Guide dogs in the age of COVID: a local story
Everyone is adapting to a world with COVID-19. Being blind or partially sighted can be difficult under normal circumstances, but add in the challenge of physical distancing and other pandemic-related standards when you can’t see, and a person’s world becomes much more complicated.
A guide dog greatly enhances mobility for those who are blind, but COVID-19 halted guide dog training in many parts of the world. In March 2020, Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind had to cancel a residential class of six people who were going to attend the three-week live-in training course at the National Training Centre of Canadian Guide Dogs in Manotick to receive a guide dog. The class included Michael Hodgins, a Shawville resident who has been blind for 14 years following a workplace accident.
For the last seven years, Hodgins has been getting around with the help of Nellie, a golden retriever guide dog, but with her eleventh birthday, and consequently her age of retirement looming on May 31, Hodgins required a new service dog.
“I called the organization early in the year and was scheduled for 19 days of training in Manotick in March, but it was cancelled. I was supposed to have in-home training starting April 1, but border closures and travel restrictions cancelled that as well. With travel restrictions lifted in mid-May, I started in-home training on June 1, the day after Nellie retired,” explained Hodgins.
Guide Dog Mobility Instructors now travel to each person’s community and train them with a guide dog in their own neighbourhood. Some training is done in a residential environment (one person at a time travelling to the National Training Centre of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind in Manotick and living there), but the majority is in communities across the country. There are pros and cons to this method, but it allows the organization to continue to help people during the pandemic.
Over the course of about two weeks, an instructor traveled to Hodgins’ home daily and worked with him and his new guide dog, Tosca, for about six hours a day walking common routes, learning signals and commands, and allowing the two new partners to establish a bond. “I’m figuring out her characteristics and now, it’s almost the same as using Nellie. When Tosca is told ‘let’s go to the path’ or to ‘grandma’s’, she knows where those places are, just like Nellie did,” explained Hodgins.
As for Nellie, the Hodgins family decided to keep her since she had becoming a large part of their family. She enjoys going on walks with Hodgins’ wife, sniffing around and playing as regular dogs do, but her service days are still ingrained in her mind. “The dogs are trained to stick their head in a collar when you hold it up, so a couple of times I’ve left the house and realized I had Nellie with me instead of Tosca. She’s still raring to go,” Hodgins laughed, explaining the divide the dogs create between work and play: “When you put their harness on, it’s like flipping a switch and they are instantly in work mode; obedient, no sniffing around, don’t bother with other animals or people, alert, etc. They definitely know the difference,” he added.
Hodgins visits local schools as a guest speaker to talk to students about what it’s like to be blind, his experiences using guide dogs, the importance of safety measures to prevent accidents, etc. He has also visited students in the local nursing program to talk about his experiences, how blind people want to be treated (ex: identify yourself when you enter the room, indicate when you leave), and tricks for good bedside manner (don’t pull, but lead the blind person while holding their elbow).