Reaching a point where you trust anyone, much less a dog, with your life is a remarkably difficult accomplishment.
For Charles Mossop, a special level of trust grew exponentially while taking a walk during a training trip to Ottawa.
As he was about to enter a crosswalk, a bus entered his peripheral vision (the only vision he has left). His new guide dog, Baker, saw the danger and wouldn’t budge.
“Baker stopped dead, and I stopped as well,” he said.
“He’s been extremely well-trained.”
Despite living with a degenerative form of sight loss since 18 years old, Baker is Mossop’s first guide dog.
“I feel very privileged to have a dog like that, and be entrusted with its care,” he said, adding that he feels the CNIB’s new program will make a big difference for Canadians with sight loss.
Though the CNIB first group of guide dogs was limited to six, spokeswoman Victoria Nolan said there are now 50 dogs going through the program. The CNIB hopes to match many more than that to owners every year, she said.
For most of his life, Mossop has known he’d be losing more and more of his vision.
He was diagnosed at the age of 19.
“Although I had noticed rather peculiar things happening to my eyesight when I was 18,” he said.
He has a particular form of macular degeneration that causes a progressive lost of central vision.
“It’s called Stargardt’s disease,” said Mossop. “I now only have a limited amount of peripheral vision left.”
Getting to this level of blindness isn’t always the case for those with Stargardt’s disease, but the condition doesn’t stop Mossop from being active.
After a career in post-secondary education and international development at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, Mossop said he’s failed at retirement, finding himself more busy than ever as a volunteer for the CNIB and as an international officer of the World Blind Union.
“That keeps me travelling,” he said.
Over the years, Mossop has relied on a mobility cane to get around, where the idea is to make contact with obstacles and other things with the cane to get a sense of what is where.
“With a dog of course, you don’t have to have that view of things because the dog is taking you around the object,” said Mossop. “The way I think of it really is that I navigate and the dog is the pilot.”
Mossop must of course know how to get where he’s going, though Baker will start to learn what Mossop wants and where he wants to go. Mossop can give commands like right and left, while Baker deals with the details of getting around things.
When Mossop approaches a crosswalk, he can ask Baker to direct him to the crosswalk button, but Mossop must decide when it’s safe to cross, based on his limited vision, what he can hear and his other senses.
Baker, however, can choose not to move if he sees that it’s dangerous.
To get used to this knew way of getting around the world, Mossop has had many training sessions with the CNIB, both at their headquarters in Ottawa and closer to home.
“It’s really quite a remarkable experience to go through this training and find that you have a brilliantly trained partner who is actually capable of looking out for you and steering you around objects and all that sort of thing,” said Mossop.
Perhaps the biggest change Baker is making to Mossop’s mobility comes in the dark.
“One of the features of Stargardt’s disease is the almost complete loss of night vision. Can’t see a thing at night,” said Mossop. “If there are lights, they just glare. They don’t light anything up for me.”
But one of the first things he did with a guide dog back in September during a trial for the program, was a night walk.
“I could be guided and walk in conditions of low light or darkness, when really I have almost no vision at all, and the idea that I would now be able to do that, if I needed to, independently, was really quite striking,” said Mossop.
He anticipates the CNIB’s guide dog program will have an important effect on Canada’s blind and partially sighted people, many of whom can’t find employment because of their lack of eyesight.
While there are other guide dog programs available, more and more of those also train dogs for people with PTSD or with other trauma. All are worthwhile causes, but it means there are longer and longer wait times for guide dogs.
That’s what the CNIB found as well.
With the foundation recently celebrating its first 100 years, research into adjusting focus found that significant wait times were a barrier for people.
“We just assumed that people get their guide dogs, they have different choices, some people get them in Canada, some people get them in the States, but we thought everything was running smoothly,” said Nolan. “And then when we did the research, and there is a significant waiting list for these schools. So there’s definitely room for more guide dog schools in Canada.”
The CNIB’s program began 18 months ago, with the dogs first being sourced from a particular breeder in Australia who specializes in producing service dogs.
For the first year, the dogs stay with a family who volunteers to raise the dogs and teach them basic obedience skills. The dogs are also exposed to a variety of environments, as they must be calm and able to focus no matter where they go.
Then the dogs are trained to be guide dogs for about six months.
Baker is now 23 months old, and though he acts like a normal, friendly puppy indoors, once his harness is on, he’s all business, said Mossop.
The CNIB’s program is free for the people who are paired up with the dogs, said Nolan, with all expenses being paid for through donations to the CNIB.
Though these first six dogs have been matched with owners from Nova Scotia to B.C., applications for a guide dog will be open in the new year. Long-term, Nolan said the CNIB hopes to match 100 people with guide dogs every year.