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Lenny the future dog guide would like you to meet his foster parents

Lenny visited Collingwood with his foster parents to share his story and the important work he’s headed for when he grows up

A very adorable dog with an important job paid a visit to Collingwood this week to teach others about the work of the Lions Foundation of Canada dog guides program.

Leonard, a four-month-old Lab-cross, brought his foster parents, Don and Joyce MacKay, to a Probus Club of Collingwood meeting on May 5 to share more about the impact of dog guides and the amazing things they can do for people .

The Lions Foundation of Canada was formed by Lions Clubs in 1985 to operate a program to breed and train dogs for people with visual impairments. Since then, the program has grown to include dog guides for hearing, service, seizure response, autism assistance, diabetic alert, and facility support (a dog assigned to comfort children in a courthouse, for example).

It takes nearly two years to train and prepare a dog as a guide, and it costs about $35,000 per dog, which includes the costs to operate a breeding program.

A big part of every future dog guide’s life starts in a foster home, which is where the MacKays (and Leonard) fit in.

Little Lenny is the MacKays’ 23rd foster dog for the Lions Foundation dog guides program. Their job is to raise the puppies for the first year of their lives, teach them basic obedience and commands, and take them everywhere to make sure they’re socialized.

The Bracebridge couple took in their first puppy in 2004.

“When they arrive, they’re like… like a baby,” said Don.

The MacKays teach the puppies basic things like sit, eat, stay, down, and to go pee outside, not inside.

“We train every day and we take them everywhere,” said Don.

The puppies also have to learn about the little green vest they wear with the Lions Foundation of Canada logo indicating they’re a “future service dog in training.”

“They understand the green coat,” said Don. “They are often different dogs in the coat… When the coat is on, it’s all business and they have to pay attention to me. When the coat is off, they can play with whomever is in front of them.”

To prove Don’s point, Lenny wandered through the Collingwood Legion hall with his vest off, quietly grabbing pets from a few of the Probus members.

The MacKays run a golf course and nearly always have their foster dog at the course with them. The dogs go to restaurants, on trips, to the grocery store, and just about everywhere the foster family goes, since their work will involve accompanying a person through their day-to-day life.

“The first three weeks is challenging with any puppy… You really need to focus totally on the dog,” said Joyce. “We’ve had some furniture and shoes chewed.”

After about a year of spending every waking moment with the dog, and some nights sleeping next to the dog’s crate, the MacKays know they’re getting a call to bring the dog to Breslau for the next phase of training.

“We have to drive there and we know we’re coming back without the dog,” said Don. “When you get there, there’s a point where they say, ‘Take the collar off,’ and you do and they put theirs on, and then you leave.”

He said he tries not to look back, and the separation doesn’t get easier.

“But it’s not about us, and not even about the dogs. It’s about the impact on the people who get the dogs,” said Don.

Once the dogs leave their foster homes, they bond with a trainer and they learn their work over the next two to six months. The trainer will choose the discipline that best suits the dog’s temperament and size. The Lions program trains mostly Labrador retrievers and poodles.

Following their training, the dogs are introduced to the people who require a dog guide. They’re paired up and both dog and owner go through more weeks of training to learn how to work together.

A dog meant to provide autism assistance will learn to not only comfort a child, but keep them safe. In some cases, the child will be attached to the dog so the dog can prevent the child from running into a dangerous situation (traffic, water) when necessary.

A diabetic alert dog can smell their owner’s breath to detect sudden drops in blood sugar, then fetch the test kit and other supplies. They are reserved for diabetic people with hypoglycemic unawareness, which means the usual physical signs of low blood sugar are not present.

A hearing dog can wake its owner when an alarm goes off, and alert them of the phone ringing, or the doorbell.

A service dog can perform daily tasks like using the buttons to open accessible doorways, picking up items that are dropped, opening and closing doors in their home, and fetching help in emergency situations.

A seizure response dog is trained to recognize the signs of a seizure and bark for help or activate an alert system.

The dogs are provided to the clients at no charge, but once the dog is in the client’s care, the client is responsible for ongoing costs such as food and veterinary care.

Once a year, the Lions Foundation hosts a graduation, often inviting the foster families back to thank them for the role they played in getting a dog guide ready for its work.

Last year, the program graduated 35 teams and 54 potential future dog guides were born through the breeding program. The last annual update indicated there are 1,030 ‘active’ clients who have one of the Lions Foundation dog guides.

“Every time we go to a graduation, we hear about how the dog has changed someone’s life,” said Don. “We don’t do it for anything we get out of it… but we get a ton out of it.”

The MacKays plan to continue fostering future dog guides, and their son has started doing the same. They typically take a few weeks off between puppies, but have also taken in a new puppy before the last one has left for training, or on the same day they drop one off for training.

“This has become a part of who we are. People know us for our dogs,” said Joyce. “This is what we do and we went in with open eyes. It gives us just as much as we give to them.”

The Lions Foundation of Canada relies on donations and sponsorships for funding for its dog guides program. The Pet Valu Walk for Dog Guides is an annual fundraising event that takes place on May 29. Though there’s no physical walk planned in Collingwood this year, residents can take part virtually by logging their own kilometers and raising money for the cause.

To date, the walks have raised $20 million for the program, and this year’s national goal is to raise $1.3 million.

You can register online here.

To learn more about the Lions Foundation of Canada dog guides program, visit its website here.

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