Ottawa

Guide dogs trained during pandemic will be ready, agencies insist

The two main Canadian agencies that prepare puppies for a life guiding people with visual impairments say the unrealistic times of the pandemic won't prevent them from turning out well-prepared guide dogs.

Demand for guide dogs has surged, while closed borders have cut off supply

Ian Hadlum and Fawn practice pushing the door-opener button at a building on the grounds of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. (Stu Mills/CBC)

The two main Canadian agencies that prepare puppies for a life guiding people with visual impairments say the unrealistic times of the pandemic won't prevent them from turning out well-prepared guide dogs.

Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind (CGDB), based in Manotick, Ont., and Canine Campus, based in Carleton Place, Ont., prepare young labs, retrievers and the occasional shepherd to understand traffic, crowds and indoor etiquette for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind's Guide Dogs program.

"We want to expose them to as much as we can so they think it's just a part of normal life  and so it doesn't throw them for a loop when they're guiding through it," said CGDB manager Alex Ivic.

Fawn waits for instructions before leading her companion toward the front door. (Stu Mills/CBC)

A subway platform jammed at rush hour or a holiday visit to a house filled with screaming children, and the alluring smells of a roasting goose are just some of the experiences a guide dog-in-training couldn't get this year.

Instead, the lack of crowds and retail closures have forced trainers to dream up creative ways to prepare the dogs for real world situations.

"We needed to reinvent what we did and or be clever and creative in tweaking things we already did," said Ivic.

Wearing a blindfold, Ian Hadlum lets trainee "Dahlia" guide him around an obstacle placed on the sidewalk at a Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind training site. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Staged apartments and empty airport used for training

Ian Hadlum, a trainer with CGDB, dons a blindfold and encourages two-year-old Dahlia to lead him down a walking path obstructed by construction barriers.

The black lab gently nudges him to step off the path and safely around the pylons, her tail constantly wagging.

Dogs have been conquering their fear of escalators in the mostly silent Macdonald–Cartier International Airport.

Shelley Adams, with Rookie, showing that guide dogs can also misread directional signs in a retail shop. (Supplied)

Others have been attending pretend tea parties in staged apartments where the furniture is constantly moved around.

At CGDB, the pandemic shut down their normal eight-person, three-week residency training program where clients move in and learn how to live with their new guide dogs.

It's been replaced with a two-week program working with one client, meaning fewer teams will graduate.

Dogs might need tune-ups

Costs at CNIB's guide dog school have gone up, as have those at CGDB, which depends heavily on donations.

"I know we say it rains cats and dogs, but it doesn't actually, so we can't just produce a dog immediately," points out Diane Bergeron with the CNIB.

Her program's Australian supply of retrievers has been blocked by border closures.

At the same time, restrictions on gatherings and visiting in places across the country, more people with vision loss have contacted the CNIB about how to regain their independence by connecting with a guide dog.

The challenge of training guide dogs when there are no crowds and no commutes

8 months ago
0:57
Alex Ivic, manager at Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, says that a lack of real-world experiences, like crowded commutes and visits to other households, has presented a challenge when it comes to acclimating future guide dogs to different sights and sounds. 0:57

Bergeron said COVID-19 restrictions on training may mean new guide dogs might have to come back for tune-ups in the future.

Ivic said even though the dogs will have been raised in a pandemic, they will be capable of extrapolation — figuring out the new normal whenever it arrives and whatever it looks like.

Yet, trainers point out that a guide dog will normally spend the first 18 to 24 months of its life in training, so there is still time to cover the curriculum.

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