I live one block away from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. When out dog-walking, I often see guide dogs with their owners going to and from this amazing facility. A few times in the past I spotted one particular man and his Labrador, and when the opportunity presented itself I decided to say hello. After I introduced myself, I learned that his name was Martin Courcelles and that his dog is named Laton. After talking for a while Martin explained that he often walked this route to get a coffee at the local Tim Horton’s and that he worked at the CNIB. Those who have been following my blog realize that I am curious by nature and am always after a person’s “story.” I asked if Martin would be interested in answering some questions for my blog; when he said he wouldn’t mind I was thrilled. The following is Martin’s awesome write-up based on my questions.
“I was raised in a small town in Manitoba called Ste. Anne. My claim to fame is having acquired a gene-based childhood cancer called Retinoblastoma. Nowadays, this type of cancer is potentially curable. Back then, not so much. I lost my first eye at 2 and the second one was removed when I was four-years-old. I still have memories of seeing. These are incorporated into my imagination. It helps me picture what is happening around me at all times. My mother especially liked the fact that I still pictured her as a young woman.
Regardless of my disability, as a blind child, my family enabled me to try all sorts of things that I may have otherwise not done in the big city. For example, I had my own mountain bike. I would either ride it around on my own, or follow my sighted peers in order to go further afield. I utilized an ability we all have called Echolocation. It’s essentially the same sort of things that bats use to locate themselves in the dark.
I also built wood projects with my father’s power tools, despite my mother’s misgivings. I still have all of my fingers. I even tried what some people might think of crazy things such as rock climbing and skydiving. One of the lessons I’ve learned throughout my life is never to lose faith in the capacities that I possess.
While navigating through the small town, I also used echo location, because I didn’t want to look (blind). After a series of tripping over lawn mowers, bikes and the like, I knew it was time to admit my disability and started using the white cane. It was adequate for quickly navigating the rudimentary sidewalks and trails.
My first encounter with a trained dog guide was when I had been living in Winnipeg for a few years. A friend kept telling me about the benefits of a guide dog; greater speeds, no more finding all of the street furniture and no more bumping your head on overhanging obstacles. She asked me to touch her legs. Being an amicable fellow I followed suit and found out the biggest reason to have a dog – no more bumped up shins! I could wear shorts again! So off we went for a long walk through one of Winnipeg’s many parks. The trail was circuitous with many turn-offs. Even with practice, I don’t think I would have been successful with my cane. The dog knew the route and without too much effort, got us through a 5 KM walk. That’s when I decided to go for the plunge. At 22, I went off to California for a 4 week training program and got my first of many guide dogs; a shepherd by the name of Halsey. I am presently on my fourth dog; a black lab by the name of Laton, pictured here on this blog.
I moved to Toronto in 1998 after filling two of my moving criteria: a job and a girlfriend; I still have the job, thankfully. This is a very busy city and I applaud those who navigate it with a cane. I just couldn’t be bothered, but this is simply my preference. Laton is presently 6-years-old. I acquired him in January 2007. People ask me why not apply to a Canadian guide dog school, as there are a few here in Canada; the closest being in Oakville Ontario. It was simply convenience. The school in California had a dog ready for me way back in 1995 and I would have had to wait for the Canadian applications. The dog I received was amazing, so I figured I’d stay with them. Besides, being in sunny California in January is very tough to pass up!
Encountering your guide dog for the very first time is an amazing experience. Laton seemed timid to me. Boy, was I wrong. The trainer gave me the leash and a few minutes alone in order to get acquainted. The weeks before you get to school, you are put through a fairly rigorous series of interviews. The trainers want to figure out what your day to day life is. What sort of person you are and the like. This is in order to make the best match possible. I sometimes wonder what this reflects about me, as Laton is quite the jumper and loves to play. His guide work is impeccable. I guess I’m a good, fun loving guy who loves life and has good work ethics? We’ll go with that then.
Over the years, the training program and training schedule has changed in order to accommodate life and social pressures. For example, school training is now an intensive 2 weeks, with an optional at home 1 week training. The dog is always learning new things due to life changes and learning new routes. Guide dogs do not always know where you want to go. The handler needs to know where he/she is at all times as well. The dog’s job is to lead you through the environment in a safe fashion. Dogs also cannot detect color changes, and therefore they do not understand traffic lights. Nor can they read maps, although that would be really handy.
Despite the amount of training and preparation a dog guide might receive, partnerships may not always work. My second dog Jobe, a yellow lab, for example, worked okay at the school. The big city was too much for him however and I had to retire him after 2 years of work. He was placed with a family and was much happier.
Where does Laton go when I go to work? Well, he comes with me and lies under my desk. I need him for my Timmy’s runs. Speaking of running, he helps me with that too. Nothing over 5 KM however, that would be too hard on the little guy. Under the Canadian Human Rights Code, he is allowed wherever I go. There are some places, like the zoo, where I find alternatives for him. I wouldn’t want him to be picked off by a giraffe, or something worse.
Laton has been featured in a few videos which I have participated in while working at the CNIB. You can find them here.
Dog guides try their best in order to keep you safe, but there are even times when they cannot stop the inevitable. Read more about such a situation that happened to me recently on the CNIB blog http://tinyurl.com/cy3yjkn. And if you’re interest in more information on guide dog etiquette and laws around them, visit this website.”
In the past I wrote about a friend here in Leaside and her experience raising a puppy for the Lions Club Foundation of Canada Guide Dogs. Meeting Martin and Laton recently only confirmed to me once again what an incredible partnership these dogs bring, and how they can help their owners’ achieve wonderful independence in a busy city like Toronto. For more on Martin, check out his contributions to a blog at the CNIB. As you can see – he is both intelligent and witty!
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