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

With her new guide dog in hand, Sue Woodhouse is returning to her normal routines after the pandemic significantly delayed service dog training, left them behind and left them without one for the last year.

“I think it has [the] Pandemic really huge. Not just because you couldn’t go places, but because I was reluctant to go and didn’t feel safe, “said Woodhouse, who is visually impaired.

Woodhouse, who lives in Brights Grove, Ontario, east of Sarnia, said she preferred to turn to her husband or friends instead of avoiding certain activities without a guide dog by her side.

Not having a guide dog during the pandemic, Woodhouse took some freedoms she was used to when she had her previous dog, Fisher, a black flat-coated retriever. Fisher joined Woodhouse at the age of two and they worked together for seven years before he retired, right around the time the pandemic started.

CLOCK | Guide dogs convey a feeling of freedom, trust:

Sue Woodhouse from Sarnia, ON explains the effects of having a guide dog by her side. 0:38

Welcome Wembley

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

“It’s just a very different outlook on life. Much more confident when I have Wembley by my side,” said Woodhouse of her new companion, a three-year-old black Labrador retriever.

“It really means opening the door and walking out and knowing that I have someone to take me safely to where I need to be safe,” she said.

“It will keep me from encountering barriers or obstacles, not just physical but also emotional ones.”

Wembley is a three-year-old black Labrador Retriever trained in the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides Canine Vision program in Oakville, Ontario. (Laura Clementson / CBC)

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

The organization, which offers assistance dogs for seven different programs, breeds the dogs and accompanies the client and dog throughout their journey to ensure that the dog provides the support the client needs.

Although the program’s customers don’t pay for the service, it costs the foundation $ 35,000 to breed and train each dog.

Pandemic stopped programs

Prior to the pandemic, the Lions Foundation enrolled an average of 150 to 200 dogs for all seven programs that include vision and hearing in dogs, assistance with autism, service for people with a physical or medical disability, seizure response, diabetes alerting, and facility support by professional agencies who support people in traumatic situations.

Dogs generally spend 12-18 months with foster care 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 the organization made changes to its programs, including virtual learning, as a result of the pandemic. (Laura Clementson / CBC)

Training ceased in March 2020 and did not resume until August, creating a backlog of dogs waiting to begin training at the facility. During the height of the pandemic, Beverly Crandell, the foundation’s chairman, said about 440 dogs are in foster care.

Wembley, for example, spent nine and a half months longer in foster care because of the pandemic.

“It also meant we had to close our applications for our programs because we just weren’t sure what the implications were,” Crandell said. So that there is no further backlog, the applications for the programs will be closed while the people who are currently waiting for dogs receive them.

As the pandemic progressed, Crandell said they learned to adapt and make changes – including the introduction of virtual classes.

Before the pandemic, customers lived at the Oakville facility for three weeks, meeting and training their new dogs. Instead, they take online lessons at home before welcoming their dogs.

Since not all training sessions for dogs and dog handlers can be carried out virtually, some of them take place in person in smaller classes. There are also in-home placements where dogs are dropped off at clients’ homes, with follow-up visits from a trainer who uses health and safety protocols.

“We have to train these dogs”

Although she says customers miss the camaraderie that comes with all-day class and staying at the facility, Alissa Silvester, an apprentice trainer on the canine vision program, said the current system has its advantages too.

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

“In a way, we learned a lot from it,” she said, noting that the dogs and clients need to learn to work in their own environment and on their own routes.

Lockdown restrictions also meant trainers couldn’t bring service dogs into settings like restaurants, malls, or theaters – and those that were open weren’t as busy as they normally would have been.

“We have to train and train these dogs and work with their customers, with their handlers and help them as best we can, but we also have to make a great dog,” said Silvester.

Knowing that Woodhouse knew that Wembley might not have many options to go to public places due to lock restrictions that meant no indoor dining, Woodhouse wasn’t sure how Wembley would behave on his first dining experience.

But she told CBC News that Wembley “did very well”.

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

Pandemic has exposed gaps in support

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

“It really took a raging pandemic to reveal the deep gaps in the support we offer to disabled Canadians.”

He says that a lot of supports were generally neither geared towards coping with change nor being innovative. However, the pandemic has required them to be both, which has resulted in waiting times for some services.

“Many Canadians with disabilities rely on these services as part of the social contract we have as a country. So when services are restricted or removed, it affects the routines.”

The Lions Foundation told CBC News that not all changes due to the pandemic have been negative and intends to incorporate a combination of virtual and face-to-face courses in the future.

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

Dogs give confidence

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

“The dogs are a life changer,” she said. “When I know that the pandemic is allowing things to open up, I can go back to what I would normally do in my life, but with confidence.”

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

“I’m thinking more of traveling and Wembley more than Fisher this time, and I know we can do great things together in the places we go.”