All service dogs start somewhere, and one of those places is the Wensley residence in Wasaga Beach.
Chris and Donna-Lynn Wensley foster puppies for the Lion’s Foundation of Canada Dog Guides program. The puppies are bred specifically to take part in the dog guide program, and their first lessons come from fosters like the Wensleys.
“Our job is basic obedience and socialization,” said Chris Wensley. The Wasaga Beach couple has had a puppy in the house (sometimes up to three) for the last ten years.
“I take them to the mall and do escalator and elevator training. We take them to restaurants and help them get adjusted to being in public. The grocery store is one of the harder ones, because you have to get the puppy to focus on their handler and not on all the food dropped on the floor.”
The puppies learn basic obedience, but no tricks – shake-a-paw is strictly prohibited since the dog may be required to use his or her paws to warn their handler of an upcoming seizure.
Crate-training is a must to prepare the puppies for the kennels at the service dog training facility where they will learn their specialization.
The puppies must also start learning about the dog guide jacket, and what it means to be a working dog.
A future service dog learns to relieve himself when his handler tells him its time, and never when he’s wearing his dog guide jacket.
“Most of my walks are without the jacket,” said Chris. “I want him to be a dog too.”
While the puppy must learn obedience at all times, there’s a special focus taught to each service dog while he’s wearing a jacket. The dog has to learn to be aware of his surroundings, but stick to the job he’s been assigned, whether that’s as a seeing eye dog, an autism support dog, or one of the various other dog guides trained by the Lion’s.
“You wouldn’t believe how young they are when they recognized the difference between how to behave with and without the jacket,” said Chris. “I hear lots of comments saying it’s mean to make the dogs work so hard. But the funny thing is, these dogs just love working, and when they’re not working, they’re just dogs.”
The Wensleys are currently fostering Zach, a long-legged, slightly clumsy yellow lab with big feet and floppy ears. Zach gets the special privilege of spending the first year of his life raised by his dad. The Wensley’s also foster Qwerty, who is a breeding stud for the dog guide program. The foundation has their own breeding program to keep up with the demand for dog guides in Canada. The Wensleys keep Qwerty as their dog and wait for a call saying his services are required at the breeding facility.
Qwerty sired Zach’s litter, so the Wensley’s jumped at the chance to foster one of Qwerty’s pups.
Qwerty is a big-faced golden lab, and the source of Zach’s big feet and floppy ears. Both have those round, dark eyes and expressive eyebrows.
The Wensley’s originally fostered Qwerty as a puppy, but when he returned to the training facility, the program decided to keep him for breeding. The Wensleys asked to take him back. Once he is finished in the breeding program, the Wensleys will pay to have him neutered and will keep him as their pet. Qwerty has sired six litters and Zach is the Wensley’s 12th service dog puppy.
Qwerty has to be well-trained too, since he sets the example for the puppies coming into the Wensley home.
“It’s always beneficial to have another dog in the house when you have a puppy,” said Chris. “They learn better from other dogs than they do from people.”
While fostering puppies is a lot of work, and sleepless nights when a six-week-old pup arrives to the house, the Wensleys find it rewarding, and enjoy observing the differences in each puppy’s personality.
“My favourite thing is watching their reactions to seeing things the first time, because they’re all different … except for snow. They all go crazy for snow,” said Wensley.
In fact, the Wensley’s are responsible for giving a future guide dog all sorts of experiences, and helping the puppy learn from each one.
For every puppy they foster, Chris attends training classes with the puppy at the Lion’s training centre in Oakville. Each class session is paired with a vet visit and the timing works out that the whole litter of service dogs attends class together for a puppy reunion.
At the end of the year, the Wensley’s return their current puppy to the training centre where the dog is put into specialized training based on what sort of dog guide he or she will become. At the end, the dog is matched with a client, and there’s a graduation class to which the foster families are invited to attend.
“Seeing people at the graduation class is the best reward,” said Chris, recalling one class of graduating vision dogs and their handlers. Each class has a valedictorian give a speech.
One vision-impaired man told the crowd the last thing he packed that day was his cane, and he didn’t have to unpack it now that he had a dog guide to help him through life.
“These dogs are changing someone’s life and they have no clue they’re doing it,” said Chris.
The Wensley’s will be bringing Zach to the training facilities this December or January, and then they’re going to take a break and wait until summer to take on a new puppy.
“Qwerty is pretty much sick and tired of having puppies,” said Chris. And on cue, Zach came bounding across the floor and jumped on a sleeping Qwerty begging for a playmate.
The Lion’s Foundation of Canada Dog Guides has been breeding and training dogs since 1980. It’s estimated it takes about $25,000 to breed and train a dog for service, and those funds are donated by businesses or members of the public, the costs are not passed on to the clients who require a dog guide.
Currently, the Lion’s dog guide program trains dog guides for the visually impaired, hearing impaired, for children on the Autism spectrum, for those with physical disabilities, for individuals with epilepsy, for diabetics and as support dogs for individuals in traumatic situations.
For more about the Lion’s dog guide programs, click here.
There is an annual Walk for Dog Guides to raise money for the Lion’s program, and that includes a Collingwood walk. This year, Canada-wide, the walk fundraisers brought in $1.2 million for the Lion’s dog guide programs.