The Canine Connection

Dogs with Wings is a local organization that trains service dogs, providing their clients with increased independence and safety

This summer, Lis Dam Lo went to Ikea with her daughter Jordan. Dam Lo navigated the store, purchased a desk and loaded it into her car – and it was all done without any issues. While this would seem like a normal Saturday for most people, for Dam Lo, it was a huge achievement.

Her 11-year-old daughter, Jordan, has autism, is non-verbal, and going anywhere can be extremely challenging – sometimes Jordan reaches for items in a shop, sometimes she screams and other times she may bolt without being aware of her surroundings.

But the Dam Lo family for the last five years have had help in the form of a service dog named Iynan, who is able to assist the whole family with everyday tasks, while improving Jordan’s quality of life in several ways. Iynan is a Yellow Lab, Golden Retriever cross and his calming presence and specialized skills, gained through local organization Dogs with Wings, allow for trips to places like Ikea, which would never be possible otherwise.

While Iynan doesn’t go with Jordan to school, he goes with her everywhere else, and his presence, says Dam Lo, makes a huge difference for the little girl. Through extensive training, Iynan knows exactly what to do if Jordan tries to run at an inopportune time. He is able to plant himself, and stop her from running into a potentially dangerous situation. And his presence has helped Jordan to sleep better, interact with people more, and even understand that she can stand up for herself.

“She interacts with him and plays tug-of-war with him. And the harder he tugs, the harder she laughs. It’s very easy for kids with special needs to be taken advantage of. Sometimes other kids will take things away and the special needs kids will be like: ‘Ah, whatever, go ahead.’ But now with the dog, she has an inkling that she can hang on, she doesn’t have to give in,” says Dam Lo.

Iynan is one of between 40 and 60 dogs trained at any one time through Dogs with Wings, a province-wide organization that pairs people with disabilities – including those with mobility problems, vision, and hearing challenges – with dogs trained in methods of assistance. Along with the autism program, the organization provides dogs for Victim Services agencies around the province, usually associated with a local law enforcement detachment. One such dog has been placed recently with Zebra Child Protection Society in Edmonton. Victim Services dogs assist victims of crime and tragedy deal with the trauma of the event along with the challenge of providing evidence in any court proceedings.

This year marks the organization’s 20th anniversary. The organization started out with only two volunteers – now, Dogs with Wings has nine staff members in Edmonton, additional trainers in Grande Prairie, Calgary, and Red Deer, along with 200 volunteers across the province.

Executive director John Wheelwright explains that these dogs can help open doors, retrieve telephones, help a client into a wheelchair, help with clothing changes, or even pick up a coin or a credit card from the floor, to name a few examples. “The dogs benefit each and every one of our clients. One family was able to go on a family vacation for the first time in 10 years, because they finally felt safe in public,” says Wheelwright.

Training a dog takes about two years, and is carried out by certified dog trainers with the help of foster volunteers who look after the dogs in the evenings. The first 12 months are spent ensuring the canine learns basic obedience – how to sit, lie down, be calm, leave food alone and walk on a loose leash.

Autism dogs must be able to physically handle intense situations – there is testing of eyes, hips, elbows and heart. Trainers also conduct a stack test for personality where dogs are put in artificial situations and judged on their reactions. “It could be putting food sources in front of them, or how they react to a special toy to test the dog’s ability to function when they’re stressed,” says Wheelwright.

Those that aren’t able to behave properly in public – they may become too excited in front of children, for example – are put into the companion dog program for those who need a skilled dog that doesn’t need to be out in public.

Next, the young dogs are screened to determine where their talents fit best – whether as a service dog for a disabled person, a companion dog for the elderly or an autism dog for a young child. “We look at six or seven clients and we match the personality and walking style of the dog to the personality and walking style of the client. No two clients are the same; it’s no good sending out a high energy dog with someone who walks slowly. And because we take so much time with our matches, they tend to be successful,” says Wheelwright.

Iynan’s calm demeanor, patience and desire for low key activity made him not only an excellent autism dog, but a great match for Jordan. “It’s some kind of magical process,” says Dam Lo. “I’ve met other service dogs, and thought there’s no way they would match with my family.”

But there’s another side to the story that happened before Iynan was matched with Jordan. While the dogs go through training at Dogs with Wings, they also live with two sets of volunteers. For about the first year, one volunteer continually takes them home, and cares for them, and once they enter the adult program, a new volunteer takes over.

For Iynan, Bernice Stieva was the one who looked after him as an adult – she decided to volunteer with Dogs with Wings after hearing a commercial on the radio. She works at King’s University where she teaches skills to those teaching children with exceptionalities, so her background and interests align with the volunteer work she does with Dogs with Wings.

Volunteers like Stieva commit to dropping off the dog in the mornings, and picking it up in the evenings, then having the canine with them for nearly all of their outings. Stieva took Iynan with her to the grocery store, to church, to the library. Wherever her daily schedule took her, the dog followed.

For Stieva, the biggest challenge was not the time commitment – Iynan proved to be a fantastic companion – it was the end result where she would have to give him up. Initially, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to foster another dog, since the prospect of turning over a dog that had become her pet over the course of a year was very difficult. But when Stieva heard Jordan’s story and saw what a huge difference Iynan made in her life, she felt it was more than worth it. She’s now fostering her seventh service dog and plans to continue. Every time she takes a new dog, she thinks it may be her last; but every time time she sees the impact made on another person, she decides to continue.

“All the barriers come down. We see it everywhere we go. So, it’s put a whole different filter on how the world interacts with Jordan. It’s huge.”

When out walking Iynan, she drew a lot of attention and questions from curious bystanders. Once at a pet shop, Stieva spoke with a man who ended up getting a service dog after she informed him of the process. Later, Stieva learned one of the dogs she had fostered went to the man. It’s just one of many stories that continue to motivate her to volunteer.

Since she started in 2011, she’s met countless individuals impacted by Dogs with Wings. One of her friends through Dogs with Wings could not even look or talk to her when she first met him. Now, with assistance from a service dog, he’s attending university and going on band trips. She’s heard of individuals who are sleeping through the night, children who now have friends at school, and people whose independence and ability to connect with the community increases – all thanks to their service dogs.

About 200 volunteers help Dogs with Wings with everything from the fostering of dogs to organizing events – and the contribution, says Wheelwright, is huge. In fact, if they were to put a dollar value to it, it would be about $1.4 million. But because service dogs are in such high demand (especially autism dogs which make up about 70 per cent of the dogs that are trained through the program) the waiting list can be up to two years long.

In response, Dogs with Wings has increased the number of dogs it trains. Initially up to six dogs graduated each year, and their strategic plan calls for that to be increased to 25. And as the organization grows, its need for funding increases, which is why Wheelwright decided to take part in Edmonton Community Foundation’s ECF Endowment Sustainability Program.

Through the program, the staff learned much about the benefits of endowment funds and how to build endowments, which are invested to generate income to provide dependable ongoing support for Dogs with Wings. Each year a certain percentage of the fund (currently four per cent) is granted. Because of the stability endowment funds provide, organizations can be more strategic and plan for growth so Wheelwright knew that this would be a valuable investment resource for the organization. The ESP program provided him and his team with the tools – and the confidence – they needed to have meaningful conversations with their donors and volunteers about the impact of growing the organization. Working with ECF to grow those endowment gifts allows Dogs with Wings to focus on its donors and its programs, knowing that ECF will put its expertise to work in investing, maintaining, and otherwise handling all endowment details.

Dam Lo says the most exciting aspect of having a service dog is the way it has changed how others view her daughter. Every year, Jordan’s school has an assembly where the students learn about Iynan and his role as a service dog, and how he impacts Jordan’s life.

She says that it’s often difficult for individuals without exposure to special needs to interact with those who have them – because they simply don’t know how to go about it. But with knowledge of Iynan, more children at school feel comfortable approaching Jordan. More children remember her, and it’s created a community that Dam Lo doesn’t think would have existed without Iynan.

“All the barriers come down. We see it everywhere we go. So, it’s put a whole different filter on how the world interacts with Jordan. It’s huge,” says Dam Lo.

Out in public, Dam Lo notices the difference too. Before Iynan, Dam Lo often felt like her parenting skills were being judged. “Having a dog signals to the world, there are more issues going on. You get more sympathy and gentle looks rather than hostile ones. There is a chorus of ‘awwwws’ wherever
we go,” says Dam Lo. “Now, I can’t imagine my life without him. If we had to give him up tomorrow, we would not only be heartbroken, we’d be house-bound.”