It’s Monday morning at 9:20 a.m. and classes are about to begin at Newcastle Public School. Among the students and teachers is a very special dog. Jupiter is a four-month-old standard poodle who is getting ready to start work! Robin Helgesen, is his foster mother and a special education teacher for Grades 4, 5 and 6 at the school. She puts a green coat on Jupiter, which signifies that Jupiter is a working dog in training. He is one of only four dogs in Ontario whose foster mom is a teacher.
Jupiter is in a program run by the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, which provides dog guides to people in Canada at no cost. Dog Guides placed 141 dogs last year — and they hope to surpass that this year. Puppies are bred at the Lions Foundation’s facility in Breslau, Ont. At about eight weeks old, puppies are place in foster homes, where they are trained and socialized. Helgesen meets monthly with a Dog Guide staff member who teaches her how to work with Jupiter and how to teach him the basic skills he needs to learn while living with her, such as sit, down, stay, stand and off.
Training a dog can be challenging, and although Helgesen says she doesn’t love the 6 a.m. walks when it is -20 outside, there are really no negatives. “Every day, Jupiter puts a smile on my face,” she says. “It can be as simple as the way he cocks his head to the side when I am talking to him or the sounds he makes when he yawns upon awakening.”
Back at the school, Jupiter is on a leash and is led by Helgesen to classes. The children know to ignore him while his coat is on. He sits in classes to get used to the school atmosphere, in hopes of becoming a guide dog in one of six different programs: vision guide dog for people who are blind or visually impaired; hearing ear dog for people who are deaf or hard of hearing; service dog for people who have a physical disability; seizure response dog for people who have epilepsy; autism assistance dog for children who have autism spectrum disorder; or diabetic alert dog for people who have type 1 diabetes with hypoglycemic unawareness.
Jupiter, while learning his job in the school, also assists children that may be restless or nervous. During EQAO testing (standardized tests the children take in Grades 3 and 6), the children get worried and stressed, and Jupiter can sense this. He might lie down beside an upset child, and unknowingly teach the child to cope with stress in a healthy way — by relaxing and petting the dog. That lesson can stay with the child for life. Jupiter is loved by the entire school and is welcomed everywhere he goes.
And everywhere Helgesen goes, Jupiter follows. He visits grocery stores, libraries, movie theatres and restaurants. She even takes him to meet with cats so he gets used to them. As a service dog, Jupiter won’t be allowed to just bolt off to chase a cat or squirrel whenever he wants! He practises using elevators and escalators in the shopping mall, learns about fire drills and attends assemblies. He learns to share his food and toys so that he won’t be possessive. This prepares him for his life with his new owner so he becomes familiar and comfortable with just about everywhere his owner may need to go.
This is Helgesen’s second service dog that she has fostered. Her first dog was Upton, a cream standard poodle. He was in the school last year, and the students still ask about him. Upton is now at Breslau, training to become an autism assistance dog.
When Helgesen was 10 years old, she saw the movie Atta Girl, Kelly! about a boy who fosters Kelly, a canine vision puppy. “After watching that movie, I decided that I would foster a service puppy sometime during my life,” says Helgesen. “Last year, my youngest daughter left for university, so it was the right time to start fulfilling my dream.”
She is an unpaid volunteer, and receives food from Purina. All veterinary visits are covered by the Lions Foundation of Canada. When Jupiter is about 12 months old, he will return to Breslau to begin his training in one of the six services. That will take about six months, and he will undergo extensive health checks and one-on-one training in the service he is chosen for.
But first, Helgesen has to give him up. Most dog owners couldn’t imagine giving up a puppy after having it for a year, but Helgesen has a selfless explanation of how she feels. “I have loved both of my foster puppies dearly, but all you have to do is meet the people who receive these dogs and, believe it or not, they love them even more,” she says. “I feel that the dog guide and his or her person become one. They adore each other, they form a special bond and they become inseparable. My puppies will change someone’s life in a way that I can only imagine. Someday, Upton and Jupiter will be loved and treasured more than I ever thought possible.”
To learn more about service dogs, contact the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides at www.dogguides.com.