Dog guides group holds first graduation ceremony since the pandemic began
TORONTO -- It was a graduation ceremony months in the making, and a cause for celebration at the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.
“We’re really happy to see our dogs going out,” says Courtney Starr, autism assistance dog guide instructor at Dog Guides Canada. “They’re going to be helping these children, so we’re extremely excited.”
On October 8th, two dogs named Stanley and Titus became officially certified in the Dog Guides autism assistance program. It’s the first graduation ceremony the Lions Foundation of Canada has been able to hold since last spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to pivot their plans.
The dogs trained with the parents of the recipients for several days before the ceremony, and then on graduation day Stanley and Titus met the children they will be helping keep safe for the first time.
For Julie Liard’s 10 year-old son Alex, getting to be with his new guide dog Stanley was a long time coming.
“Unfortunately we were going to have the dog guide the last week of March, and because of the pandemic we couldn’t,” Liard tells CTV News Toronto.
“COVID hit, so our training that was supposed to begin in April was postponed,” adds Daniel MacPherson, whose son is the recipient of dog guide Titus. “So we were quite excited when we got the opportunity to come this week.”
When the pandemic began in March, the LFC Dog Guides postponed classes they had booked from March to June. Since then, classes have resumed, but in a modified way.
“We went to ‘work from home’, and until we felt that all parties were safe and we put a COVID protocol into dog guides,” explains Starr. “We have made the classes smaller. We’ve also shortened the time frame, so normally our autism assistance class would run for 10 days, and this time it’s only running for five.”
“It’s been very difficult,” Starr adds. “I’ve been a dog guide for 15 years, and we’ve been always working with dogs and always having large classes with our clients, so it’s been a big change.”
The families connecting with the dog guides say they are grateful for the Lions Foundation of Canada’s efforts, and say they are eager to see what the dogs do for their children.
“I’m hoping to see Nate reach his true potential,” MacPherson tells CTV News. “And see him blossom and see how he’s going to develop and change because of Titus.”
“It’s going to be a life-changing experience,” Liard agrees. “It’s going to be Alex’s dog, his companion. It’s going to be special.”
Starr says this first graduation ceremony is a step in the right direction when it comes to returning to regular training and connecting people in need with dog guides.
“We’re just extremely excited to be moving forward, training dogs and providing these dog guides for Canadians with physical or medical disabilities.”