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Vernon families guide dogs into their lives

Parents with special needs children given autism service dogs by Lions Club, provincial body

It’s amazing what a new house guest can do for someone’s confidence.

Well, a house guest with four legs and fur.

Kaleena Hammond and Ashley Curwen are two Vernon mothers with special needs children who had never met until they were selected to each receive an autism service dog from the B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs through a partnership with the Vernon Lions Club, at no charge to the women or their families.

The women went through eight days of intensive training with sisters Shay – given to Hammond – and Jovie (to Curwen), three-year-old Labrador retrievers crossed with golden retrievers who came from the B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs’ training program. Each pup is now a member of the respective Vernon families.

“We started training every morning at 9 and we were done by 2:30 p.m.,” said Hammond. “We did some public places, malls, the public pool, Nature’s Fare, a restaurant.”

“We did some walking around,” added Curwen.

Hammond’s son, Reece, is 11 and for his entire life, Kaleena has had to lay in his bed or on a mattress next to his bed to get her son to go to sleep.

Enter Shay.

“Since she arrived, he’s gone to bed every night at 8 p.m. without me,” said Hammond. “It makes me cry. I’ve never had that before.”

Not a big fan of public places, but with Shay by his side, Reece spent 15 minutes in a park – which, Hammond says, is huge for her son – and while there he introduced the dog and himself to another child.

Reece also has food issues, for which he takes intensive therapy. He doesn’t sit at the dining room table, and he doesn’t eat much, if at all.

But he does now.

With Shay’s chin snuggly on his lap, Reece stays at the table and enjoys a meal.

“It’s been a huge game-changer,” said Hammond of the addition of the service dog to the family, which also includes Toot the cat. “In just eight days, he’s slept by himself, gone to a park, introduced himself and stayed at the table.”

Curwen will also sing the praises of the guide dog program since Jovie arrived at her house to join her husband, Matt, and another dog. The Curwen’s son, Ben, also has bed issues. Like getting out of bed.

“Usually it takes him about an hour to get mobile,” said Curwen. “This morning, I brought Jovie into his room and said he could play with her for five-to-10 minutes. When I called Jovie to come, Ben came out right behind her.”

BC and Alberta Guide Dogs is a registered charity that breeds, raises, and professionally trains guide dogs for individuals who are blind or visually impaired; autism service dogs for children aged three to 10 with autism and their families; and OSI-PTSD (operational stress injury or post traumatic stress disorder) service dogs for veterans and first responders.

“It takes two years and upwards of $35,000 to produce one certified dog, provided free of charge to the recipient,” said Bill Thornton, CEO of B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs. “The autism service dogs are provided to children with autism aged three to 10 and their families, at no cost to the recipient.”

Some benefits of autism service dogs include:

• Increased safety for the child (prevents the child from bolting);

• Encourages social interaction;

• Enhances responsibility skills for the child;

• Reduces stress and anxiety;

• Supports daily living skills;

• Provides greater quality of life for families who can spend more time in the community and participate in family activities.

It also brings people together, for which Curwen is extremely grateful.

“I’m so happy to have met Kaleena because it’s great to be able to talk to someone who knows and understands what you’re going through,” she said.

The Vernon Lions Club raises funds to help sponsor the guide dogs through its popular Ducks For Dogs race, where people buy rubber ducks that are launched in the waters of Polson Park for a chance to win cash prizes.

This year’s event is set for Saturday, July 15, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., which includes fun family events in the park along with the duck race.

Hammond gave a huge hug to Sharon Cain of the Vernon Lions for the club’s support in helping to bring Shay into her family. The gesture, and Hammond’s story of how Shay has already impacted her life, brought her to tears.

“I’m so glad we are able to help,” said Cain. “We are looking forward to doing it again this year.”

Tickets for Ducks For Dogs are $5 each, four for $20 or 20 for $100. The Lions will be selling tickets throughout June, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (June 2, 29, Freshco; June 3, 23, Save-On-Foods, Village Green Centre; June 8, Safeway; June 9, 24, Save-On-Foods, Shops at Polson Park; June 10, 30, Real Canadian Superstore; June 16, Butcher Boys; June 17, Buy Low Foods (includes hamburgers for sale).

Shay and Jovie are the second and third guide dogs to come to Vernon. Garbo arrived in 2021.

You can learn more about the guide dogs program at

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Roger Knox

About the Author: Roger Knox

I am a journalist with more than 30 years of experience in the industry. I started my career in radio and have spent the last 21 years working with Black Press Media.
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