He is fuzzy, likes a cuddle, and wears a red vest to work. Neither cat nor squirrel can distract him from his job.
His name is Abel, and he works as an autism assistance dog for Reid, an eight year-old student at Adam Beck Junior Public School.
Last Tuesday, all Reid’s schoolmates gathered in the gym of the Upper Beach school to hear about his remarkable dog, who was trained and matched with Reid by the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.
“They did such a great job, because the two of them are a perfect pair,” said Jen Charron, Reid’s mother.
Charron told the school that it took six months to train Abel, and 10 days for her to learn all his commands at the Dog Guides’ centre in Oakville.
“The puppies they pick for this program have to be really calm, special dogs,” she said.
Ian Ashworth, the Dog Guides’ program director, said the charity trains about 160 dogs a year.
The dogs are trained for one of six jobs, from helping people who are blind, deaf or disabled to sensing seizures in people with epilepsy or sniffing out low blood-sugar in people with diabetes.
The dogs can also be trained to help calm children who have autism, and to keep them safe.
“You might feel very scared of loud noises or get very worried in shopping malls and other busy situations,” Ashworth explained to the students.
Just by standing close by or snugging in bed, a guide dog can ease those children’s stress and improve their sleep.
Ashworth said some children with autism like to run, and they don’t always stop at a road to see if a car is coming.
In that case, the child can wear a belt attached to the guide dog’s harness, and the dog knows to hold its ground in order to keep them out of harm’s way.
Before he finished, Ashworth gave Adam Beck students three rules to keep in mind when they see a guide dog at work.
Don’t call the dog’s name, don’t pet the dog, and don’t feed it, said Ashworth — even the dogs with “big, beautiful brown eyes that say, ‘Please give me a cookie.'”
The Lions Foundation is a national charity, and it places dog guides at no charge. But training a dog like Abel costs about $25,000.
The biggest fundraiser for the Dog Guides program is the annual Purina Walk for Dog Guides, which in the Beach will start at 11 a.m. on May 31 along the Woodbine Beach boardwalk.
Reid said he and his family did the walk last year, but this year will be their first time with Abel.
Reid answered several of his schoolmates’ questions about Abel, including how old he is (a year and a half), and how much he likes to lick hello (a lot, mostly on the face).
“He’s like my best bud — he’s always by my side,” Reid said at the end of the assembly.
“I just love him.”
The whole school cheered.