Robert Gill and his guide dog
Robert Gill and his guide dog

Your guide to interacting (or rather NOT interacting) with those lovable guide dogs

Early one April morning in 2008 Robert Gill fell out of bed, his body convulsed in a full-blown epileptic seizure. Without medical attention, he would die.

Fortunately, Robert had recently acquired a highly trained medical service dog. That morning, Starsky, a black Labrador retriever, hearing the commotion, woke up, bounded into the next room, and planted his paw on a floor-mounted red emergency-button. That sounded a warning at Lifeline, a Victoria medical alert company, who dispatched an ambulance. Thanks to the dog’s prompt action, they were able to come in time to save Robert’s life.

All told, Starsky saved Robert’s life 28 times, making the $25 thousand dollar cost of training (in an 18-month residential program) an eminently worthwhile investment.

Starsky came courtesy of the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guide Program, which provides a service animal free of charge to Canadians with disabilities. To get Starsky, Robert flew to Oakville, ON, and trained along with the dog for three weeks. Most of the time, the Robert’s seizures happen at home, but sometimes they occur in public. When they do, his life has depended on a dog totally focused on the needs of his handler.

Which brings us to the subject of Robert’s pet peeve: people who insist on commanding his dog’s attention. Robert explains that despite their harmless intent, the effect is anything but.“It happens every day–I’ll be on the bus and someone will want to pet him.”

And every day, I give my speech:

  • “He’s not a pet, he’s a service dog—he has a job”
  • “It cost a lot of money to train him”
  • “He eats better than I do”
  • “The mesh around the end of his mouth is not a muzzle, it’s a ‘haltie.’ It is quite comfortable and helps in gently directing the dog”

Sometimes people touch the dog without asking, ignoring the words emblazoned on her red overcoat, “Do not pet.” They will say, “I can’t help it, I just love dogs.”

What’s the best way to treat a service dog? “Ignore them,” says Robert. “Leave the dog to do its job—they love their job.”

“Don’t attempt to pet the dog; don’t ask what its name is. If people ask my dog’s name, I either won’t say or I lie. It’s a big distraction when people call her name.”

Robert is happy to report that now, with the help of a new type of medication, he has been seizure free for the past three years. But there is no guarantee this will remain the situation forever, and so has taken another service dog–whose name will go unsaid.

Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guide Program

Service dogs are available from Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guide Program for six different kinds of need:

• Seizure response for people with epilepsy
• Seeing eye for the visually impaired
• Diabetic Alert for people who have type 1 diabetes with hypoglycemic unawareness
• Hearing ear for people who are deaf or hard of hearing
• Service for people who have a physical disability. Service Dog Guides help their handlers retrieve objects, open and close appliances, and open and close doors. They are also trained to bark or activate an alert system.
• Autism assistance for children who have autism spectrum disorder