Man’s best friend has a whole new meaning for the people who foster dog guides and those who receive them.
Dogs and dog guides will be walking in the Lions Foundation of Canada’s Purina Walk for Dog Guides in Elmira on Sunday, along with their owners of course. The walk raises money to train dogs to help people with a variety of needs.Cheryl Bauman is a foster parent for the third time. The first dog guide she took care of was Donut, who’s in Calgary as an autism assist dog. Her next dog guide was Merry, who’s in Oakville for training. And now she’s got Hedwig, who’s 10 months old.
“I know with Donut’s girl, she was having nightmares and once they got Donut, Donut would sleep with her and it was the first time she actually slept through the night,” Bauman said. “Within the first week her mom heard her saying words she’d never said before because she was talking to her dog. It just makes you very teary eyed.”
The dogs are sent all over Canada, including into the territories. The dog guides walk is the main fundraiser for the program, which receives no government assistance. It costs approximately $25,000 to train and raise one dog guide.
The dog guides assist people in Canada who are visually impaired or hard of hearing, children with autism, people with epilepsy, medical or physical disabilities, or type 1 diabetes.
Deb Cserhalmi, organizer of the Elmira walk, says the dogs are about more than just assisting people; they also help them to be recognized by the community.
“A few of these disabilities are invisible, like autism, seizures, diabetics,” Cserhalmi said. “And those people, a lot of them you hear them say ‘I was invisible in the community. As soon as I got the dog people stopped to talk to me.’”
As of this week seven walkers were registered with $3,560 raised. More than 2,000 people have received dog guides since the program’s inception and more than $12 million has been raised. They usually see about 30 people out for the Elmira walk, with more dogs than people.
This year’s goal is $10,000 and they raised around $11,000 last year. Some 203 walks raised $1,163,843.27 last year across the country. A few people in the community have been lucky to be matched with dog guides.
“David Van Der Molen has a canine for vision, named Delight,” Cserhalmi said. “He’s had dogs from other programs, but his last dog developed some health issues. Our program tries to detect down the line, some dogs are just disqualified because their hips might give out a year or two before they’re supposed to retire. He just came back last week with a new poodle from the Lions Foundation. They go out of their way to match. They try to match the dog to the human as opposed to the human to the dog.”
The dogs are bred in Breslau. Nancy Chiasson, a first-time foster parent of three-month-old Blue, says they keep the best dogs for breeding, and the next best become dog guides. A small percentage don’t make either. There’s a waiting list for those dogs because of how well trained and socialized they are, despite not becoming dog guides.
“They’re phenomenal dogs,” Chiasson said. “They’re well bred and then we foster them until they’re ready to go to formal training and we’re supposed to take them places and do things with them. He normally goes to work with me every day. On Sunday we had him at the mall doing escalators. They get to experience a lot of really cool things.”
The dog guides are provided at no cost, which makes the annual walk that much more important. Cserhalmi notes there’s a waiting list for the dogs, especially for the autism assist program.
“The testimonials, especially those parents who have autism assist dogs, it just brings tears to your eyes,” Cserhalmi said.
She continued, “We’d like to have visibility in the community, have awareness, have the community aware what a terrific program it is. If you love dogs there’s your dog fix. If you love to help disabled people, there’s your fix there too. So you get two in one.”
The walk starts May 31 at 9 a.m. at the Kissing Bridge Trail at 20 Arthur Street North. Sign up is at 8 a.m. and everyone is welcome. There will also be a children’s walk at Gore Park on Sunday from 1-3 p.m.
“It’s really hard to give them up,” Bauman said. “They go everywhere with you. It’s weird to go somewhere without a dog beside you on a leash. But when you see them at graduation with the person that they’re helping, it makes it all worth it.”