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Calgary Transit puppy program gives paws-on experience for new guide dogs

Calgary Transit ridership is up to 83 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, Fleming said.

Guide dogs-to-be got some pawsitive reinforcement Thursday, helping them to become more acquainted with sights and sounds of Calgary’s transit system.

The hands-on – or rather paws-on – experience is part of the training that BC and Alberta Guide Dogs volunteers are giving their Labrador puppies to help them become eventual assistants to blind Calgarians.

“It’s often a scary experience for puppies, so it’s nice to be able to do it in a controlled setting, and we really appreciate Calgary Transit for hosting us for this socialization exposure,” said Sandra Cramer, puppy training supervisor with BC and Alberta Guide Dogs.

“Buses and LRTs are often very busy and loud. Sometimes those sounds some of our dogs find a little bit scary, so it’s nice to be able to ease them into it in this kind of a setting where we’re not also dealing with crowds and all of the other people around.”

More than a dozen volunteers brought their dogs in training to the northeast Calgary bus depot in order to desensitize them to the Calgary Transit buses.

The dogs were first walked around the buses before being given rides around the depot under controlled conditions.

“We have a training program that we follow. They come to obedience classes with me, and then they also meet me on location,” said Cramer.

“I will meet puppy raisers in the mall, at LRT stations and bus stations all throughout the city, and they expose their dogs to this, and they work on those basic skills, house manners, basic obedience, all of those things that they’ll need to be a successful service dog.”

The end goal, said Cramer, is to raise dogs stable enough to help the people they are servicing go about their regular lives.

“Our volunteers will take them grocery shopping, they’ll bring them to their dentist appointments, to their doctor’s appointments—as they are old enough and stable enough to be able to participate, and that is essentially what gets them ready to be a service dog.”

Making Calgary Transit more accessible

Sharon Fleming, the Director for Calgary Transit, said that Calgary Transit was very supportive of helping to train puppies that will eventually become service dogs with BC and Alberta Guide Dogs.

She said that having well trained dogs not only enhances the inclusivity and access for riders receiving help, but that it also improves the ridership experience for other customers.

“The rider experience is paramount for Calgary Transit,” Fleming said.

“We believe in the mobility of all of our community members. It’s a really important part particularly for those who can’t see, to be able to move around the city in a way that’s comfortable for them, and having their [service dogs] be comfortable takes us a long way to make that experience as wonderful as it can be.”

She said that having the puppies makes for a very special day for staff and drivers at the depot.

“Everyone loves puppies, so it’s actually brightens their day to have all of these puppies here,” Fleming said.

“It also makes the operators feel rewarded for having supported this endeavour as well.”

Calgary Transit ridership has returned to approximately 83 per cent of its pre-Covid levels in the city,” Fleming said.

Initiatives like the guide dog training continue to make riders more comfortable as they return.

“Our drivers are extremely proud of the service they provide,” Fleming said.

“It is one of the most direct contacts that the City of Calgary has with people at every intersect of of society, and all individuals are supported completely by our operators—it gives them a significant sense of pride.”

Volunteers guide BC and Alberta Guide Dogs puppies onto a bus as part of desensitization training at the Calgary Transit Depot on Thursday, September 29, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Not enough volunteers, dogs to meet demand

Cramer said that their own application and wait list for guide dogs is closed, and that people on the list have about a two-year wait.

“Client lists all over the country are desperately trying to satisfy their client need,” she said.

She said that all of the volunteers they do have are working towards a common goal of being able to provide a client with service in the future.

Cindy Park was one of the volunteers at Thursday’s event. She said that she was helping to volunteer because her sister-in-law is blind, and considered it a good way to give back for the three guide dogs she’s had.

“We knew my sister-in-law had done so well with her seeing-eye dogs that I said maybe we could be a puppy raiser, give back, have a puppy, and learn how to train a dog, too, because they give such a good support,” Park said.

The dogs stay with volunteers for approximately two years before graduating on to their clients.

Park said that it can be tearful having to give up the dogs.

“But you know you’re doing it right from the start and it’s for such a good cause,” she said.

“I always think if someone did this for my child, I would be so grateful.”

For more details on how to donate to BC and Alberta Guide Dogs, or on to become a volunteer puppy trainer, see bcandalbertaguidedogs.com.