BLIND AM­BI­TIONS

Hus­band-and-wife duo An­drew and Karen Han­lon re­cently helmed the launch of the CNIB Guide Dog Program and are chang­ing the lives of visu­ally im­paired Cana­di­ans.

Canadian Living - - Contents - TEXT AN­DREA KARR

Helm­ing the launch of a new guide-dog train­ing program is re­ward­ing work with adorable ben­e­fits

THREE YEARS AGO, An­drew Han­lon re­ceived a phone call from a Cana­dian fire mar­shal whose son was blind. At 18 years old, the young man lacked the con­fi­dence to leave the house and had slowly with­drawn from the world, which left his fa­ther aching over the ex­pe­ri­ences his son was miss­ing while he re­mained shut in­doors. Luck­ily, An­drew was able to match him with a pooch and guide dog mo­bil­ity in­struc­tor (GDMI), and they worked to­gether, nur­tur­ing a trust­ing re­la­tion­ship that would al­low the son to leave home and ex­plore with only his dog by his side. “This rough, tough fire­fighter was in a flood of tears, and so emo­tional be­cause he saw his boy go­ing out again,” says An­drew. “He couldn’t thank me enough.”

A new best friend: That’s what GDMIS pro­vide for their clients, and it’s the rea­son An­drew and his wife, Karen, joined the pro­fes­sion. “I was al­ways dog crazy,” says Karen. “But work­ing with peo­ple and mak­ing a dif­fer­ence was even more im­por­tant to me.” When she learned of an open­ing at a Cana­dian school for guide dogs in 1988, Karen leaped at the chance to com­plete the three-year ap­pren­tice­ship, which she fol­lowed up with a work ex­change in Eng­land in 1993, where she fell for her fu­ture hus­band, a Gdmi-in-train­ing.

More than 20 years later, the Han­lons have worked with hun­dreds of peo­ple and dogs, and are be­yond ex­cited to man­age CNIB’S new guide dog program (cnibguide­dogs.ca), which will raise and train guide dogs

“See­ing the dif­fer­ence the guide dog makes just blows you away.”

for peo­ple with sight loss, plus teach users how to in­ter­act with their new ser­vice an­i­mals.

Since the start of the program in April, the Han­lons have been bring­ing roly-poly eight-week-old pup­pies to Canada from a breeder in Aus­tralia who spe­cial­izes in pedi­greed ser­vice dogs, though they hope to start their own CNIB breed­ing program here in Canada one day. Off the plane, the pup­pies go to vol­un­teer puppy rais­ers’ homes in the Greater Toronto Area to be­come so­cial­ized. “It’s not easy work,” An­drew ex­plains. “The dog chews on your fur­ni­ture and pees and poops all over your home, and just when you’ve got that dog set­tled, we knock on your door, take it away and give you an­other ram­bunc­tious bun­dle of joy.” At 12 to 15 months, the pup­pies are trans­ferred to the hands of a GDMI to be­gin their for­mal train­ing via daily walks and to learn such skills as ob­sta­cle avoid­ance, stop­ping at curbs and over­rid­ing their own­ers when safety is at risk. By age two, most dogs are ready to work.

Ac­cord­ing to the Han­lons, each ca­nine quickly be­comes an in­te­gral part of its new user’s life—not just a tool for safely walk­ing down a busy street. In ad­di­tion to act­ing as an adorable ice­breaker for en­gag­ing with strangers and free­ing a per­son from the iso­la­tion that of­ten comes with blind­ness, the dog is an ever-present com­pan­ion. Each in­cred­i­ble bond wit­nessed makes a job in guide dog train­ing and man­age­ment the most re­ward­ing ca­reer the Han­lons can imag­ine. “See­ing the dif­fer­ence the guide dog makes just blows you away,” says An­drew. And that re­la­tion­ship has the power to bring the tough­est men—even a burly fire mar­shal—to tears.

An­drew and Karen Han­lon pose with their 11-year-old daugh­ter, Wil­low, who clearly shares her par­ents’ love of pups.

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