Canada

Service dogs 'a life changer' for those in need as pandemic further limits mobility

Sue Woodhouse of Bright’s Grove, Ont., waited roughly a year to get a new service dog after her previous dog retired. The longer wait time, a result of training delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, added another layer to the difficulties Woodhouse experienced navigating life during the pandemic. 

Sue Woodhouse waited nearly a year for a new service dog after the pandemic created a backlog

Sue Woodhouse relaxes with service dog Wembley in her Brights Grove, Ont., home. Due to training delays caused by the pandemic, Woodhouse had to wait about a year for Wembley after her previous dog retired. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

With her new guide dog's lead in hand, Sue Woodhouse is returning to her normal routines after the pandemic caused a severe delay in training service dogs, creating a backlog and leaving her without one for the past year. 

"I think it made [the] pandemic really huge. Not just because you couldn't go places, but because I was hesitant to go as well and not feeling confident," said Woodhouse, who is visually impaired. 

Woodhouse, who lives in Brights Grove, Ont., just east of Sarnia, said it wasn't that she avoided certain activities without having a guide dog by her side, but that she instead preferred to turn to her husband or friends.

Not having a guide dog during the pandemic took away some of the freedoms Woodhouse was accustomed to when she had her previous dog, Fisher, a black flat-coated retriever. Fisher came to Woodhouse when he was two, and they worked together for seven years before his retirement, right around the time the pandemic began.

WATCH | Guide dogs provide sense of freedom, confidence:

Sarnia woman grateful for her new guide dog

3 months ago
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Sue Woodhouse of Sarnia, ON explains the impact of having a guide dog by her side. 0:38

Welcoming Wembley

On June 15, she received a new dog named Wembley and is now looking to the future. 

Having the three-year-old black Labrador retriever by her side gives her a whole new outlook and confidence, Woodhouse said.

"It really is opening the door and walking out and knowing that I have someone that's going to get me to where I need to go safely," she said.

"It's going to stop me from running into barriers or obstacles, and not just obstacles that are physical, but the emotional obstacles, too."

Wembley is a three-year-old black Labrador retriever trained in the canine vision program at the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides in Oakville, Ont. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Both Fisher and Wembley came from the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides based in Oakville, Ont. 

The organization, which offers assistance dogs for seven different programs, also breeds the dogs and follows up with the client and dog throughout their journey to ensure the dog is offering the support the client needs. 

Though clients of the program do not pay for the service, it costs the foundation $35,000 to breed and train each dog. The not-for-profit does not receive government funding and relies solely on donations. 

Pandemic halted programs

Before the pandemic, the Lions Foundation on average would graduate 150 to 200 dogs for all seven programs, which include canine vision, hearing, autism assistance, service for people who have a physical or medical disability, seizure response, diabetic alert and facility support for professional agencies assisting individuals in traumatic situations. 

Dogs generally spend 12-18 months with foster families learning basic obedience and social skills before being recalled to the facility for four to six months of more specific training. 

Beverly Crandell, chief executive officer of the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, said that as a result of the pandemic, the organization made modifications to its programs, including virtual learning. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Training ground to a halt in March 2020 and didn't start up again until August, creating a backlog of dogs waiting to start training at the facility. During the peak of the pandemic, Beverly Crandell, the foundation's chief executive officer, said they had over 440 dogs in foster care. 

Wembley, for example, spent an extra nine and a half months in foster care due to the pandemic. 

"It meant we also had to close our applications to our programs because we just weren't sure what the impact was," said Crandell. To ensure an even bigger backlog isn't created, applications to the programs are still closed while people currently waiting for dogs receive them.

As the pandemic wore on, Crandell said they learned to adjust and make modifications — including introducing virtual classes. 

Before the pandemic, clients would have spent three weeks living at the Oakville facility, getting to know their new dogs and training. Instead, they take online lessons at home before receiving their dogs.

Since not all training for the dogs and handlers can be done virtually, some does take place in person with smaller class sizes. There are also in-home placements where dogs are dropped off at clients' homes with follow-up visits from a trainer using health and safety protocols.

'We need to get these dogs trained'

Although she says clients are missing out on the camaraderie that comes with all-day lessons and staying at the facility, Alissa Silvester, an apprentice trainer in the canine vision program, said the current system also has its perks.

Alissa Silvester is an apprentice trainer in the canine vision program with the Lions Foundation. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

"In some ways we've learned lots from it," she said.

The dogs and clients need to learn to work in their own environment and on their own routes, Silvester said.

Lockdown restrictions meant trainers also weren't able to bring service dogs into environments like restaurants, malls or theatres — and those that were open weren't as busy as they normally would've been. 

"We need to get these dogs trained and out and working with their clients, with their handlers and helping them out as much as we can, but we still need to produce a great dog as well," said Silvester.  

Knowing that Wembley might not have had many opportunities to go out to public places given lockdown restrictions that meant no indoor dining, Woodhouse wasn't sure how Wembley would behave during their first dining experience.

But she told CBC News that Wembley "did really well."

Woodhouse and Wembley visit a park near her home in Brights Grove. Wembley was in foster care for about nine months longer than usual due to the pandemic. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Pandemic highlighted gaps in support

The pandemic has helped illustrate the disparities for Canadians with disabilities, says Jonathan Lai, the executive director of the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance. 

"It really took a raging pandemic to highlight the deep gaps in supports we offer to disabled Canadians."

 He says a lot of supports in general weren't set up to handle change, nor were they designed to be innovative. But the pandemic has required them to be both, which has created wait times for some services.

"A lot of Canadians with disabilities rely on these services as part of the social contract we have as a country. So when services are limited or removed, it impacts the routines." 

The Lions Foundation told CBC News that not all of the changes that came about because of the pandemic were negative, and it is looking to incorporate a combination of virtual and in-person classes moving forward.

Woodhouse, left, poses with her daughter, husband and service dog, Fisher, on a trip to Scotland. (Submitted by Sue Woodhouse)

Dogs give sense of confidence

For people like Woodhouse, the guide dog service makes all the difference.

"The dogs are a life changer," she said. "To know that as the pandemic allows things opening up, I can resume what I would normally do in my life, but with confidence."

She took her previous dog, Fisher, on trips — including one to Scotland — and she hopes to do the same with Wembley.

"I think of more travelling and Wembley accompanying me this time rather than Fisher and know that we'll be able to do great things together in the places that we go to." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Clementson is a journalist with CBC News. She can be reached at laura.clementson@cbc.ca. Follow Laura on Twitter @LauraClementson.

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