Edmonton

Dogs with Wings celebrates 2019 graduates

A special ceremony was held Sunday for some very good boys and girls. Ten service dogs are ready to provide support and assistance in communities around Alberta.

'He knows when he’s needed and he’s there'

Graduate Rugby will be supporting children, family and staff at the Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

It's graduation season and this one's gone to the dogs.

The 2019 Dogs with Wings graduating class of 10 was celebrated Sunday with a commencement ceremony at the Chateau Louis Conference Centre.

The ceremony is an annual tradition for the organization, which has been training service dogs since 1996. 

The 10 graduates in the 2019 class included three autism support dogs, two companion dogs and five facility dogs. They will be placed in communities around the province including PACE/Caribou Child and Youth Centre in Grande Prairie, Sturgeon Victim Services and the Calgary and Area Child Advocacy Centre.

Dogs with Wings started off providing guide dogs for the visually impaired but executive director Doreen Slessor said they have expanded their services and now offer four different types of service dogs.

Dogs with Wings executive director Doreen Slessor celebrated the 2019 graduating class. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

"We train guide dogs for people that are blind,"  Slessor said. "[Also] service dogs for people that have physical disabilities, autism dogs to support children that have autism and our facility dog program. So [support] dogs in institutions and schools and victims service units across the province and then our companion dog program as well."

The demand for support animals continues to grow. Slessor says there is currently a wait list with 21 people on it.

"It takes about two years because it takes us that long to train a dog specific to that person's abilities and requirements," Slessor said.

The cost to train the dogs is another barrier.

Slessor said it costs $40,000 to train one dog and since they are a non-profit group, Dogs with Wings clients only pay $1 for the dog. The rest is covered by sponsorships and fundraising.

Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch founder and chair Glori Meldrum at the 2019 Dogs with Wings graduation ceremony. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

One of this year's grads, Rugby, has been working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse at the Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch. Founder and chair Glori Meldrum said they had been hoping for a dog when Dogs with Wings came to them with a match last fall.

"Honestly, Rugby changes lives out there," Meldrum said. "The kids meet him and they instantly kind of relax and they're comfortable and happy and smile. It's such a gift."

Rugby was paired up with Dr. Wanda Polzin, who is the clinical director at Be Brave Ranch. As a "co-therapist", Rugby is ready whenever someone needs comfort.

Dr. Wanda Polzin, Clinical Director of Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch along with facility service dog Rugby. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

"He could be with them in yoga, in therapy, in group therapy," Meldrum said. "He could be with them in art therapy or outside. Whenever he's wearing the vest, Rugby's on duty."

To Meldrum, Rugby is like a good friend and he can sense when someone needs him.

"Every single day, if he sees a kid that's struggling or even a staff he'll just kind of move in and he's just there," Meldrum said. "Rugby's just been trained that way. He knows when he's needed and he's there."

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