Eight-year-old Cooper loves chatting to his best friend, Windsor. They’ll lay on the floor together, and since Windsor can’t read, Cooper reads to him — usually it’s Star Wars.
Windsor doesn’t make much noise during story time; sometimes he even falls asleep part-way through.
It’s not that the stories are boring, it’s just that Windsor is a dog.
A little more than a year ago, Cooper, who has autism, was having severe anxiety problems.
“I almost pulled him out of Grade 2 because his anxiety was so high,” says mom Crystal Gerrits.
Cooper wanted no part of school. It was a battle every morning to try to get him to go.
“I had to figure out some way to motivate him every day to go to school,” she says.
Cooper didn’t want to be separated from his mom. When he arrived at school every morning, he would have outbursts, he would cry a lot, he would even bang his head on the door.
He had to be physically held by his teacher when his mom would leave.
One option was to homeschool Cooper, but Crystal felt the social aspect of public school was important.
Then their social worker suggested they look into getting a companion dog from the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.
Located in Oakville, Ont., the dog guides program trains mainly Labrador retrievers and poodles for people with visual or hearing impairments, autism, diabetes, seizures, and mobility issues.
The dogs go through a four- to six-month training program before they are matched with an owner. The organization then pays to fly the handler — or one of the parents of the handler — to Ontario for 10 days to learn the commands for the dog. The handler/parent then heads home with the dog where it gets accustomed to its new family and surroundings. After six weeks, a Dog Guides trainer visits the family to do a followup.
The dogs also go through a full health check and X-rays to ensure they are healthy in order to be guides.
It costs about $25,000 to train one dog at the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.
The Purina Walk for Dog Guides on May 25 is a fundraiser to help offset those costs.
There are more than 200 communities across Canada doing the walk on that day, and Chilliwack is one of them, says Val Martindale, a Lions member and organizer of the local walk.
“Anyone that has a dog can come, and anyone who would like to support the Lions Club of Canada can come,” says Martindale.
There will be prizes and games, as well as contests for the dogs, plus a dog circus at the end of the walk. The event starts at 1 p.m. at the Mt. Cheam Lions Hall at 45580 Spadina Ave.
“I think it’s a wonderful service and it fits with the Lions objective of helping people,” says Martindale about the Dog Guides program. “The people there are very well trained and they know what they’re doing. The board of directors is a solid group. It’s a very Canadian thing to do.”
And it shows.
Windsor is the perfect match for Cooper.
“He makes me feel a lot better because he’s my best buddy,” says Cooper.
“Sometimes Cooper recognizes when he gets overwhelmed and he will go and lay right on top of Windsor, or use him as a pillow, and he will rub his ears,” says Gerrits.
Windsor remains calm and focussed. It’s exactly the reaction Cooper needs.
“This past summer was the best summer of our lives,” says Gerrits. “We went camping and Cooper rolled with everything we did.”
“Change in routine is very difficult for kids with autism, and he did really well in summer,” she adds.
It was all thanks to Windsor and the Dog Guides program.
The Gerrits family is paying it forward by taking part in the walk and raising money for the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.
“The dogs cost about $25,000, and our goal over two years is to raise that amount,” says Gerrits.
Those wanting to take part in the walk and fundraise can go online to purinawalkfordogguides.com. Additionally, there are pledge forms at numerous pets store, veterinary services, and the local libraries.
People can also donate to a specific walker, or to the walk in general, online.
“It’s a walk for the love of dogs, that’s all it really is,” says Martindale.
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The American Veterinary Dental College’s Service Dog Oral Health program will provide free oral health screening to service dog groups including seeing eye dogs, hearing dogs, handicapped assistance dogs, detection dogs, search and rescue dogs and for certified therapy dogs. Dogs must be active working dogs that are certified by an organization or are currently enrolled in a formal training program. The certifying agency must be regional or local. Essentially, the dogs need to have some form of certification and/or training paperwork from an agency to qualify for this program.
For more information and to sign up (open now to June 15) go to: www.avdc-dms.org/dms/content/servicedogexam.cfm
Proof of registration is a requirement for this service.
More info: Little Mountain Veterinary Clinic, 604-792-2844.