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'She gives me autonomy': Quebec foundation raises loyal, loving service dogs for range of disabilities


For over 40 years, Quebec's Mira Foundation has provided service dogs free of charge to those who face physical and mental challenges.

The non-profit has even developed its own breed of dog for the job: the "Labernese," a mix of the Labrador Retriever and the Bernese Mountain dog.

"The breed is really good because we take the good qualities from both sides," says senior trainer Karen Winter. "The Labrador Retriever is highly motivated, yet it's a strong worker and very loving. You take the Bernese Mountain Dog, who is extremely intelligent and extremely loyal, and you have a wonderful working dog."

Frederic Gauthier says his bond with his Labernese Manille is strong.

It has to be since Gauthier is blind and relies on Manille to get around safely.

"If I didn't have her, I would have to use a white cane, and I wouldn't be able to get around as easily as I do with Manille," he says.

Gauthier is one of thousands whose lives have been changed thanks to the hundreds of hours of training that goes into each service dog.

Once they are nine weeks old, the Mira puppies go to foster families for socialization. At one year old, they are assessed to see if they have what it takes to be a service dog.

Winter says they're especially looking at "their activity levels, their attraction towards other animals, food, any fears they have, any dominance."

If they don't meet the criteria, they are adopted out to loving homes. If they do meet the challenge, they get to work.

The first step is learning that when the harness is on, they're on the job. Mira trains dogs for three different programs, helping those who are blind, those who have reduced mobility and children on the autism spectrum.

The dogs are put through their paces, learning how to walk, climb stairs, pull wheelchairs and retrieve dropped items.

They also have to learn how to tune out distractions. Winter says it's very important that when people encounter a dog wearing a harness, they should not attempt to pet it or distract it from its job.

The recipients receive the dog free of charge, along with training, which includes learning the French commands for sit, stay, heel and go.

The cost to train each guide dog is $35,000. The foundation, which runs entirely on private donations, would like to be able to train many more.

"The goal for 2024 is to put out 100 dogs which would make 100 people very happy," says Winter.

People like Gauthier, who says Manille is much more than his guide.

"She gives me autonomy in my life," he says. "She is affectionate and loving. She has a lot of energy and likes to spend it." Top Stories

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