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Blind B.C. Paralympian and super-sniffing pooch prep to find missing people

Jessica Tuomela, partnering with trained canine Lucy, aims to keep vulnerable Canadians safe
Jessica Tuomela, right with current guide dog Brandy, will be joined in a professional capacity next month by Lucy the golden retriever. The duo will assist in locating missing people from vulnerable populations. (Courtesy of Jessica Tuomela)

B.C. Paralympian Jessica Tuomela has spent the past year working with dog specialists in scent-tracking to eventually receive Lucy, a golden retriever guide dog trained to help find missing and vulnerable people.

Once she and Lucy are paired in February and undergo further training together, the Victoria area resident plans to travel throughout the province with her new companion upon request to assist in search and rescue operations.

The three-time swimming and triathlon Paralympian, rendered blind following a retinoblastoma diagnosis at age three, said she is especially keen to partner with provincial organizations representing people with autism and dementia.

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“(Lucy’s) not going to keep people from wandering, but when they do wander, she’s there and will alleviate some of the stress that the family are feeling,” Tuomela said.

Training tracking dogs as local resources for Indigenous communities in the B.C. Interior, where women and girls are at a disproportionately greater risk of going missing, is another area Tuomela is looking into.

“They’ll have a resource living in the area, as opposed to (K9 search and rescue teams) taking five hours to get there,” she said.

Lucy and Tuomela will become a duo when the skilled pooch arrives from the U.S. in February.

Tuomela’s interest in K9 search and rescue training was peaked working with her current guide dog, Brandy, she said. Tuomela contacted dog trainers across Victoria, B.C. and Canada looking for someone willing to teach her to train animals for scent trailing, but no one was able to take her on due to her blindness, she said.

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“Paul (Coley) was the person who said ‘yes,’” Tuomela said.

Coley, a retired FBI agent, runs a dog training centre out of Tallahassee, Fla. He has worn a blindfold while training Lucy, Tuomela said, to better understand the challenges she’d come up against in her own training endeavours. After arriving to Victoria, Coley will provide Tuomela with a few weeks of training on handling and directing Lucy in person.

“I’ll need a handler to run with me (through a training course), but I’m still the dog’s primary handler. It’s very much a partnership … if you can’t see what the dog is doing, you really do have to trust the dog,” she said, noting that isn’t difficult given her background.

Balancing athletics, work and animal training is a tricky balance, the Paralympian added. She’s currently training to run the triathlon in the 2022 Commonwealth Games in England, and works part-time at Homewood Ravensview mental health and addictions centre in North Saanich.

“Thankfully, I’m still a triathlete. So I think I’ll be able to keep up with (Lucy).”

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