Boy welcomes special skills
COXHEATH — Mark MacLeodHillier, 13, is getting some help from a clever dog named Wilco as he deals with the physical effects of muscular dystrophy.
Last week, Mark graduated from a three-week Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides training course in Oakville, Ont. — he was the youngest person there — and returned to his Coxheath home with the 20-month-old golden Lab-golden retriever mix.
A special skills dog, Wilco, when commanded by Mark, will fetch objects like mittens, open and close doors by tugging on a rope, open a refrigerator to get things like a bottle of water and, using a skill that is appreciated by Mark’s mother, Tara MacLeod, bark on command until help arrives.
“I just like him. He’s quiet, he’s calm, he’s never hyper,” Mark said during an interview Wednesday. “He likes me.”
Tara applied to the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides last year, it sent someone to the house to do an assessment and soon after informed the family it had a match dog.
The foundation paid the travel costs and put Mark and his mother up at a training centre in Oakville.
“ Where Mark is in a power chair, they look for a dog that is a little more active and tends to be a little stronger, so they can keep up with the power chair,” said Tara. “ The dogs that are more active tend to be more eager so they are more willing to do their tricks.
“ The big things for Mark are (Wilco) can fetch things, he can pick things up from the ground, so if Mark is out for a walk by himself and he drops something, Mark can’t reach it. So the dog can pick it up and put it in his lap.”
Wilco can also bark for help, she said. “It’s a big thing.” The dogs are also trained to push alert buttons to summon help, although Tara notes that Mark is rarely on his own.
“It’s something we may look into in the future.”
Tara said with Wilco for company, Mark can do more things on his own.
Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides gives out about 120 dogs a year, said Melissa Eckersley, a spokesperson.
The dogs start out with foster owners for a year and train for six months before meeting their new owner, so they have to be able to adapt, she said.
“It’s better for the dog and individual if the dog is more willing to go from person to person and then be able to develop a great bond with that final person.”
Mark will take Wilco to MacLennan Junior High School next week where he is a Grade 7 student.
Classmates and teachers can’t pet Wilco, Tara said.
“ They are working dogs. Even at home, I’m not allowed to pet him; no one in the family is. He has to bond with Mark and Mark only. Mark has to do everything. He has to feed him, give him his treats. He has to groom him. I can help him with the things he can’t do but the rest of the things he has to do himself.”
The less people pay attention to the dog, the easier for Mark, she said.
Wilco suffered separation anxiety when Mark left for school on his own.
“It’ll be a best friend for him and these dogs have an average working life of ... eight to 10 years,” said Tara. “So if he has a best friend for 10 years that’s always going to be by his side and he’s number one in his books, then he’s happy and so am I.”
A special skills guide dog named Wilco snuggles into the legs of his new partner Mark MacLeod-Hillier, 13, at his home in Coxheath, Wednesday. Mark is dealing with the physical effects of muscular dystrophy and was recently paired up with Wilco through the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.