How Guide Dogs are Helping Canada’s Blind Youth
When someone has a severe visual impairment or blindness, they have a couple options to help them safely navigate the world. One option is using a white cane to help them feel their way around. Another option is having a guide dog: a four-legged partner who will guide them safely anywhere they need to go.
Guide dogs are essential to their human partners, and we recognize their hard work today on International Guide Dog Day.
This International Guide Dog Day, we want to bring awareness to a few guide dog programs. BC & Alberta Guide Dogs, Dogs with Wings, and the Mira Foundation all have something special in common: youth with severe visual impairments are eligible for a guide dog partner.
We were lucky enough to speak with the Mira Foundation about their Youth Guide Dog Training Program.
About the organization
The Mira Foundation was the first Guide Dog School in Canada and the first French one in North America. One unique and wonderful aspect of the MIRA foundation is its youth guide dog training program. Mira was the first training program in the world to give guides dog to youth under 15 years old. At Mira, you can be eligible for a guide dog as young as 11 years old.
How many youth go through your guide dog program every year?
For the Guide Dog program, every year, approximatively 40 dogs go through 6 months of training and are given to youth.
Are youth ever hesitant to get a guide dog?
It depends; either it’s a youth that has recently lost his or her vision, or one who was born blind.
It can take a lot of time to learn how to live with this condition, and some youth may be a bit hesitant toward a guide dog when they’re still learning with the orientation and mobility specialist.
For some youth, they are thrilled and motivated to have a guide dog and have been waiting for this day; they can’t wait to meet their new partner and new best friend.
How is a dog matched up with its human partner?
Since the beginning, the Mira Foundation has partnered with the Nazareth & Louis Braille Institution to help generate an understanding of how blind persons moves with a dog, and what they need to develop. The orientation and mobility specialist teaches the visually impaired how to move safely.
We could say that MIRA is preparing the dog, and that the Institute is preparing the beneficiary. When both dog and beneficiary are ready, we can pair them.
The person is evaluated over a period of about 2 days at the Mira Foundation on the following aspects: pathology, daily needs and movements, living environment, the potential contribution of the dog etc.
Attribution Class: once the beneficiary is accepted for a Mira dog, he or she will be attending a class for a period of 4 weeks, where all accommodation is free of charge, for the group assignment class. During this class, the goal is to find the dog with the best and effective matches possible that fit the beneficiary, based on the results of the preliminary assessment and observations at the beginning of the class.
Follow up at Home: at the end of the attribution class, a professional dog trainer and a mobility and orientation specialist will make sure the beneficiary is practicing what they have learned during the class. They will do circulation exercises with the guide dog in their home.
Beyond this period, a professional dog trainer will help the beneficiary with all difficulties related to the animal, including any help regarding their behaviour or health care. The Mira Foundation ensures an annual follow up for the entire life of the dog.
How difficult is it for a youth to learn how to walk with a guide dog opposed to a white cane?
You need to trust the dog and let the dog guide you. Guide dogs need to learn verbal and hand commands.
Both require very good orientation and mobility skills.
Choosing between the two is a very personal choice; both provide freedom and independence, and both have pros and cons.
Some people hate the cane because they are constantly bumping into people and things, while some people don’t find the time to care for a dog.
Do any youth in the training program decide that a guide dog isn’t the best fit for them?
People that come forward to our program have already made the choice to have a guide dog.
For some people who don’t have time and money to care for a dog, they wouldn’t consider having a guide dog and will rather choose the white cane.
Is it difficult for the guide dogs to work in a school setting?
You will need to inform everyone at the school that a guide dogs will be working there, and you’ll also need to verify if anybody is allergic to dogs. In most cases, it is not difficult for a guide dog to work in the school, and youth have a chance to learn how to behave around these working dogs.
In your experience, is it harder for youth than adults to part with their guide dog partners when it’s time for the dog to retire? Do they ever have family adopt them to keep in touch?
There is no difference between youth or adults. It’s hard for both because they have created emotional attachments to their dogs. When the dogs retire, they can be adopted by a close family member of the beneficiary. If beneficiaries decide to work with another guide dog, they’ll have to let go of their previous dog to create a bond with the new dog.
What would you say is the most important thing for passersby to remember when they see a working guide dog?
You need permission from the owner before petting the dog. Before asking, it is important to verify if the dog is wearing a harness. If it is wearing one, you can’t pet or talk to the dog because it’s currently working; please don’t touch or talk to a dog in its harness.
For more information about the Mira Foundation and the other assistance dog services they offer, check out their website.