05 Oct

It’s a new world for guide dog training too.

It’s a new world for guide dog training, too. Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind has had to change its approach during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Cornwall resident Bruce Wotherspoon has been highlighted in a media release discussing pandemic challenges.

The release noted Wotherspoon graduated with his latest guide dog, Stefan, just over a month ago on June 5, and he’s had guide dogs before and is a familiar sight on the city’s sidewalks, walking everywhere for his errands. He told the organization Cornwall is “the type of city that pulls together
and pulls for the underdog,” and that he’s never had any issues while out on the streets with his canine companion.

“I don’t take taxis or public transit – I have a guide dog to get around and that’s what I use him for. . . I cannot thank (the organization) enough for giving me independence.”

Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind was established as a registered charity in 1984, and it has provided more than 880 professionally trained guide dogs to Canadians from coast-to-coast who are visually impaired. But this is the first pandemic since it was established, and that has resulted in big challenges.

In March, guide dog training stopped in Canada, as it did in many parts of the world. So, Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind figured out how to adapt and continue its mandate, the first step being to figure out how to resume training, as clients could not travel and reside in a group setting at the
organization’s national training centre in Ottawa.

Instead, it was decided the organization would go to the people, in what is referred to as domiciliary training – it goes on with a guide dog and trainer in a client’s own neighbourhood.

Wotherspoon at the time of the shutdown was a couple of weeks away from having his training with Stefan completed. The process finally wound late in May and early June – a trainer travelling fromOttawa to Cornwall each day – and things are going very well with what is Wotherspoon’s fifth guide
dog over the last 25 years.

“They’ve all been excellent companions,” Wotherspoon told the Standard-Freeholder on the weekend during an interview in his ninth-floor apartment in a building in Cornwall. “Stefan reminds me of my first guide dog, Civitan, in terms of his sense of humour. . . people say dogs don’t have a sense of humour – oh yes they do. (Stefan, a yellow Labrador Retriever) can be zany, he makes me laugh.”

Wotherspoon noted that Oct. 4 will mark 25 years of having guide dogs in his life, something that’s “really special to me.”

Wotherspoon was in his early 20s when he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a fairly rare disease in which the light-sensitive retina of the eye slowly degenerates, eventually resulting in blindness. After the diagnosis, Wotherspoon continued to play his beloved sports, football and softball, but only for about another year. All these years later, the 58-year-old thinks he’s had it pretty good. Wotherspoon is otherwise healthy and in good shape – all of the dog-walking has helped.

“I think that if blindness is the worst thing that happens (in a lifetime), you’ ve done pretty well,” Wotherspoon said, adding that he’s “fiercely independent,” does his own cooking and laundry, and can’t imagine ever giving that up. Having a guide dog is what’s made so much of the goodness in his life possible, he says, and Wotherspoon has nothing but superlatives when talking about the support he’s been given over a quarter century from the guide dog organization, calling its trainers “top-notch, very thorough and very encouraging.”

Travel restrictions, especially in eastern Canada, are still impacting training, but the organization said it’s done everything it possibly can to ensure as many people can still receive guide dogs.

“We have to do whatever we can to adapt,” said Jane Thornton, the organization’s chief operating officer and co-founder. “We have been doing this for 36 years. . . COVID-19 forces us to change the way we do things, but we are adapting as best as we can in our new world.”

The organization says people with visual impairments can be a forgotten sector of society, and being blind or partially sighted – difficult at normal circumstances – is much more complicated during physical distancing, not able to touch as many things and be tactile while getting around.

For more information, including on how to donate, or more about applying for a guide dog, visit guidedogs.ca.