Guide dogs create special bond with owner

NANAIMO – Nanaimo woman looks toward future with new companion.

Barb Moody and Sky

Barb Moody and Sky

The most likely place you’ll find a guide dog is where the signs say “No dogs allowed.”

Barb Moody and Sky, a 21-month-old yellow Labrador, are getting to know one another, forming a bond Moody thought she might not find again after her previous guide dog Heidi died after they were together for about 10 years.

“Ultimately I couldn’t get around, and I missed my friend,” said Moody.

Moody has retinitus pigmentosa, which has left her with no peripheral vision. It’s like looking at the world through two straws, allowing a perfectly clear, but extremely narrow field of view. As she ages, that view is getting narrower – it’s currently about 1.5 per cent of a normally sighted person’s field of vision – and it’s Sky’s job to watch out for everything Moody can’t see, like cars, chairs and people that, if encountered unexpectedly, could result in serious harm.

“I can seen an eagle in a tree at 300 yards if it’s in that little tiny bit of central vision, but I can’t see the dog, I can’t see obstacles, I can’t see curbs,” Moody said.

It takes about 20 weeks or 100 hours to train a guide dog and about another month for the recipient and dog to develop a functional working relationship. It’ll take about another six months before they get fully mentally synched, but there’s already a strong emotional bond.

“Her birthday is in July,” Moody said.

Sky and Heidi both came from B.C. and Alberta Guide Dog Services. Operating solely from fundraisers and private donations, the Lower Mainland-based charity is able to produce about 15 to 20 trained dogs per year. There are 111,000 visually impaired people in B.C. To counter the wait list, some people turn to U.S.-based guide dog training schools, but there are still very few guide dogs working on the Island.

“The cost from the time the dog’s born to the end of its training is about $30,000 to train each dog,” said Nick Toni, guide dog mobility instructor.

The recipients feed and care for the dogs, which includes paying veterinary costs.

“Most people who have a guide dog, they’re not bothered about buying food and paying for vet costs and what have you,” Toni said.

Sky graduated earlier this month. When guide dogs graduate they shed their light blue training vests. Without the vest, Moody said, people often still recognize them because of their special harnesses, but when people haven’t recognized them as guide dogs Moody has been refused entrance to restaurants, buses and other areas regulations prohibit pets.

“All service dog owners will have proper identification that they will present,” Moody said.

People often want to approach and pet guide dogs in malls and other public areas. Moody said that distracts the dog from the task she set for it and can have serious consequences.

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