It’s silent in the Jack Singer concert hall as the conductor raises his baton to get the orchestra’s attention and then the rehearsal begins. The majority of the seats are empty but sprinkled throughout are volunteer handlers and 21 guide dogs in training.
“This is fantastic for the CPO to invite us to their rehearsal,” says Sandra Cramer, puppy-raising supervisor for BC and Alberta Guide Dogs.
“One of the biggest things that we need to do in the puppy program is socialize our dogs to lots of different situations and so that’s what this is.
“The dogs can see something new and (handlers) have the freedom that if their puppy is struggling a little bit, they can go and take a break and not feel like they’re interrupting a main concert.”
Cramer says volunteers get their puppies when they’re close to eight weeks old and live with them full-time.
They’ve finished the job when the dog reaches about 16 months old, when it goes into advanced training.
“Our success rate is about 60 to 70 per cent,” she says.
“We have three different streams that we graduate our dogs from. We have guide dogs for the visually impaired, autism service dogs for kids with autism and PTSD, OSI service dogs for veterans and first responders.”
Marc Stevens, president and CEO of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, says there may be some distracted musicians with all the dogs in the audience for the morning rehearsal.
“In all of our concerts, we see folks using service dogs to come into those concerts,” Stevens says.
“Of course, those dogs have to have some training at some point and we love partnering with all sorts of people locally and in this case, it’s the BC and Alberta Guide Dogs who bring their service and guide dogs in when they’re a lot younger and get them used to the darkness, the noise, the different people and so on.”
Lyle and Sandy Dietrich started volunteering in 2014 and Skipper is their fifth dog.
“Puppy distraction is a huge thing with the pups,” Lyle Dietrich says.
“They have to be able to work through that and not be distracted when there’s so many pups and so many other things in the world that can distract them.”
Gigi is Sarah Wilson’s second puppy in training.
She says the puppies wear vests to identify them as service dogs and while they live together, it’s not the same as having a pet.
“The thing for me that’s fascinating is how do you get a young Labrador to settle in different environments,” she says.
“We train, we train, we practise, we practise from eight weeks on.”
While it’s a training session for the young dogs, they’re well-behaved with only the odd bark.
Many dogs lie down between the seats or in the aisle and that’s just what their handlers want to see.
“I’m also interested to see how the guide dogs rate the different pieces,” Stevens says.
“We’re doing Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, and Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto with brilliant Roman Rabinovich and I’d like to get a poll from the dogs afterwards as to which they prefer.”
Lyle Dietrich says Skipper is doing well in the session and isn’t too distracted by other dogs or the loud live performance on stage.
Their time is nearing an end.
Skipper is 19 months old and will soon head to advanced training.
That won’t be easy on the couple.
“They live with you 24/7,” he says.
“You’ve taught them everything they need to know to move on. Yeah, it’s tough. Your heart gets broken, but it’s so rewarding.”
You can learn more about BC and Alberta Guide Dogs at bcandalbertaguidedogs.com/volunteer/raise-a-puppy/.
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