Guide dog training adapted but not halted by COVID-19

Above, (left) Guide dog. (Right) Bruce and his guide dog Steph. Courtesy photos

CORNWALL Everyone is adapting to a world with COVID-19 and the way we have to do things has greatly changed.

One forgotten sector of people who are often not considered are those with visual impairments. Being blind or partially sighted can be difficult under normal circumstances, but add in the challenge of physical distancing when you cannot see or having to touch many things and be tactile in order to get around makes a person’s world much more complicated.

A guide dog greatly enhances mobility for a person who is blind, but COVID-19 has impacted guide dog training throughout the world. 

In March, Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind had to cancel a residential class of six people who were going to attend the three-week training course to receive a guide dog. Guide dog training stopped, not only in Canada, but in many parts of the world.

The future remains unknown, but the national charitable organization, training and providing guide dogs to Canadians since 1984, had to figure out how to adapt and continue its mandate. 

Residential training had to be put on hold. A group of individuals coming from different parts of the country and living in the same residence became impossible. Physical distancing makes training challenging, as a person who is blind normally works very closely, physically, with a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor. Travel restrictions and closures in various parts of the country varied and having people go to the National Training Centre of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind or going out into the community to train with a guide dog couldn’t happen.

In late March, Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind had dogs ready to be matched with Canadians who needed the service, but the future looked grim. That was, unless changes could be made to adapt to a world with COVID-19.

Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind didn’t remain stagnant. Like many charities and businesses, the organization realized that changes were required to remain in operation. It adapted to the fluid situation so that people who are blind and require a guide dog could still train with and receive one. Someone who is blind and has never used a guide dog can cope a little easier, but once you use a guide dog, you will likely always want one. It would be comparable to driving your entire life and your license being taken away. Suddenly, you are no longer completely independent. Without a guide dog, someone may have to rely on other people to get places. It can be devastating, and it can make the difference between being at home and afraid or unable to get out versus living an active and independent lifestyle.

The first step for Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind was to figure out how training could proceed. Since having clients travel to and reside in a group setting at the National Training Centre of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind wasn’t possible, it was decided to go to the people in what is referred to as domiciliary training. Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind decided that their Guide Dog Mobility Instructors would travel to each person’s community and train them with a guide dog, locally, in their own neighbourhood. There are pros and cons to this method, but it meant that the organization could continue to help people during these difficult times.

Residential training could continue but with only one person at a time traveling to the National Training Centre of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind and living in residence.

The analogy is a combination of working at home and in the office. Some training could be done in a residential environment, but the majority would be in communities across the country. 

Some travel restrictions, especially in eastern Canada, are still impacting guide dog training, but Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind has done everything it possibly can to ensure as many Canadians as possible can still receive guide dogs.

In June, training could only be done within Ontario, where Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind is located, and nearby communities in Quebec. Training was conducted in Cornwall, Toronto, Guelph and London, as well as Gatineau and Shawville, Quebec. 

In July, the national service expanded, as restrictions eased in some areas. Individuals from Nova Scotia, Alberta, and British Columbia will be training with guide dogs soon.  “People who are blind need guide dogs, and we have to do whatever we can to adapt to COVID-19 to make sure we continue to help people”, says Jane Thornton, Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. “We have been doing this for 36 years. COVID-19 forces us to change the way we do things, but we are adapting as best we can in our new world, so that Canadians who are blind can receive guide dogs.”

Bruce Wotherspoon of Cornwall graduated with his latest guide dog, Stefan, on June 5. He had guide dogs before and is a familiar site on the sidewalks of Cornwall. Wotherspoon walks everywhere for all of his errands. “I don’t take taxis or public transit. I have a guide dog to get around and that’s what I use him for,” Wotherspoon says.

He adds, “People joke about Cornwall and it doesn’t have a good reputation sometimes for whatever reason. The fact is I never really had any issues. People are nice and helpful, very friendly. It’s the type of city, because of its reputation, that pulls together and pulls for the underdog. I cannot thank Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind enough for giving me independence.”

Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind is demonstrating that even charities need to adapt due to COVID-19, and they continue helping people locally in our community. 

Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind was established as a registered charity in 1984. Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind has provided more than 880 professionally trained guide dogs to Canadians who are visually impaired from coast to coast. You can learn more about Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind online at www.guidedogs.ca, including how to donate or more about applying for a guide dog.

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