Photography by Edward Kowal
Husband-and-wife duo Andrew and Karen Hanlon recently helmed the launch of the CNIB Guide Dog Program and are helping many visually-impaired Canadians get a fresh new start on life.
Three years ago, Andrew Hanlon received a phone call from a Canadian fire marshal whose son was blind. At 18 years old, the young man lacked the confidence to leave the house and had slowly withdrawn from the world, which left his father aching over the experiences his son was missing while he remained shut indoors. Luckily, Andrew was able to match him with a pooch and guide dog mobility instructor (GDMI), and they worked together, nurturing a trusting relationship that would allow the son to leave home and explore with only his dog by his side. "This rough, tough firefighter was in a flood of tears, and so emotional because he saw his boy going out again," says Andrew. "He couldn't thank me enough."
A new best friend: That's what GDMIs provide for their clients, and it's the reason Andrew and his wife, Karen, joined the profession. "I was always dog crazy," says Karen. "But working with people and making a difference was even more important to me." When she learned of an opening at a Canadian school for guide dogs in 1988, Karen leaped at the chance to complete the three-year apprenticeship, which she followed up with a work exchange in England in 1993, where she fell for her future husband, a GDMI-in-training.
Andrew and Karen Hanlon pose with their 11-year-old daughter, Willow, who clearly shares her parents' love of pups. | Photography by Wicky Auyeung
More than 20 years later, the Hanlons have worked with hundreds of people and dogs, and are beyond excited to manage CNIB's new guide dog program, which will raise and train guide dogs for people with sight loss, plus teach users how to interact with their new service animals.
Since the start of the program in April, the Hanlons have been bringing roly-poly eight-week-old puppies to Canada from a breeder in Australia who specializes in pedigreed service dogs, though they hope to start their own CNIB breeding program here in Canada one day. Off the plane, the puppies go to volunteer puppy raisers' homes in the Greater Toronto Area to become socialized. "It's not easy work," Andrew explains. "The dog chews on your furniture and pees and poops all over your home, and just when you've got that dog settled, we knock on your door, take it away and give you another rambunctious bundle of joy." At 12 to 15 months, the puppies are transferred to the hands of a GDMI to begin their formal training via daily walks and to learn such skills as obstacle avoidance, stopping at curbs and overriding their owners when safety is at risk. By age two, most dogs are ready to work.
According to the Hanlons, each canine quickly becomes an integral part of its new user's life—not just a tool for safely walking down a busy street. In addition to acting as an adorable icebreaker for engaging with strangers and freeing a person from the isolation that often comes with blindness, the dog is an ever-present companion. Each incredible bond witnessed makes a job in guide dog training and management the most rewarding career the Hanlons can imagine. "Seeing the difference the guide dog makes just blows you away," says Andrew. And that relationship has the power to bring the toughest men—even a burly fire marshal—to tears.
True or false
Test your guide dog knowledge.
1. Guide dogs know when a traffic light turns green.
False. The dog is trained to stop at a curb's edge. The guide dog user must then assess traffic flow by listening for vehicles or asking for sighted assistance.
2. You must be completely blind to qualify for a guide dog.
False. As long as an applicant's vision is impaired enough to cause mobility issues, he or she may submit an application to the program.
3. The user is in control of the walk, not the dog.
True. The human runs the show. Though the dog's eyes help the owner walk safely, the user is responsible for giving directions.