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Going beyond puppy love

Before someone with a disability such as blindness or autism receives a service dog, there’s plenty of work that gets done to prepare the animal for its eventual owner. Count Deb Cserhalmi and Cheryl Bauman among those involved in the process of helping prepare puppies for the lives that await them.

Deb Cserhalmi and Cheryl Bauman are currently caring for Oz, a two-year old poodle, Vindi, a 12-month-old black Lab and Venti, a two-year-old black Lab. [Damon Maclean]

The pair are part of a group of five women who’ve come together as Floradale Friends of Dog Guides Lions Branch Club to support the longstanding Lions Club program.

Launched in July, the team has already made their mark in the dog guide community.

“We just finished our first major fundraiser, which was an online auction. It was incredibly successful,” said Bauman, who does marketing in the non-profit sector. “And we’ve already done a service project, which was providing 76 of our masks to all of the staff and trainers at dog guides.”

The online auction raised an estimated $2,000, which was a nice start but covers just a small part of the cost of raising a dog guide.

“It costs $25,000 to raise and train dogs. There’s no government assistance – it’s 100 per cent… based on donations,” explained Bauman, who has been raising foster pups since 2013.

The COVID-19 crisis has put a damper on the world of dog guides and trainers, with the temporary closure of Lions Club’s Breslau training facility. Some 400 puppies are waiting to begin or continue their process of becoming service dogs.

Cserhalmi, the team’s president, says a significant misconception people hold is dog guides are more like workers than pets.

“We get the odd thing like ‘how can you possibly use a dog? It’s almost like being a slave.’ And then I ask them “where’s your dog?” And they say ‘at home,’ and I say ‘Where would it rather be?’ ‘Probably with me,’” she said of the typical back-and-forth conversation.

Of course, the dogs do get times to simply enjoy being pups, but when the vest goes on, it is work time.

“I call it the magic vest,” said Bauman. “They know that they’re supposed to pay attention and probably they know that they just get lots of cookies.”

Bauman and Cserhalmi both admit it’s easy to get attached to the young dogs they foster, noting it can be challenging to hand over a dog to the next stage in the training process, but realize it is an invaluable opportunity.

“You look at the volunteer description – it’s raise a seven-week-old puppy. So, go through all the teething, the training, all this kind of stuff, take them out everywhere. And then when you’ve got that well-behaved, well-trained, good mannered puppy, we’re going to take the puppy back. And you can start all over again with a little ankle-biter,” said Bauman of the cycle.

To this point, Bauman has fostered nine dogs, and Cserhalmi has babysat a large amount. Cserhalmi typically dog sits for long term periods, having had her current charge, Oz, for the past six months.

The dogs in the program are trained for a variety of purposes, including helping those who experience seizures, diabetic shock and for autism support. The waiting list is long, and Cserhalmi recommends those who may be eligible to file as soon as possible, as it’s a time-consuming process that is further restricted now because of COVID-19.

Floradale Friends of Dog Guides Lions Branch Club  project has been well received, they say, noting business owners in and around Woolwich have been supportive. The Lions Club connections also pay dividends.

“We really believe in collaborating and cooperating with other Lions Clubs or other individuals within the community. It’s really about working together – that whole COVID-19 ‘we’re all in this together.’ We’re all working together,” said Bauman. 

Currently, the group has a 2021 dog calendar and masks for sale. It’s also accepting donations on their website to help support their operations.

More information about the Lions dog guides program can be found online.

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