Preparing pups to be guide dogs a pawsitive experience

CNIB looking for volunteers as program expands

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When Jeff Bencharski retired from his job with Manitoba Hydro in 2017, he needed something to keep him busy.

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When Jeff Bencharski retired from his job with Manitoba Hydro in 2017, he needed something to keep him busy.

After reading a story about the Canadian National Institute for the Blind’s new training dog program, he immediately put in an application.

“The article struck a bit of a chord with me because I had a colleague at work who is visually impaired. I thought I could do it and filled out an application.”

Puppy raiser Jeff Bencharski prepares Sassy for the many distractions she will face out in the community as a guide dog. (Supplied)

After going through training, a house inspection and expectation education, Bencharski was approved for his first puppy, Alex.

“I didn’t know what I’d got myself into at the time, but as I worked in that role as a puppy raiser, it was a really rewarding experience,” he said.

The life of a puppy raiser is a busy one. Raisers are committed to always being with the dog, training it in obedience routines at home and social settings in public. This includes home training, teaching it to walk on a lead without pulling or lagging, and taking it to the kinds of environments it may encounter in its life as a guide dog.

“We did everything with Alex. We took him to the dentist, the doctor, on the bus and to sporting events. We tried to take him anywhere and everywhere to make sure he was prepared.”

When Alex was 15 months old, it was time for Bencharski to say goodbye, a process he said is the hardest part of the experience.

“It’s so heartbreaking when you have to give them up, but it’s a rewarding feeling knowing the dogs are going to help someone. It almost feels like a proud parent sending their kid to college.”

The memories he made with Alex, who is now a guide dog in Saskatchewan, inspired Bencharski to keep raising guide dogs for the CNIB. He even got his own Labrador to give the pups a friend while they’re in his care.

His second guide puppy, Sassy, arrived in 2021 and graduated to further training in June after 14 months of raising.

The CNIB said they are looking for more families like the Bencharskis in Winnipeg to take on the role of puppy raiser.

“We’ve increased the number of puppy-raising supervisors, but we only have a limited number of puppy raisers. We have two puppies scheduled to come in July and as we get more, we are going to need at least 10 more families to raise,” said Diane Bergeron, president of CNIB guide dogs.

“Getting a guide dog for most visually impaired individuals is a life-changing, transformational experience. You have freedom, independence and movement. Our puppy raisers are an important part of this program.”

The demand for raisers comes as the CNIB has expanded as an organization following the pandemic.

“Prior to COVID, there were many individuals who would go to the United States to get their dogs. When the borders closed, hundreds of Canadians applied for programs within the country and our applications increased by 375 per cent,” Bergeron said. “The demand is still high and we’re doing all that we can to meet the need, but a puppy that we get today won’t be fully trained to help someone for two years. If we don’t have enough puppy raisers, it doesn’t matter how many puppies we get into our program because we don’t have a home to give them to.”

Bencharski said he will continue volunteering as a puppy raiser and encourages anyone who loves dogs to do the same.

“It’s such a great program. The CNIB provides a lot of assistance and guidance, and they let you stay in contact with the dog once they graduate by providing updates on them,” he said.

Those interested can begin their application process on the CNIB website, cnib.ca.

bryce.hunt@freepress.mb.ca

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