Shifting loyalties

Cloverdale’s Monica Nelson gets a big kiss from Ash, her new guide dog.  - Evan Seal / Black Press
Cloverdale’s Monica Nelson gets a big kiss from Ash, her new guide dog.
— image credit: Evan Seal / Black Press

Monica Nelson is a long-time Cloverdale resident whose active schedule would keep anyone hopping.

Ash (Ashlar) is a 22-month-old yellow lab – a sweetheart and kisser who makes his move when Monica bends down to tie her shoes.

“That’s when you get the slobber!” she exclaims.

Three weeks ago, they were strangers. Last week, they graduated as a team – the 106th match by B.C. Guide Dog Services in Ladner.

“He’s just an excellent little worker and just raring to go,” Monica smiles proudly, nodding towards Ash, lying quietly at her feet.

The pair spent 50 hours training in Cloverdale under the guidance of Nick Toni, a veteran mobility instructor and former RAF police dog handler with 21-plus years in the field.

When Monica got her first guide dog in 1998, she could still see the lines of a crosswalk and discern the contrast of grass and sidewalk.

Monica has RP, or Retinitis Pigmentosa, which leads to progressive loss of vision. Diagnosed in her 20s, she gradually lost her sight. A decade and a half ago, she was receiving mobility training at the CNIB when she was identified as a candidate for a guide dog.

To qualify, Monica had to be mobile – able to get around on her own, using a cane – but her vision couldn’t be too good, otherwise she’d lead around any dog.

After taking a successful “test drive” with a guide dog, she was put on a waiting list.

A busy wife and mom – her sons were then aged 8 and 10 – Monica waited a year for a match.

Monica and Anya, a yellow lab/golden cross, became team number three for B.C. Guide Dog Services, a charity founded in 1996 that provides dogs at no cost to the recipient. The group runs breeding, puppy raising and training programs, and relies on donors for funding.

The dogs reach retirement age when they’re about 10, after eight years of service.

“That’s the best case scenario,” Monica says. Quinn, her second dog, is 10. Enter Ash, the newbie, quiet and relaxed, an inert puddle of unstressed warmth on the floor until duty calls.

“That’s one of the traits they look for,” she says. “They don’t want an overly-aggressive or active dog, because you’re in and out with people, in stores and buildings, on transit – they gotta be mellow.” a new puppy takes time. “They live with a first family for a year-and-a-half, where they get their social training,” she says. “Then they get their formal training. That’s when the trainer takes over.” About 75 per cent will have what it takes to be a guide dog. The rest are placed as pets in permanent homes or find careers assisting people with autism.

Nick Toni estimates between 15 and 20 trained dogs a year by B.C. Guide Dogs meet the qualifying standard.

Dogs are matched with a someone from the waiting list – presently closed due to the demand.

“There are approximately 111,000 visually impaired people in British Columbia alone,” Nick says. “A good majority of those could use or work with a guide dog. But we just can’t.” He notes the charity is raising funds to build a breeding centre in Ladner to help close that gap.

[Mobility instructor Nick Toni, left, hangs back as Ash and Monica Nelson learn one of her routes in Cloverdale. Evan Seal photo]

“People like Monica, who have had dogs before, and understand how it changes their life and rely on it, they must be our priorities,” says Nick. “When their dogs retire, they must be our priorities to re-train.”

Finding the right match is essential.

“You have to get the right dog who can cope with the routine and the variables. Ashlar may be very quiet, lying down at the moment, but when he gets into busy areas, where there’s a lot to do, that’s when he comes into his own,” Nick says.

Ash will have his work cut out for him with Monica.

Her boys now married and out of the house, she volunteers at her church, Zion Lutheran, and helps out at the Surrey Food Bank depot there every other week. And she commutes on foot across busy 176 Street at 60th Avenue.

She takes the 320 bus from Cloverdale to her book club in Surrey Centre and rides the Skytrain to Vancouver, where she volunteers for the CNIB. She also belongs to several other support groups. Add shopping trips to stores and malls and you get the picture.

The training trio has been learning all of Monica’s routes, walking the streets of Cloverdale and taking transit all over, Monica gradually taking control of the harness from trainer, Nick, while Ash learns to follow a new boss.

“Up to this point, he’s taken his cues from Nick,” says Monica. “It’s different when I hold the harness. He has to learn to trust me. I have to learn to trust him, so we work together.”

From finding escalators to locating the button controlling the crosswalk, Ash has performed “absolutely great” says Nick.

Monica has had to re-learn instructions and cues, so they’re “by the book” – teams inevitably customize the way they communicate. “The pair of them have just matched perfectly,” Nick beams.

He’s worked with about 140 qualified guide dog teams since he began in 1998.

“We live in such a complicated environment now,” he says. “We have busier lifestyles, traffic conditions, vehicles have changed. With hybrid cars, there’s no engine noise. They can be a real hazard – you can’t hear them. Things are just more complicated generally, not just for visually impaired people.”

Graduation day (April 29) wasn’t a formal ceremony – it was a final run-through for dog and handler checking all the skills they’ll need to have mastered before the team is signed off, from climbing stairs to crossing intersections on a pre-determined walk.

Only then could Monica pick up Ash’s harness on her own.

The days of training behind them, Monica and Ash will be a team. She and Quinn, a black lab/golden cross, were team number 49.

“Quinn, I mean, he’s part of the family,” she says of her retired sidekick. “You think: it’s hard shifting loyalties, because I have to, I have to bond with the new dog. But there’s still that bond to the old dog. You can’t just cut ties.”

Fortunately, Quinn isn’t going anywhere – he’ll be a full-time family pet, the same as Ash when the harness comes off. Left at home while the others set off to train each morning, he’s had three weeks to adjust.

“Up to this point, every time I took the harness up, it was his job,” says Monica. “It’s thrown him a curve ball: ‘Aww? How come you’re going out with the other dog? The first day, he was wondering what was going on.”

Quinn, she acknowledges, was slowing down.

“There comes a point with the old dogs, where they think, right, let the young whippersnapper do the work,” adds Nick. The two dogs, both males, have already become good friends.

And Ash is already part of the family.

“It’s funny, when I call one, they both come,” says Monica. “But they both get their loving – I’ve got two arms. I’ll have one under each arm.”

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