Canadian Guide Dogs for The Blind
Devon Wilkins is among a large population living in a world of darkness. Seasonal weather is taken for granted by individuals having the opportunity to view golden sunsets on a clear night, delicate shaped snowflakes falling onto mounds of white-capped tree branches, or rippling waves slapping against a shoreline on a bright summer day. Living without sight is routine for Devon. Her active lifestyle gleams as bright as falling autumn leaves because of her determined and ambitious nature.
One early morning at work, Devon heard some very interesting advantages on Amateur Radio about Guide Dogs and how amazing they are. Devon has always loved dogs, and wanted a guide dog ever since she graduated from high school. Family and some friends, too, were quite sure that she wouldn’t be able to handle a guide dog because of her poor sense of direction. A mobility instructor who was orienting Devon to the streets of Collingwood, Ontario, surprised her. “We should see what we can do about getting you a puppy.”
Devon asked the instructor whether she really thought a poor traveler like herself could really make use of a guide dog. The instructor answered, “You’re not a bad traveler. You’re a cautious traveler.”
A short time afterwards, Devon was diagnosed with osteoporosis, and walking was recommended as a good weight-bearing exercise. In November of 1992, a few days before her 42nd birthday, a beautiful golden retriever named Sally came into Devon’s life. Sally was trained at Canadian Guide Dogs for The Blind in Manotick, Ontario.
Sally retired at 8 years old due to developing inflammatory bowel disease. Devon found a loving home for Sally with her sister in Quebec. Numerous visits made Devon at ease knowing that Sally adapted and was doing very well in her new environment.
Devon wrote a chronicle of the month spent training with Sally and later published a book called, ‘Devon and Sally’. Her purchased book is available in print or on cassette for ten-dollars.
A frisky, 76 pound, Yellow Lab named Oak replaced Sally. Oak was also trained at Canadian Guide Dogs for The Blind in Manotick, Ontario. “He has to have the record for the number of toys he can stuff into his mouth at one time,” remarked Devon. “We’ve counted five!”
Oak was the biggest dog in Devon’s class, which has been a great benefit because her left leg is about an inch and a half shorter than the right leg. Oak’s size has helped give Devon the shove over when she tends to veer that way. The four-year old lab will always be a puppy according to his handler.
All of Oak’s personal care is handled by Devon. She takes care of Oak’s feeding, grooming, and relieving. Help is always there for Devon. “I’m lucky to have friends who will take Oak out and let him be just a dog.”
Guide dogs navigate visually impaired individuals by displaying special skills. Oak guides Devon around objects that are in her path of travel. He stops at curbs indicating a street crossing, and guides his handler safely across the street.
A common misconception that people have about guide dogs is that they know when the light changes from red to green. Devon clears up this statement. “Dogs are color blind. It is actually the handler who listens for the change in direction of the traffic, and decides when it’s safe to go.”
Guide dogs are trained in what is called, intelligent disobedience. If the handler says, ‘forward,’ and the dog can see that it isn’t safe to go because vehicles are blocking the path of travel, the dog stays where he is. The handler must remember never to step off the curb before his/her dog.
After Experiencing Life With A Guide Dog
Devon shares her blessing. “It has been wonderful to be able to walk beside someone without necessarily taking their arm. Walking to work on my own is something I would never have tried with a white cane.” Devon says other advantages are getting directions from someone and then striking out on your own. “I also have someone to talk to during a long trip.”
It used to be that anyone with multiple disabilities wouldn’t even be considered for a guide dog. Now, deaf-blind people are given dogs, and so are people with diabetes or epilepsy. Devon explains that as long as you are able to look after the dog’s feeding and toileting on your own, and can show that the dog will actually be a guide rather than just a pet, most training centers encourage you to keep in touch with them so that they can keep tabs on the dog’s health as well.
Devon describes personal cases in which multiple disabilities are considered: a person using a support cane in her right hand because she has braces on her feet, or another lady whose guide dog received further training when she was forced to use a wheelchair after sustaining serious back injuries.
The only equipment used by Devon for her canine partner is the harness, leash, and collar issued when she got Oak. Oak’s collar has large links on it.
Someday soon, Devon may have to inquire as to whether Oak could be trained to help her get up if she were to fall. There may come the time when she will have to have a dog specifically trained to walk beside a wheelchair. “Doctors tell me that I am currently a high risk for spinal fracture because of my osteoporosis, and by the time I’m 65, my back will be toast,” confesses Devon.
Can guide dogs retire? Absolutely. A dog is retired if the dog develops an illness that will compromise your safety in any way.
Considering A Canine?
Anyone considering a canine partner should make it a personal decision. Some people don’t want the responsibility of looking after a dog whether they’re blind or not. Some terrific cane travelers don’t feel that they need a dog. “But if you’re anything like me, you’ll be convinced that one advantage of having a disability is that you get to have a dog with you everywhere you go,” adds Devon.
In addition, Devon explains that in exchange for the opportunity to take a dog with you everywhere you go, you have to be a responsible dog owner. “That involves grooming your dog regularly, taking him out to do his business on a regular basis, and keeping him under control at all times.” She continues, “One of the mistakes that many assistance dog users make is to allow their dog to do at home what they can’t do when they’re out in public.” A dog is an intelligent creature, but it doesn’t understand double standards. You only cause yourself, your dog, and everyone else unnecessary stress.
In the past twenty years, people have discovered that dogs can perform all sorts of tasks for people with a wide variety of disabilities. If the handler can prove that the dog has been trained and certified as an assistance dog, and if the dog is well behaved, access shouldn’t be denied to them any more than it should be denied to someone who uses glasses, crutches, or hearing aids. Devon feels strongly about this subject, “I am urging governments to expand current legislation to provide protection to anyone who uses an assistance dog.”
73 de Bill Cousins VE3GPR