Service dog gives 'sense of safety and independence,' but training costs $25K

Wesley Magee-Saxton uses a service dog named Cameo to help him with everyday tasks, and he says she has changed his life for the better. But training service animals comes at significant cost, and Friday in High Park there's a fund-raising walk to help pay for it.

3 fundraising walks in Toronto will help pay for expensive service dog training

Wesley Magee-Saxton got his service dog, Cameo, one year ago through the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides program. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Wesley Magee-Saxton used to find it difficult and unsafe to get out into the community — until Cameo came into his life.

Magee-Saxton, 19, has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair to get around. Last May, he met Cameo, a three-year-old service dog.

The yellow Labrador Retriever is trained to assist those living with physical disabilities with everyday tasks. She can pick up items that have fallen on the ground, open and close drawers and bark for assistance or fetch help when necessary.

Magee-Saxton says that Cameo has helped improve his qualify of life.

"I have a greater sense of safety and independence," he told CBC Toronto.

Indeed, thousands of Canadians rely upon service animals to assist them in their daily lives. But one of the organizations that helps connect those in need with dogs says that public help is needed to cover the immense costs of training the special companions. 

Magee-Sexton applied for a service animal about two years ago through the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides website. That process was followed by a series of interviews to ensure he could care for a companion.

But it was not until last spring that he was finally paired with Cameo, who matched his personality, activity level and specifications.

I have a greater sense of safety and independence.- Wesley Magee-Saxton

After three weeks of training together, the pair was able to go home.

"It took me a bit for me just to get used to the fact that like I had this creature who depended on me, and I needed her as much as she needed me," said Magee-Saxton.

"We're thick as thieves now."

The Lions Foundation of Canada

Wesley is among more than 3,000 Canadians who have received a dog from the Lions Foundation of Canada since the organization began offering pairings in 1985.

Each dog is paired with a successful applicant through the seven programs the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides offers, which include:

  • Vision.
  • Hearing.
  • Seizure response.
  • Autism response.
  • Diabetic alert.
  • Support dogs for trauma.
  • Service dogs.

Once matched, the dog is provided to its new handler at no cost.

Training comes at a cost

But the process of training the dogs for their individual specializations comes with a hefty price tag.

"We are a national charity. We receive zero funding from government funding and it costs approximately $25,000 to breed, train and place dog guides, yet they are provided at no cost to qualifying applicants" said Maria Galindo, spokesperson for Lions Foundation of Canada.

Each dog stays with a foster family for its first year. The dog then enters a four-to-six month training process at one of two Ontario facilities located in Oakville and Breslau.

Pet Valu provides food for both foster and in-training dogs, while the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides pays for veterinary bills and other medical expenses, as well as accessories.

Toronto fundraising events

The annual Pet Valu Walk for Dog Guides is the largest fundraiser for the organization. There are approximately 300 walks across Canada, which have raised $17 million to date.

Toronto has three walks scheduled this year, starting at High Park on Friday, May 24; Sunday, May 26 at Thompson Park; and June 23 at Woodbine Beach.

The events help to offset the costs of training dogs like Cameo, to better the lives of those who could use their assistance.

That's something Magee-Saxton says he is thankful for.

"This is the best thing to ever happen to me," he said. 

"I have a companion and I count myself one of the luckiest people in the world to have that."