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HELPERS: Dog guides give locals a new leash on life

'The Lions Foundation changed my life. My dogs changed my life,' says Bev Berger of her six dog guides

Every Tuesday at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Bev Berger and her dog guide, Jensen, settle in with friends for several hours of arts and crafts. Berger – and to an arguably lesser extent, Jensen – are members of the Newmarket Rug Hooking Guild, a community group dedicated to handcrafting beautiful rugs of all colours, shapes and sizes.

“The first time I took Jensen, they knew that he was coming and found a mat and some water so he could lie on the floor with us,” said  Berger. “He’s an amazing ambassador and a real icebreaker.”

Jensen, an energetic and alert black lab, is Berger’s sixth dog guide in more than three decades. Blind since the age of 30, Berger is a longtime client and advocate of the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides program, which provides dog guides – trained dogs specialized for vision, hearing, seizure response, diabetes alert, service, or autism assistance – free of charge to Canadians living with disabilities.

Since 1985, Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides have matched over 3,000 dog guides with qualified applicants, empowering them to navigate their world with confidence and independence. Today, they are the largest school of their kind in Canada, supporting over 1,000 active dog guide teams like Berger and Jensen across the country.

“I’ve been given my life back,” said Berger. “It’s a life I would not have had had I not had a dog guide.”

Like all pet owners, Berger remembers each of her dogs fondly. Reb, her first, had a dignified arrogance she attributes to his Quebecois upbringing. Mason, her second, was high-strung and intelligent. Her third, KitKat, was the sassiest of the bunch, and Jasper, her fourth, a Type A people-pleaser who thought he could do everything. Lotus, who passed just last year, was easy-going, empathetic, and reliable.

As for two-year-old Jensen, who came to Berger just last December? It’s still too early to detect a unique personality, she says. But as working dogs, Berger’s dog guides have been more than just loving companions – they’ve been her eyes, her source of safety, and an important tool to connect with the community.

A six-time dog guide owner, Berger holds the record for most dog guides received through the Lions Foundation. With the arrival of friendly Jensen, she now inherits a new title – the owner of the 200th dog guide sponsored by Pet Valu, a longtime supporter of Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.

The number is no small feat. It costs approximately $35,000 to raise, train, and supply a dog guide to a person in need, which is why success of the organization’s biggest fundraising event, the Pet Valu Walk for Dog Guides, is crucial.

“It’s an incredible feeling knowing that someone who has perhaps been limited with their mobility has now got the ability to go out into the world and do what they want to do, go where they want to go, without relying on other people,” said Allison Ashworth, canine vision instructor with Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.

Ashworth has worked in the guide dog field for over 40 years. Once prospective dog guides arrive at the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides training facility, she and her peers assess them for their response to hazards like traffic and stairs and give them what’s often referred to as ‘Dog Guides University’ – four to six months’ training in commands and obedience, walking with a handler, obstacle and danger response, and more.

Following another three weeks of training at the facility with their new owner, the dog guides ‘graduate’ is on his or her way to change lives – no matter who they’re helping.

“The Lions Foundation changed my life,” said Berger. “My dogs changed my life.”

This year’s Pet Valu Walk for Dog Guides will take place May 26, 2024. For more information or to support your favourite Dog Guide team, visit the Pet Valu Walk for Dog Guides website.