02 Jun

Penny Bowden woke up one morning when she was 43 and realized she could no longer see. 

“It’s quite frightening when you’ve had your sight your whole life,” said Bowden, who lives in Ottawa.

Bowden, now 52, was diagnosed with Stargardt’s retinal dystrophy, which rapidly progressed. She became legally blind in both eyes within a year. Bowden said there is no cure or treatment for Stargardt’s, a disorder that causes progressive damage to the centre of the eye’s retina. 

“Having your sight your whole life and being involved with sports and typical things that a lot of people take for granted, you don’t take for granted anymore.”

But Bowden’s life changed for the better when she met Astro, her guide dog. She was matched in 2016 with Astro, a golden labrador retriever, by the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind and began training at its national training centre in Ottawa. 

The Canadian Guide Dogs’ training centre is one of more than 150 places participating in Doors Open Ottawa this weekend. The centre is open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is located at 4120 Rideau Valley Dr. in Manotick.

“It’s about the people, it’s about changing somebody’s life,” said Steve Doucette, events and guide coordinator with the organization.

“You get people who have lost their sight and they go through a grieving process. It may be at the point where they’re not very mobile or independent. (Having a guide dog gives) them their independence back.”

The national training centre breeds its own dogs, which are usually labrador retrievers as they are good work dogs, Doucette said. The dogs are first socialized by what the centre calls “puppy raisers,” who volunteer to raise a guide dog for the first 12-18 months of its life, until it is ready to enter the training program. 

“It’s six months of formal guide dog training with a guide dog mobility instructor, so it’s a two-year process in full,” Doucette said.

“When we have a perfect dog selected especially for them we will pay for them to come to Ottawa,” Doucette said, “We accepted people from across Canada.”

Steve Doucette brings Mia through some steps at the Canadian Guide Dogs centre in Ottawa, May 31, 2017. JEAN LEVAC / –

The dogs train with their new owners, as well as the instructor — and when the work day is over, the dogs get to play. 

Those who would like a guide dog must first apply and be eligible to enter the training program. Once they have been accepted, the centre pays for their stay at the facility for a four-week training program. The trainees eat, sleep and live in the facility, and there is a dog bed in each room. 

Training a guide dog can cost up to $40,000 per dog.

“There’s no government funding for guide dogs,” Doucette said.

“While Doors Open Ottawa is free, it allows us to get into people’s minds and introduce our organization so when they do consider a regular or annual contribution to charity, they will hopefully keep us in mind.”

Clients often say their guide dog has saved their life figuratively and literally — figuratively in the sense that the client may have had depression or felt like they lost their independence. Having a guide dog gives them a piece of their life back, Doucette said.

“In the literal sense, one of the things we train guide dogs to do is to disobey in only one circumstance,” Doucette said. “And that’s crossing the road or getting into a traffic situation.”

A person still has to decide when it’s safe to cross the road but if they make an error in judgement, the dog will block the owner’s path and not allow them to proceed, Doucette said.

Bowden said she could not picture her life without Astro.

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