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SwissRidge Dogs for Kids

SwissRidgeForDogsLogo-largeI grew up with a very inspiring role model: my father. A loving and caring man, he left a successful career as an environmental engineer to move to Sudan. There, he worked in grueling and dangerous conditions to help the Sudanese people become more self-sufficient. A former farmer and environmental engineer, my dad worked the land alongside them, set up clean water basins and built latrines.

Long before that, however, my dad set a good example for me at home. When I was in college, he looked after my breeding dogs during the week so that I could continue to develop my business while getting an education. It was during my college years that I donated my first puppy to an organization called Canines with a Cause. That pup, Beau, was trained as a medical alert dog for a man in a wheelchair. She helped retrieve things for him, opened and closed doors, and let others know if anything was medically amiss with her owner.

I was stunned to see what a difference a dog could make in the life of someone with a disability. The unconditional love from a dog that many of us take for granted can be utterly transformative for people with disabilities. Someone who once felt isolated is no longer alone. Someone who felt judged now has a best friend and supporter. Someone who found every day a struggle has a reason to get up and carry on.

I think it is fair to say that Goldendoodles—my first love as a breeder—are particularly well suited to the service role. They have the intelligence of the Poodle combined with the sweet, obliging nature of the Golden Retriever—wrapped up in an allergy-friendly package. I have always bred very deliberately for calm, good-natured dogs, as well. Many of my dogs in pet homes have become excellent therapy dogs, even if they are not formally in service.

At any rate, Beau got me hooked! I went on to donate many pups to organizations and directly to individuals who could benefit from a dog’s support. Eventually, I decided that I could have the most impact by placing dogs with children who are dealing with challenges. My experience with a little girl named Gracie was pivotal in this decision. I have watched Gracie, who has autism, grow into a beautiful young lady. The pup I gave her, named Freedom, played a significant role in helping Gracie blossom. Gracie and Freedom led me to Autism Service Dogs—an excellent organization that I support again and again because I have seen the effect of their work in person.

I really want to do more. As my business grows, it makes sense to formalize my approach. The SwissRidge Facebook group has become a powerful force in fundraising. In fact, in just four years, we have raised nearly $70,000! I’ve been astounded and inspired by my clients’ generosity. Going forward, I’d like to harness that goodwill and direct it, where I can, toward specific objectives.

With that in mind, I announce SwissRidge Dogs for Kids. My overarching goal is simple: to make a difference in a child’s life, one dog at a time.

Every dollar we raise via the SwissRidge Facebook group or other activities will go into this fund and be allocated to children with special needs—by way of dogs, of course!

In 2015,  the money we raised went to Autism Dog Services. I donated a puppy to the organization and allowed them to match that pup with an appropriate child. Funds raised throughout the year paid for the specialized training that puppy needs to best serve its family.

Together with the SwissRidge family, we have raised funds through the sale of our annual SwissRidge dog calendar and through our annual Doodle Romp.

Each summer, I select with great care what I consider to be an absolutely perfect tri-colored Bernedoodle—the pup I would keep for myself—and donate it to the fundraising effort. This pup will go to the highest bidder. It will be an opportunity for people on the waiting list—or any other approved bidder—to leap to the front of the line and collect the “breeder’s choice.” I will reveal the selected puppy first on the SwissRidge Facebook group, with auction details. So please join the group, if you haven’t already.

Expanding my charitable outreach is another one of my cherished dreams coming true. I could not be more thrilled that my clients support this effort, and welcome any and all ideas for fundraising you may have. I know we can do some great work together.

2016 romp charity cheque: all proceeds go towards raising and training Ewok as a service and seizure alert dog for Sebastian.
2016 romp charity check: all proceeds go towards raising and training Ewok
as a service and seizure alert dog for Sebastian.
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2015 charity: Raised $29,000, which was donated to Autism Dog Services along with one of our lovely Goldendoodle pups. Thank you, Karley Gittens, for all your hard work.

How one family’s dream of a service dog came true
By Kara Melissa Sharp

I knew Sebastian needed a dog when he was two. He was recovering from pneumonia in hospital, and we hadn’t seen him smile in a week. Then the hospital therapy dog arrived and he beamed.

Four years later, I applied for a service dog for Sebastian, only to be heartbroken when he was turned down.

I’d spent months on the 15-page application for a dog trained in seizure assistance. But five minutes after the charity received my package, I got an email saying Sebastian didn’t qualify. Because Sebastian is dependent on others for everyday tasks, they said he was incapable of bonding with a dog.

I was appalled. How could they be so dismissive? Without even meeting Sebastian, or our family, they’d made a decision based on paperwork. Sebastian had already developed a great relationship with a therapy dog at his preschool, so I knew he could bond with a dog of his own. And he wanted one. He’d started to tell his teacher and classmates at senior kindergarten that he had a dog at home because he wished it so much.

I didn’t give up and extended my search to organizations throughout North America. I spoke to a few groups that have families fundraise to cover the cost of the dog and training. But the family also needs to cover travel costs for the trainer. Training alone can cost up to $30,000.

There were also organizations like the first charity we tried, where you apply and, if accepted, are put on a two-year wait list. Unfortunately, we didn’t qualify based on our location. I wasn’t sure what to do. I spoke to everyone—even my hairstylist!—to brainstorm ways to get a dog and cover the training.

Our search led us to a woman named Sherry at SwissRidge Kennels. Each year she donates a dog to a family in need and organizes a fundraiser to help pay for the dog’s training. Sherry breeds Goldendoodle and Bernedoodle puppies. I sent her a letter introducing ourselves and asked about that year’s fundraiser. I learned we were in the running! After a few emails back and forth, Sherry came for a visit. She even brought a few dogs to meet Sebastian. It was an exciting day for the whole family! After our meeting, Sherry decided that Sebastian would be a good fit for one of her puppies.

Sherry wanted to wait until the litters would be born in the spring to choose the right puppy for Sebastian. It was a long winter! When we returned from our trip to Australia in May, Sherry had a visit planned to bring along one of the other women who helps with the SwissRidge Doodle Romp charity, Karley. To our great surprise, when we opened the door we were greeted by Sherry, Karley, and a new Goldendoodle puppy!

Sebastian and this puppy immediately bonded. We were over the moon. There would still be a long wait with training ahead, but Sebastian had a service dog! Over the next two weeks, we went through every name we could think of before Sebastian chose Ewok.

Ewoks are a race of Star Wars creatures who look like furry teddy bears and have their own language. I used to call Sebastian my little Ewok when he was a baby because of the sounds that he makes (since he doesn’t use words like we do). I showed him a video of an Ewok and asked if he thought the puppy looked like it, and whether it would be a good name. He said yes!

Ewok currently lives with a family to do his imprint training, which is the basic house-training, obedience and socialization stuff. He’s started to work with the trainer and soon will live with him full-time for more intensive training to become a therapy and seizure alert dog. Once Ewok is ready, we’ll join in the training sessions twice a week. Then Ewok will come home with us, but we’ll continue to go back to SwissRidge for training as needed.

How does all of this get paid for? Through Sherry’s generosity and the community she has created with other SwissRidge dog owners, all of the funds have been raised to pay for Ewok’s training. In August, we attended the SwissRidge Doodle Romp, a reunion of sorts for other families that have SwissRidge dogs. While people drive from all over to meet and connect with other families and their SwissRidge dogs, they also come to donate. And donate they did.

This year the Doodle Romp raised over $25,000. We will not need to personally fundraise or contribute financially to Ewok’s care and training. We are so thankful to have been welcomed into this caring community. While at the romp, several photos were taken and one now hangs on Sebastian’s wall while he waits for Ewok to come home.

We’ve talked a lot with Sebastian and his sister, Tallula, about what having a service dog means. We have talked about how Ewok will be Sebastian’s dog. He will sleep in his room. He will go for walks with Sebastian and Sebastian will be in charge of feeding him and giving him water, with our help. We are even programming commands for Sebastian to say to Ewok using his eye gaze with the goal that the trainer will use clips to help Ewok become familiar with Sebastian’s “voice.”

We hope that Ewok will help break social barriers while we’re out. We also look forward to Sebastian feeling a bit of independence as it will be his job to care for Ewok. Most Toronto parks are not inviting to kids using wheelchairs. As Sebastian gets bigger, it is more difficult for him to be carried up and down the slides and sometimes even the inclusive swings are broken from misuse. Soon Sebastian will have an alternative. He can take Ewok to the dog park!

I grew up with dogs in our home. When I was 11, I even had the opportunity to choose and care for my own dog. Having a dog certainly adds responsibility and creates a life change. But for our family, for Sebastian, I can only see that as positive. Sebastian’s whole face lights up when we talk about Ewok. He loves telling friends and people he meets about his dog. We get video and photo updates every couple of weeks from the family he’s living with, and they’re often the highlight of Sebastian’s week. Sebastian asks questions to learn more about Ewok and what he’s learning, too.

Ewok will be trained to walk alongside Sebastian. He will nudge Sebastian’s head up when Sebastian is tired and his head control wavers. We hope he will be able to notify us if Sebastian is having a seizure during the night or otherwise needs us. He will provide Sebastian a companionship that he will find nowhere else. He will also provide Sebastian a sense of responsibility and independence. Having a dog will help others see that Sebastian is a kid—a kid who loves a dog and loves life.

We don’t have a home date for Ewok because his trainer wants to make sure Ewok is ready for us and we’re ready for him. But he’s already part of the family.

Follow Kara at Free as Trees.

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