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A major breakthrough

Since 1990, with guide dogs being made available to blind youngsters, a great step forward has been taken in the area of orientation, mobility, integration, organization of guide dog services and social inclusion.

Noël Champagne, psychologue

The youth

This program is for youngsters 11 and over. The qualifying youngster has a total visual disability, is in good physical condition, shows aptitude for interacting with the dog, moves around often and finds his or her bearings easily.

These youngsters must have the support of their parents in regard to their involvement with MIRA. The parents’ permission is essential and their involvement desireable.

The parents

The parents’ participation in the assistance-trained dog acquisition process is necessary. The younger the children are, the more the parents are involved. They are invited to meetings where they can get information and observe their child with the assistance-trained dog. Some parents stay on site in order to get a better understanding of the elements linked to the use of the dog and the organisation on a daily basis. The parents are a major asset in the program’s success. They are kept informed and are accompanied throughout the integration process of the child and his assistance-trained dog in his school or recreation environment.

The parents are also invited to participate in field sessions after the classes, accompanied by the trainer and the orientation and mobility specialist. These sessions become training and exchange opportunities for the child, his parents and the professionals. Thus, the parents’ role with regards to their child and the professional’s role are clearly defined.

The parents are primary partners throughout the whole process, from the beginning to the course’s follow-up. They are in close contact with the child on a daily basis and can intervene when it is required, regardless of the child’s activities. Their actions allow for the pursuit of the orientation and mobility objectives of the child assisted by the dog. The parents broaden their knowledge of children behaviour and positively influence their child’s development. They often make up for the absence of resources and act to protect the children’s rights.

Youth developpement

It is thrilling and fascinating to watch the kids going through the changes of adolescence. Both physical and social maturation processes must be taken into consideration. We have to think about the future development of the youngsters when we assign them a dog and when they begin using the dog, considering size, weight, how fast they like to walk at the time when they get the dog, and so on.

In the experience of the MIRA Foundation, there are no differences that emerge between boys and girls. Some obvious observations, or truisms, emerge…”girls are better learners than boys,” “girls are more responsible than boys;” “boys are more rambunctious than girls.”

It would be rather random to attempt to establish a difference between blind boys and girls in this age group. In our opinion, unsighted youngsters resemble the sighted population for this age group. Moreover, while the average age of the youngsters is 14, this does not mean that this is the ideal age to acquire a guide dog.

It is important to emphasize the major contribution that a guide dog makes to a youngsters’ social development. As one of the parents bluntly stated, “It’s easier to hook up when you have a guide dog.” Guide dogs help the kids to interact socially and avoid isolation. Finally, the dog’s contribution to the youngsters’ emotional life appears to be important, but this remains to be demonstrated conclusively.

Sense of space

How space is represented in a blind person’s mind is a neuralgic matter. On the one hand, we must ask ourselves what sort of image blind persons have of the space around them. How do they visualize a crossroads with traffic lights? How do blind people use the vision that they once had?

Detection of the absence of an inner visualization of space and indicators remains to be established and improved upon through testing and by observing blind individuals in a controlled orientation and mobility situation. Detection of the absence of an inner visualization of space and indicators remains to be established and improved upon through testing and by observing blind individuals in a controlled orientation and mobility situation. Following the example of devices designed to measure development in blind children, the tools used to evaluate spatial representation in blind youngsters, using intelligence tests, are of dubious value. Validation testing on these devices dates back to another age, and the methodology for developing these materials was largely based on tests for sighted individuals. As an example, these tests were validated at a time when the population of so-called “blind from birth” individuals was high.

In 2000, the population of youngsters "born blind" is in freefall, due to numerous medical discoveries. For Quebec, the estimate could be 10 bind children aged 0 to 4 per 7,000,000 inhabitants. These children are affected with total blindness at an early age. This blindness is caused by a cancer of the visual apparatus. In this regard, psychophysiology and neuropsychology should contribute to gaining a better understanding of the phenomenon.

Individual adaptation strategies developed by blind youngsters to orient themselves and visualize space are amazing. Nonetheless, during the guide-dog acquisition process we want to be able to detect, measure and determine any inability the kids have to orient themselves in space.

The use of a guide dog by a youngster or an adult with non-existent spatial representation functions is a high-risk, hazardous situation. Dogs are social animals who soon discover that there’s nothing easier than to gently drift across the street to sniff another dog.

Orientation and mobility specialists

Two trainers, an orientation and mobility specialist, and a psychologist are required for one class of six youngsters. Coordination and maintenance personel complete the human resources.

Sélection and evaluation process

The referral, selection and evaluation of youngsters take place in many different ways. As an example, the first four youngsters in the class of 1991 were selected on the basis of their participation in the 1990 research program.

As a general rule, referrals come from rehabilitation centres or from the parents themselves. Once the request has been completed, the youngsters undergo functional evaluation on the grounds of the guide-dog training centre and in surrounding traffic areas. The decision to accept a youngster into the program is a group decision made by the trainer, the orientation and mobility specialist, the referral specialist, the youngster and the youngster’s parents. Some youngsters have taken part in trial sessions lasting one week during which they were able to try out guide dogs and take part in orientation and mobility training sessions.

Subsequently, an intervention plan is drawn up to prepare the youngsters to join a class once that is already under way, once they have assimilated the lessons of these sessions.

Information on class training experience

The youth class, like the adult program, lasts 30 days. The youngsters are housed on site. Average class size is six.

The training sessions on dog use and orientation are held between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., with breaks for meals. Class activities can be individual or group activities.

Youngsters benefit from about three hours of direct intervention per day. The class follows a learning sequence that begins with the simplest tasks, then progresses gradually to the most complex. During the four weeks of their stay, the youngsters get to know their animal and learn to interact with it. Gradually, they assimilate the skills needed to work with a dog and orient themselves in a regulated outdoor environment, such as the downtown area of a densely populated city with significant automobile traffic. We use a fun and playful learning strategy.

Our objective is not to make the youngsters into obedient little angels, nor do we attempt to reproduce the sort of context they are used to finding at school. The staff must constantly keep in mind that these youngsters are teenagers.

Kids want to laugh and have fun, and they learn better in this sort of a climate. Finally, class activities take place in the field. In this sense, learning is not passive. Rather, the kids are placed in real-lilfe situations in which they must make decisions and take action.

After the class, the youth, the dog and the others

When the class is over, with their guide dogs in tow, the kids return to their daily activities—family activities, orientation and mobility work, and school. The youngsters are the sole users of their guide dogs; they have worked very hard to earn this right. Immediately following the class, the training staff monitor and provide guidance to the kids as they put what they’ve learned in class into practice. Subsequently, follow-up can be according to a regular schedule or as needed.

Something that eventually becomes very challenging for the youngsters and service providers is the behaviour of well-meaning individuals. As Jean-Paul Sartre stated, “Hell is other people.” “Other people” are drawn to the guide dog, and blind youngsters must constantly tell these other people that they need to control the dog themselves. The dos and don’ts of behaviour towards a working guide dog must be repeated constantly. For example, Tony reports back to us that he doesn’t know what to do about an elderly lady who won’t stop giving bits of bread to the pretty little doggie. Authority figures (instructors, teachers, and so on) also want to get involved in handling the dog. They give youngsters advice on how to behave with their dogs, or make comments on the relationship between the youngsters and their dogs.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, a guide dog is to be used solely in the service of its person—in this case, a young person—and that person is the only person qualified to be involved in this relationship. Well-meaning bystanders, who latch onto the idea that blind youngsters need their advice on how to deal with their dogs and won’t let go—like a dog with a bone!—and who thus interfere with a relationship about which they know little or nothing, are actually adding to the youngsters’ troubles, not relieving them. The dog attracts and may inevitably distract other people from their objectives or from the true nature of their relationship with the youngster.

Experience confirms that proper selection, evaluation, and assignment of a guide dog, coupled with monitoring of the youngster after the class, are an investment in success. If a youngster is clearly diagnosed with total blindness, with no related disabilities and no pathological complications, and if that youngster enjoys a sweet dog, good parents, a harmonious family life, a good trainer, a good orientation and mobility specialist who is familiar with the youngster and with the rules of working with dogs, good teachers, a school that makes the youngster and his or her dog feel at home, good friends, an understanding and cooperative public, free of allergies to dogs and fear of dogs, and, finally, if the youngster lives in a place where all appropriate resources, including money, are available, the results will be positive.

Apply for a guide dog

So that your child can participate in the program, you must fill out and return to the foundation the Guide Dog Application Form.

To the form, you must attach your child’s medical report, a report from an ophthalmologist or optometrist, and an orientation and mobility report.

Once we receive the requested documents, you will be invited to participate in an evaluation period of 24 to 48 hours.

The evaluation period will give you the opportunity to get information on all the aspects involved in the use of a guide-dog. Among other things, the evaluation enables the MIRA personnel to assess the orientation and mobility capabilities of your child. Once the evaluation is completed, you will be informed of our recommendations and of the planned dates for the course. In fact, we establish a "pre-dog" plan of action.

The "pre-dog" plan of action includes the implementation of various activities in relation with orientation and mobility. For more information, download the following document from Hélène Guérette, Orientation and Mobility Specialist at the Institut Nazareth et Louis-Braille. PDF version of the document available in french, without pictures : Entraînement en orientation mobilité.

You can also obtain a video from the Institut Nazareth et Louis-Braille : "Une approche d’enseignement de l’orientation mobilité pour les déplacements avec le chien-guide", by Hélène Guérette and Carole Zabihaylo.

To apply for a guide dog, print and fill out the Guide Dog Application Form. Send it via email at or mail it to Johanne Hallé, Director of Services, Mira Foundation, 1820 Rand Nord Ouest, Ste-Madeleine, Quebec, J0H 1S0.

Click here to download the Guide Dog Application Form (PDF).

Click here to download the Guide Dog Application Form (Word 97+). (Please right-click on the link in order to save the document on your computer.)


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