For any family, getting a new dog brings lots of excitement and added responsibility into the household. For the Maher-Greene family in Southeast Placentia, a new dog means that and much, much more.
Tara Greene is the mother of two young boys, Blake, 11 and Jagger, 6. She and her partner Jerry, both from the area, have been living and working here, raising their family, and dealing pretty well with the curves life sometimes throws.
Their oldest child, Blake, was diagnosed with autism, and although is highly functioning, has had some difficulty in social situations and is not particularly verbal.
Greene said since Blake was diagnosed at around age two, she’s been steadily educating herself about new therapies and treatments that might help her son function more comfortably.
“Of course, I was online a lot and always looking into new treatments, but the one that kept coming up again and again was the dog guides now available for children with autism. Well, we’ve not had any pets, but Blake is an animal lover, so I said I would look into it,” said Greene. “I figured a dog would be coming at some point anyway, so better to have a dog that could possibly help Blake.”
She heard about the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, and the assistance they offer and so inquired at the Lion’s Club of Placentia. She said Eric and Lisa McGrath, both Lion’s Club members, were very helpful and ready and able to help Greene find the information she needed.
“Blake was about nine years old at the time, and the program is available for kids between the ages of 4 and 12, so I knew I had to get the ball rolling,” she said. “But Lisa and Eric were very excited and willing to fill me in on what I needed to know.”
The Placentia Lion’s Club sponsored the dog guide, which cost $20,000. They also acknowledged it is the first Autism Assistance Dog Guide in this province.
Greene said after an extensive application process, personal reference check, physician recommendation and a home assessment from the dog guides organization, eventually Blake was selected as a candidate for the program and within a year, Greene said, she had to travel to Oakville, Ontario to participate in a training program for herself.
“Armani was specifically chosen for Blake, to meet his needs,” she explained. “He is a beautiful golden retriever who, at two years of age, has been in training himself for most of his life.”
Greene said she travelled once again to Ontario in December 2011 to bring Armani back home, and the family met her and Armani at the St. John’s International Airport on Dec. 17.
But, said Greene, because this was just before Christmas, things were pretty hectic already, and throwing the dog guide into the mix made for an especially hectic holiday season, but after the new year, when the season settled down a little, things began to even out.
“At Christmas, with people dropping by and with the new dog, it was a little bit hard on Blake, but when we got through that, everything began to fall in place.”
She said it was hard on Blake’s little brother Jagger, who didn’t, at first, fully understand that Armani was Blake’s working dog, and not a dog that would be played with and treated normally.
“He needed to understand Armani was working, and I must say, for a little guy, Jagger really gets it now,” said his mom proudly. “He is very helpful and understanding. It is pretty hands off for him, and with such a beautiful dog as Armani, that was really hard, but he understands Armani’s job and that he is here to help Blake. Jagger is a real trooper.”
Now, she said, a few months in, it has been challenging but very rewarding.
“I was invited in to Blake’s Grade 4 class at St. Anne’s Academy, and the kids there were so excited and happy for Blake. And he was so proud to show them his new buddy. The kids just kept asking questions, and they were great questions, and a good educational experience for all of them as well.”
Greene said one of the things people need to know about dog guides is that they are dogs that work, and as such, they shouldn’t be petted while on duty.
The dogs provide safety, companionship and unconditional love to the children who have them, and they also help provide a calming influence on the children in high anxiety situations, and reduce stress commonly experienced in public places.
Greene said it was challenging for her to ensure all the rules get followed, but it was important they do so Armani doesn’t lose his specific training. It is all for getting the maximum benefit for Blake, she said, so that makes it easier for her to enforce those rules.
For Blake, Greene said, she always used to hold his hand in public, because he could just run and put himself in a dangerous situation in a parking lot or a busy street.
“But, as any growing boy, he’s at an age where he doesn’t want to hold his mom’s hand anymore in public, so he is now tethered to Armani, who helps keep Blake safe,” she explained. “Blake is a good boy but he can bolt in an instant. Armani knows how to stop and hold. He will dig his claws in (to the ground) and no way can you move him. That’s a good thing when your child is tethered to him. It means if Blake goes to put himself in a dangerous situation, Armani is there to help prevent that.”
And she said, Blake is learning new responsibilities with Armani, as he is responsible for cleaning the dog’s dish, feeding him and brushing his coat.
“Blake takes these jobs very seriously,” said Greene. “Plus, an added benefit is that Armani helps Blake keep active. Blake would rather be on the computer, but now will walk up to five kilometres with Armani and me or his dad with very little fuss.”
When Armani is working he wears a maroon harness, and it is important, Greene said, for people to recognize when the dog is working and to leave him to do his work.
“We will let people pet Armani when he is in the down position, but when he is working, he needs to be focused on Blake.”
Blake has learned some of the commands for Armani and Armani is listening to Blake well. The two are becoming quite a pair, she said.
“It is impressive to see them together now,” she said. “You can see Armani is starting to follow Blake around the house and cries to get in his room at night. They say it takes about a year for everything to fall into place, and we are just at four months. So, I think we are really doing well,” said Greene.
For their part, Lisa McGrath with the Placentia Lion’s Club said they just were doing what they do, and the club was thrilled to see how well the match was working out.
The Placentia Lion’s are planning a Purina Walk for Dog Guides in Placentia on May 27. McGrath said people can get sponsors and walk on that day to help raise money for other people to be able to avail of these dog guides.
“We are asking people to meet at the Legion at 10 a.m. and after the walk we will have some finger foods and prizes,” said McGrath.
The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides is a national charity whose mission is to assist Canadians who need guide dogs get them at no cost.
Since 1983, the Lions Foundation of Canada has provided specially trained dog guides to over 1,700 men, women and children in Canada from their two facilities in Ontario. They provide Canine Vision Dog Guides for people who are blind or visually impaired, Hearing Ear Dog Guides for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, Special Skills Dog Guides for people with a medical or physical disability, Seizure Response Dog Guides for people who have epilepsy and Autism Assistance Dog Guides for children aged 4-12 with autism. The dogs are bred and trained at their facilities where new owners must also go to be trained in their handling.
For more information about the program, contact the Placentia Lion’s Club, or the Lions Foundation of Canada at www.dogguides.com.