With students going back to school and traffic increasing in Calgary’s downtown core, another important part of the workforce is also returning.
B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs had to put public training on hold earlier this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the program eases into more in-person training sessions, it has found a new partner in Calgary Transit.
On Thursday morning, 15 guide dogs in training and their trainers met at the transit bus barn to practice riding the bus and adjusting to the sound of air brakes.
“She’s pretty nervous,” said trainer Lyle McLeod, who works with a golden lab named Merlot.
“A lot of other dogs around her right now so it’s a lot of excitement.”
“You can see the dogs get calmer and calmer because as it progresses, they just get used to each other,” Eline Ulrich said. Ulrich is currently raising a black lab named Wilbur, her fourth puppy with the program.
While online lessons at the height of the pandemic were helpful, socialization is the most important element in raising one of the dogs.
“Even just to sit on corners and let them listen to all of the sounds that are out and about – all of those busy noises – is so important for a young dog to get socialized to,” B.C. & Alberta Guide Dog Services puppy training supervisor Sandry Cramer said.
The puppies need to master skills like transit and riding escalators before they can head off to advanced training, where they’ll be matched with a partner who is visually impaired, on the autism spectrum or a veteran with a disability.
“They have to have confidence and they have to be able to lead through all circumstances so every opportunity like this builds their character,” Eleanor Van Rooijen said.
She’s been working on bus training with her puppy, Jesse, for more than a month.
“She had to get over the air brakes or she wouldn’t be a service dog, period.
“It’s been a big challenge but it’s a privilege.”
While Calgary Transit does not track how many people use guide dogs on trains and buses, it hopes people who require additional support feel comfortable doing so.
“There’s a lot of people that depend on Calgary Transit, people that use guide dogs that have been on transit,” Calgary Transit Acting Director Russell Davies said. “The opportunity to expose them to these fairly big and intimidating and noisy vehicles is just a great chance to get back to the community again.”
Even once the dogs are all trained up and out on the job, the public has an important role to play.
“Just ignore the dogs and let them do their jobs,” Cramer said.
“They need to be focused on their person and if the public is trying to pet them or distract them, then that is taking them away from the job that they have been trained to do.”
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While these partnerships will eventually lead to some tough goodbyes, the trainers are excited about the impact these dogs will make in the lives of others.
“I hope she brings great confidence to people’s lives,” Van Rooijen added. “She’s going to be dynamite.
“Ultimately, she’ll serve a great purpose. I just hope whoever gets her loves her just as much as I do.”