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Lions Dog Guides more than just seeing-eye dogs, says speaker

By: Liz Dadson
September 25, 2017

The Lions Foundation of Canada's Dog Guides program offers more than just seeing-eye dogs.

That's the word from Helen Flavell (above) of the Kincardine Lions Club who was the guest speaker at the Bruce-Grey Presbyterial Women's Missionary Society (WMS) Fall Rally, held Thursday at Knox Presbyterian Church in Tiverton.

Flavell said the program has Canine Vision Dog Guides, as well as dog guides for the deaf, diabetics, the physically disabled, those who suffer from seizures, and those who have autism.

The Lions Foundation of Canada is a national charitable foundation created by Lions Clubs across Canada, she said. Its mission is to assist Canadians with a medical or physical disability by providing them Dog Guides at no cost.

Since 1983, the Lions Foundation has provided specially-trained Dog Guides to people of all ages from coast-to-cost, said Flavell. Each Dog Guide costs about $25,000 to raise and train; yet, they are provided at no cost to qualified applicants. The Lions Foundation receives no government funding for this program, but relies on the support of fund-raising events and donations from service clubs, corporations, foundations and individuals across the country.

"I'm always pleased to speak to a group about the amazing work of the Dog Guide school," said Flavell. "It's so wonderful to see how these dogs have impacted the lives of disabled Canadians."

The Lions Foundation has two facilities: the Dog Guide school in Oakville, and the puppy-breeding facility in Breslau, she said. At eights weeks of age, the puppies are placed with foster families to be socialized and get used to different environments.

"They also teach the puppies some manners, and do some basic training - no jumping, no biting, no puddles on the floor," said Flavell.

When they are a year old, the puppies begin Dog Guide training. This is an intensive four- to six-month period, working one-on-one with a qualified trainer. Once fully-trained, the dog is matched with its handler who then spends one to four weeks at the Oakville school, learning how to handle, trust and bond with the new Dog Guide. The breeds commonly used are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, as well as Poodles for those who are allergic to dogs.

In 1985, the first dog graduated from the school to become a Canine Vision Dog Guide, assisting a person who is visually-impaired. The clients are age 12 and older, and the dog helps get them across the street safely, and maneuvers them around obstacles, up and down a curb, on and off transportation, through a crowded area, and up and down an escalator.

"Having the Dog Guide gives the visually-impaired person the confidence to get out into the community and enjoy some independence," said Flavell.

Hearing Ear Dog Guides began in 1988 for clients aged 10 and older. They help detect sounds by making physical contact with the client and leading him to the sound, such as a ringing alarm clock or someone knocking at the door. The Dog Guides will also respond to a conversation if someone is talking to the client.

Service Dog Guides began in 1991 and are for those with physical or medical disabilities. They help retrieve objects, open and close appliances, pull clothes out of the dryer, help the client in and out of bed, and help the client undress.

"These are incredible dogs," said Flavell. "They can even help someone get back into a wheelchair. And if the person whispers 'help,' the dog will bark until someone comes to help."

The Seizure Response Dog Guides began in 2001 for those with epilepsy. These dogs bark for help or hit an alarm system when the person is having a seizure. They also provide comfort and safety until help arrives.

"My son teaches Grade 8 in Ottawa," said Flavell, "and has a seizure response dog in his classroom. They can sense that the seizure is about to happen and will sometimes stand up beside the person to brace him until the seizure passes."

The Autism Assistance Dog Guides began in 2009, for children ages eight to 18. They help those with high anxiety who are unable to cope with change, even something as simple as moving from one room to another.

"The dogs are very calming and soothing for these kids," said Flavell, "and families find comfort in the fact that they can go out for the day when they have this dog along to support the child with autism. The dogs are trained to give hugs and often sleep with the children."

She said youngsters with autism often don't understand the dangers around them and will bolt across a busy highway as easily as across the yard. The Autism Assistance Dog Guides are large dogs, tethered to the child, so if the child runs, the parent yells 'halt' and the dog will stop and brace itself to keep the child from running further.

The newest addition are the Diabetic Alert Dog Guides which began in 2012, for those age 10 and older who have Type 1 diabetes. These dogs are trained to detect if there is sugar on the client's breath, especially at night when he is sleeping. Otherwise, the client could become unconscious and enter a diabetic coma, resulting in brain damage or death.

The dogs are also able to grab an emergency sugar pouch and bring it to the client if it is required.

Flavell said people who have Dog Guides say their lives have improved immeasurably. They feel safe leaving their homes and walking downtown; they feel safe inside their home; and they are healthier and happier because they have the Dog Guide with them.

During a brief question-and-answer period, Flavell was asked if there are service dogs to respond to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

"Not yet," she said. "We are being stretched to the limit providing the dogs we do now. There are simply no funds available to do it. There has been such a spike in the need for Autism Assistance dogs that we've had to stop taking applications so we can deal with the two-year back-log."

She said the Dog Guide school graduates 200 Dog Guides per year, at a cost of $25,000 per dog. "Thankfully, we have the support of Pet Valu and Purina which supply the food, while the Lions Foundation covers the cost of veterinarian bills."

Flavell said sometimes, the dogs don't make the grade. About 96-97 per cent of the dogs graduate, she said.

Meanwhile, after Dog Guides have been working for six to eight years, they retire and are adopted out. Sometimes, the client keeps the dog after it has retired.

Tiverton Lion Rosemary Grover said the Dog Guide program is incredibly important and urged everyone to support the Dog Guide Walks held by local Lions Clubs at the end of May. All funds raised go toward the training of these dogs.

Flavell's husband, Dennis, is the current Lions District A-9 Governor and his special project, A-9 Canine, is to raise money for Diabetic Response Dog Guides.

For more information about the Dog Guides program, check the website at

The fall rally, with its theme, "God's Dominion," also included a hymn sing, led by Eleanor Thompson, a past-president of the Bruce-Grey Presbyterial WMS, with Liz Dadson on the piano; a viewing of the video, "The Church and the Development of Canada;" a solo by Carolyn Keyes, "Our Canada;" a business meeting; lunch; and special music by Rev. David Chang, minister at Knox Presbyterian Church, Tiverton, and his wife, Yoomi.


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