Pacey is going to have an exceptionally good Christmas.
The yellow Labrador’s time with the Fieguth family in Niagara-on-the-Lake is about to end, and Pacey, the four-legged baby of two-legged Emily, will return to the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides training school after Christmas, to finish his training before graduating as a full-fledged dog guide. Emily, who is not looking forward to his departure, says she’ll be making it an extra-special Christmas for him, with a few more doggie cookies.
“He has absolutely become an important part of our family. He’s in our Christmas photo,” she says.
Emily, her husband Harry and their two boys, Logan, 16, and Brayden, 18, had never had a family dog before deciding to join the Lions Foundation Foster Puppy Program.
“We’ve been dog babysitters for years,” says Emily. “My parents and my brother have had dogs, but for some reason we didn’t. We just enjoyed looking after other people’s dogs. Having Pacey has been a wonderful experience for all of us. He’s the sweetest thing on earth. It’s been an opportunity for us as a family to have a dog and see what it’s like, and it’s been amazing.”
Brayden, her older son, and Pacey have become very close since the dog joined their family in January, and when Brayden went off to the University of Guelph this year, he wanted to take Pacey with him. “I told him he wasn’t taking my puppy,” says Emily.
The family will celebrate Pacey’s first birthday Dec. 9, and Emily will be sure he has an extra treat that day as well. Pet Valu in Virgil sells “really cute cupcakes” and other healthy treats for dogs, she says.
Emily, office administrator for the Niagara United Mennonite Church, often takes Pacey to work with her.
“He gets so excited when I put his vest on. He knows that’s the sign he’s going to work.”
And not just to Emily’s work — the green vest signals he’s in training for his job, which is helping others, adults or children.
One of the tasks he has to learn to be a dog guide is to ignore others when he is working, says Emily — his job is to lay at her feet.
“At this stage, once in a while he needs a reminder.”
He is not easily distracted, but has been known to react when he meets another dog, or someone rubs his belly. A gentle command, “working,” gets him back on track, says Emily.
“Training any dog is a big responsibility, but this is 24/7, and comes with extra responsibility. At first it was overwhelming. There are rules we all have to follow — don’t do this, make sure you do that — and being consistent is important. We all had to be sure to do the same thing, and it took a little bit for everybody to learn what was okay and what wasn’t, what do you do when he jumps or nips at you.”
But he’s a smart dog, and has responded well. Part of the training is for the Fieguths to take him places. They’ve had him out at several restaurants, the mall, and even the Shaw Festival Theatre.
“He needs to have that experience of going out, and learning the rules of how to behave appropriately in different situations,” says Emily.
The foster puppy program is aimed at teaching dogs the basic skills that they will need to know before entering the official dog guide program. They are expected to become familiar with social settings such as malls and office spaces to prepare them for common settings that they might encounter once they are paired with their future handler.
“We take him everywhere, and we’ve been very lucky. We’ve never been asked to leave.”
Although dog guides cannot be refused admittance when they’re working, the rules are different for dogs in training.
Emily carries a card with her when they go out that explains Pacey is in training, and he will be treated the same as a dog guide — for instance, they are often placed at a restaurant table against a wall so he has somewhere to lie down without being in the way. But if he barks, or acts inappropriately, he can be asked to leave.
“Fortunately, that’s never happened,” she says.
He aced his recent 10-month assessment at the Pen Centre, with a trainer to test him as he walked among the crowd, used the escalator, and passed by food without being distracted.
He also went on his first vacation from the family,
when they went away and left him with a babysitter. “It was tough. I had to leave all the phone numbers and instructions for while we were away, and there was still mommy guilt. But he seemed happy. He had his routine, and he didn’t seem to have missed us.”
She assumes the same will happen when it’s time for him to leave them permanently.
“As long as he’s being loved, and wherever he goes they have his special cookies, he’ll be fine,” she says.
“And it’s good for him to have a purpose.”
When he leaves the Fieguths, he will go to the Oakville school for further
training for one of seven different kinds of assistance: to be a dog guide for someone who is blind or visually impaired; for someone deaf or hard of hearing; for a person with a physical disability; a seizure response dog for someone with epilepsy; autism assitance; a diabetic alert dog guide for a person who has Type 1 diabetes with hypoglycemic unawareness; and the newest category, added in 2018, as a support dog guide for use by professional agencies with individuals in traumatic situations.
Only three dog guides are now working in that category — two with police forces and one with a not-for-profit agency, which works with victims, mainly women and children.
Lions Foundation of Canada has matched dog guides with more than 2,800 Canadians. The dogs cost about $25,000 to raise and train, but are provided at no cost to the recipients.
The foundation relies on support from service clubs such as the Lions, corporations, foundations and individuals from across the country in order to meet its mission.
Emily says Pacey’s future will be decided when he goes to Oakville, by trainers who will decide what his skills are best suited for.
Some dogs end up as breeders rather than dog guides, in which case he could live with them. If for any reason he leaves the program, or when it’s time for him to retire, the Fieguths will be given the opportunity to share their home with him again.
Emily and her family will of course miss him when he goes, but they’ve known from the beginning they were training him for a cause, to help some person live with independence, she says.
“I’ve met people who have a dog guide, and I know people who could benefit from having one. This has been a wonderful, very rewarding experience. He loves us unconditionally, and I’m glad we did this. But having a dog is a lot of work — more work than babies,” jokes Emily.
“We constantly remind ourselves we’re doing this for somebody else, so they benefit from having him. And the whole purpose of this program is for him to go on to bigger and better things.”
Would she repeat the experience?
“Yes, but probably not right away. I think I’ll need some time to get over him.”
For more information, visit https://www.dogguides.com/foster.html.