10 Oct

With a Guide Dog by your Side

Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind marks World Sight Day in The Globe and Mail

If you feel that getting around in a city can be challenging, imagine how intimidating this task must be for someone with a vision impairment. That’s why Sharon Brant of Scarborough, Ontario, is grateful for her guide dog. “Every business day, my guide dog and I navigate the Kennedy Subway Station and take the train downtown to my office,” she says. “It’s amazing that I can ask my dog to find steps or an escalator. She can also help me to find a seat on the public transit.”

Guide dogs are often the difference between relying on someone with sight for assistance versus being independent. “In Canada, we are fortunate to have an organization that has trained guide dogs for over 35 years. Since it was founded in 1984, Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind has trained and provided more than 870 guide dogs to Canadians who are blind and visually impaired,” says Steven Doucette, the organization’s events coordinator.

Guide dogs have one of the world’s most difficult jobs for a dog. While “getting from point A to point B” may sound basic, most of the training is away from the dog’s natural instincts, says Doucette. “They must learn that when the harness is on, there are certain behavioural expectations and they have to focus on the job at hand.However, they also get plenty of time to relax and play. Inside the house, they are just pet dogs and much loved members of the family.”

The dogs go through two years of training, since birth and within Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind’s Breeding and Canine Development Program. Then it’s time for the person to learn how to properly use a guide dog with a three-week residential training course, says Doucette. All expenses are paid by the organization, which operates solely through donations.

Many clients establish a lifelong relationship with Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind and return for replacement dogs after their guide dogs retire.

Bryan Gutteridge of Chilliwack, B.C., has had several guide dogs. “A guide dog can help you lead a normal, productive life and have confidence travelling around with your guide dog at your side,” he says, adding that there is a significant difference between using a guide dog for mobility rather than a long cane. “A guide dog is an obstacle avoider, while a long cane is an obstacle finder.”