Boy wel­comes spe­cial skills

Cape Breton Post - - CAPE BRETON - BY CHRIS HAYES CAPE BRE­TON POST chayes@cb­post.com

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.”

Steve Wad­den - Cape Bre­ton Post

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.

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