Here is something to sniff...sniff at. If you haven’t already heard, this week is International Assistance Dog Week (IADW). This week was created to recognize all of the hard working assistance dogs and their trainers who are making a difference by helping individuals reduce their disability related limitations. The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides was developed in the early 1980’s to originally help Canadians with visual impairments. Since then it has grown to include additional Dog Guide programs that include: Hearing, Seizure Response, Autism Assistance and Diabetic Alert.
We were fortunate to sit down with Barry who is a volunteer foster parent with The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides and his foster puppy in training, Zabu to find out what’s involved in the foster puppy program.
Why did you decide to foster a future Dog Guide?
My wife and I decided to foster to try to see if a dog would actually fit into our lifestyle. Before making the commitment to a pet for 10 or more years, we thought we would foster and it was also a great way to give back to the community.
How old is Zabu?
Zabu is now 10.5 months and we have had him since he was 8 weeks old. The foster program introduces the puppies to basic training (sit, heeling, etc.) as well as the social aspects and how to act respectfully out in public.
What’s involved when you take on a foster puppy?
First you need to apply to the Guide Dogs Foster Puppy Program and complete a suitability interview. You’re then put on a waiting list. If you are chosen, the dog then comes home with you, along with a training guide on what to do and how to do it, such as crate training, heeling, etc. You and the dog must attend training sessions once a month for the first 3-4 months with the Dog Guides and they go over what needs to be worked on over the next month. This includes working on elevators and escalators, riding the bus, taking the go train or subway, and going into shopping centers and restaurants. These are all part of Zabu’s learning process. Each dog is unique, so we learn how the dog reacts and what needs to be worked on more. Luckily, with Zabu, we started right away at around 9 weeks of age. I started him on stairs first and progressed to carrying him on the escalator to get used to the motion of both up and down. And then eventually how to approach and step off.
What have been Zabus’ biggest challenges as far as training and what are the rules out in public?
So far his biggest challenge is audience applause or clapping – he just doesn’t like it. He’s been exceptional with all of his other challenges that have been brought forward to him – he loves the escalator and the Toronto Eaton Centre because it has 26! The subway isn’t as comfortable for him as the train is, especially as he grows, but the subway for me is a bonus! Most people get on the subway so serious and straight faced, but once they see Zabu, they smile, even if it’s just for a moment.
I think Zabu has made their day. He’s also a great conversation starter. People come up and ask questions, which is a great way for me to introduce the Dog Guides and what they are doing in the community as well as the foster puppy program. Any dog wearing the green vest is in training and you should always ask to greet or pet the dog first. The trainer will either give you the okay, or will tell you that it may not be the best time as they are in training. If you ever see a dog with a red vest, these dogs have graduated and are working so we don’t want to distract them in any way.
What are Zabu’s next steps?
He will be graduating the puppy program in the next couple months and will start school.
Is he ready?
Absolutely! He’s ready now, there’s nothing more I can teach him, other than going over and reinforcing our training. He will be going into the Autism Assistance Program, so he will be learning how to support a child on the autism spectrum, and will provide an important resource for that child’s family. He will have at least 6 months of additional training and then he will be assigned to a special young individual to make their life a lot better.
Will you foster again or are you ready for your own addition?
We are going to hold off for now, but will volunteer to puppy sit. Foster parents obviously have to go away sometimes and you can’t take the dog with you, so we are going to be puppy sitters. I think this will be equally as fun as we’ll be introduced to a different variety of service dogs and then decide if we will do another foster.
Any recommendations for anyone thinking of doing a foster?
Do it with an open-mind. It’s a lot of work, but it is very rewarding. You end up seeing a dog grow in potential (as well as grow physically!). You are training a dog that is going to be an important part of someone’s needs and family and that’s what you need to remember. The Dog Guides are in need of new applicants to foster puppies in the coming months so if you would like to give back, you can find more information about the foster puppy program here.
It’s important to remember that the Dog Guides are providing individuals in need with these service dogs at no cost. However, it does cost Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides $25,000 to train and place these dogs, and the organization relies on donations. If you are not able to foster, but would like to give back, consider making a donation.
As for Barry and Zabu, soon their relationship will come to an end as Zabu is meant to move on to greater things. He will be helping an individual and creating an even more important bond, but we are sure he won’t forget the man who helped him with those first important steps that helped guide him on his way.