VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) – Fewer people are benefiting from B.C.’s guide dog program because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to the health crisis, half the people who were supposed to be partnered with guide dogs this year won’t be.
Bill Thornton with BC & Alberta Guide Dogs says training the canines requires people getting up close and personal in a way that just isn’t possible with physical distancing. When the pandemic hit, training halted on a dime.
The goal for 2020 was to partner 39 guide dogs with people who need them in B.C. He says it was an ambitious goal building on 29 dogs placed last year but is now impossible.
“Our numbers are going to be easily half this year — probably less than half — because we’re moving into July and we’ve got to pick up the pace with the dogs we were training.”
Various stages of training
However, he says they’re not sure if that is possible because there are no shortcuts with the specialized training these dogs receive.
There are three phases to getting a dog from birth to helping guide someone: puppy training, advanced training, and finally training with the person they are partnered with to guide. All three are impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“You’ve got to reach certain skill sets for the dogs. So, there will be a bit of a reset — we don’t lose all of the training that we’ve done, but some of it will be lost and we need to get the dogs back into the routine and all the dogs have to train at their own comfort level and at their own speed so we don’t just push them through like sausages through a machine — each dog is an individual.”
Because of the pandemic Kristina Stanley, who, along with her husband, has years of experience raising guide dog puppies, ended up with a weeks-old brand-new dog-in-training along with the year-and-a-half old intermediate dog already in their home. Adding to that unique situation, training went from real life to Zoom – which has proven to be another challenge.
“You can’t see a person as well. You can’t see how they’re standing, which way their toes are pointing, which way their hands are holding the leash, and so… The training that we get from our instructors is very specific to dog handling and that’s hard to do over the internet.”
In-person instruction resumes with restrictions
This week, for the first time in months there has been in-person instruction for people raising puppies. Trainer Matthias Lenz says it doesn’t look like it used to, but it’s a start.
“We’re meeting up social distancing outside — I’m bringing my own leash. We’re not going out to any malls or anything, but were starting to meet up again in person — distancing. We’re running very small group classes outside.”
Thornton says a bigger challenge is the more complex training of dogs at the advanced stage. This is the intense work needed ahead of dogs being partnered with a client. In the past it’s been many hours in close contact. Thornton says they are still figuring out what is possible with that training in this unusual time.
“We still don’t know exactly how it will look — we’ve had conversations with our colleagues in other organizations and we’re all struggling with it a little bit and I think part of the struggle is fear of a second wave — we don’t sort of want to get started,then we have a second wave which presents a problem for us because once you start training with people you want to be able to finish it, you don’t want to leave them incomplete.”
Thornton says they are facing the challenges one at a time — training, recruiting new trainers, and making ends meet with less fundraising money coming in. And, he says, reassessing what’s possible in the months and year ahead.