guide Dogs, though, and people are currently waiting 2–3 years to get a Guide Dog.”
The Mira Foundation has about 40 youth matched with guide dogs every year, while the numbers vary year to year for Alberta Guide Dogs based on the number of people on the waiting list.
Both organizations have similar processes when matching a person with a dog, and they are both intensive and careful.
The Mira Foundation works with the Nazareth & Louis Braille Institution to determine how each blind youth moves with the dog and the areas in which they need to improve. The youth will work with an orientation and mobility specialist to help teach them how to move around safely with the dog. Next, the youth will go through 2 days of evaluation at the Mira Foundation to examine their pathology, daily needs and movements, living environment, the potential contribution of the dog, etc. Once the youth has been approved to be matched with a dog, they will spend 4 weeks away at a group training class.
“During this class, the goal is to find the dog with the best and effective matches possible that fit the beneficiary, based on the results of the preliminary assessment and observations at the beginning of the class,” says Joëlle of the Mira Foundation.
The final step of the Mira Foundation’s training program is the home follow-up.
“At the end of the attribution class, professional dog trainer and a mobility and orientation specialist will make sure the beneficiary is practicing what they have learned during the class. They will do circulation exercises with the guide dog in their home.”
After training, the youth and their family will have access to a professional dog trainer to help them through any questions they have. The Mira Foundation also follows up with the youth and their four-legged partner throughout their entire partnership.
At Alberta Guide Dogs, all youth must be proficient in walking with a white can before they are eligible for a guide dog. Once the dogs have completed about 75% of their training, they will start working with a human partner.
“For each instructor this is possibly the most complex process of all. All aspects of the dog’s abilities and needs must, at this time, be well understood. At the same time, we need to ensure that we fully understand the abilities, needs and expectations of the client. Things like body size, walking pace, activity levels and more are considered when trying to find the right match between dog and recipient,” says Trish.
“Guide dogs open up the world for recipients who are blind or visually impaired. They offer independence, confidence, mobility, safety and companionship to their person in need. They do so unselfishly and consistently for up to 8 years. They are angels with four paws and a wagging tail!” – Trish Lund, Alberta Guide Dogs
Naturally, there comes a time when every partnership must end. Guide dogs are retired around the age of 10, and with both organizations, are often adopted by a close friend or family member so the original beneficiary can still have contact with their dog. However, they aren’t able to keep the dog through retirement in order to allow space for them to develop a relationship with their new K9 partner.
Both organizations agree that it’s essential not to distract a working guide dog.
“The best thing you can do when you see a working guide dog wearing a harness or a puppy in training with a training jacket on is ignore them. The dogs need to concentrate on their job or on learning their job and when we interact with them we distract them from this and make things more difficult for them,” Trish advises.
Additionally, both experts at the Mira Foundation and Alberta guide dogs emphasize the importance of asking for permission if you really want to pet a guide dog. Whether the answer is yes or no, it’s important to respect them and the job that the dog is doing.
Guide dogs are changing the lives of their human partners, just ask Melissa, who is now working with her second guide dog from BC & Alberta Guide Dogs.
“It’s truly amazing how fast ten years pass. It’s also incredible how much life and learning can be packed into that decade. When I was 13, I received my first guide dog from BC and Alberta Guide Dogs, I am now 23. Now I have received my second dog, Telus. Telus is a fresh burst of energy. He’s eager to work and go new places, and most importantly, he walks fast. There’s a particular road in my neighbourhood with many poles inconveniently placed down the middle of the sidewalk. When Telus and I zoom down that sidewalk, Telus guides me around the poles at [such a fast] speed, I feel like I’m flying. I am eagerly looking forward to all the future holds with Telus now by my side. Thank you so much to his sponsors, puppy raisers, borders, Nick (his trainer), and everyone else at BC and Alberta Guide Dogs that had a hand in his raising and training.” Melissa and Guide Dog Telus
For more information about the Mira Foundation and the other assistance dog services they offer, check out their website. To learn more about BC & Alberta Guide Dogs, you can visit their website here.
If you want to learn more about how guide dogs assist those with serious visual impairments, click here.