Six months in, Kaya Berg and guide dog, Irene, are still learning to work together as a team. (Special to The Star)

Six months in, Kaya Berg and guide dog, Irene, are still learning to work together as a team. (Special to The Star)

Guide dog gives teen her independence

Kaya Berg and four-legged companion, Irene, together six months, are learning to navigate as a team

by Jim McGregor/Special to Aldergrove Star

Aldergrove resident Kaya Berg and her guide dog, Irene, recently graduated from CNIB Foundation’s intensive guide dog training program.

Now, the duo is prepared to take on the world, together.

The pair are one of 21 graduating partnerships in the CNIB guide dogs program’s class of 2022. CNIB is a non-profit organization assisting Canadians who are blind, have vision loss, or are partially sighted with mobility.

Berg, 18, was born with corneal dystrophy and is considered partially sighted. She chose to seek the assistance of a guide dog after watching a YouTube video showing how valuable guide dogs are.

“I’m visually impaired and I could see where a guide dog would be very helpful in my life so I started looking into the process,” Berg, a dog lover herself, explained.

Whether it’s avoiding obstacles, stopping at curbs and steps, or negotiating traffic, these guide dogs foster independence for people living with sight loss.

In these partnerships, the handlers provide directional commands, and the dogs ensure the teams’ safety.

Berg applied to the CNIB guide dog program and was soon put in touch with their assessment program.

“They looked at my living situation, my yard situation, and the routes I would be taking and how fast I walked. We discussed my future life plans and I was contacted soon after and they said they had a dog for me that would match my needs and my preferences for breed.”

Irene is a female black Labrador-golden retriever cross, a dog that is very compatible to guide dog training.

The training takes about 18 months and then the prospective handlers come to Toronto, where they take part in a thorough 10 day course.

Berg points out that the dog is already trained.

“This course is training us how to work with the dog, let it get used to our voice and how to give commands. We learned walking together and how to take public transit. We are also taught Canada’s guide dog laws, nutrition, and some vet care.”

Diane Bergeron, president of CNIB Guide Dogs and a guide dog handler for 38 years, said CNIB now has more than 150 dogs in the program.

“The other dogs in the program are still being raised and trained. While it is everyone’s hope that our pups in training will become guide dogs, the reality is not all dogs are meant to be guide dogs,” Bergeron said.

“Just like people, dogs have different aptitudes and they’re destined for different careers. The matching of dog to handler is important and once the two click, it is like magic.”

RELATED: Dogs trained to comfort nervous people, help kids get COVID-19 vaccines

An instructor accompanied Berg and Irene on the flight home, to get them settled into the new routines and streets of Aldergrove.

“The instructor stayed nearby for a couple of days, and we went on a few walks to get Irene used to the area and then the instructor returned to Toronto.”

After six months, Berg and Irene are doing well but still learning.

“Irene has a stubborn streak, but you have to remember she is still a toddler,” Berg said.

“But, she is a good listener and she keeps me safe. My confidence has grown now when I’m out. We continue to work on things and figure them out as a team.”

CNIB provides ongoing support to the handlers, and Berg knows they are only a call away.

“They are great at being available. I can text the instructors and they are very fast getting back. Or, I can use the 24-hour number and call them. I have a vet in Abbotsford and they can contact them, as well.”

Berg said her life has improved since getting Irene.

“I am better physically and mentally. As well as being a guide dog, she is my companion and it’s nice to have someone beside me all the time now.”

At a ceremony in late April, Berg and Irene were among those who graduated.

At that same ceremony, five buddy dog partnerships also graduated. Buddy dogs are partnered with a child who is living with sight loss.

Since launching in 2017 with just two puppies and two staff members working from home, CNIB’s guide dog program has grown.

In that time they have raised, trained, and matched 77 dogs in communities across Canada, including 52 guide dogs, and 19 buddy dogs, Bergeron explained.

Thanks to public donations, CNIB guide dogs can train and partner people with a guide dog at no cost. For more info., people can visit: cnibguidedogs.ca.

RELATED: B.C. pledges $740,000 to help bolster deafblind community

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Irene, a guide dog that has been partnered with Aldergrove’s Kaya Berg, recently graduated from her training. (Special to The Star)

Irene, a guide dog that has been partnered with Aldergrove’s Kaya Berg, recently graduated from her training. (Special to The Star)

Six months in, Kaya Berg and guide dog, Irene, are still learning to work together as a team. (Special to The Star)

Six months in, Kaya Berg and guide dog, Irene, are still learning to work together as a team. (Special to The Star)

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