Howie

A guiding light for eight years

Howie is retiring as Lynn Jensen’s guide dog – but she’s not letting him go.

Lynn Jensen likes to say that Howie is a typical male – he’s very dependent and his whole world falls apart without a woman around.

The truth is, the two rely on each other.

Howie doesn’t like to be left alone and Jensen has had an “incredible” guide dog for the last eight years.

“Loyal is an understatement,” she says. “This dog follows me everywhere.”

Jensen, who is blind, relies on Howie for two daily 90-minute commutes by West Coast Express, bus and SkyTrain, from Port Moody to her office in Vancouver.

Jensen he works as a rehabilitation teacher at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).

Howie is constantly at her side and has given her the independence to make work-related trips to Toronto, Chicago and Vancouver Island.

“If Howie had an odometer, it would be interesting to see what it would read,” she says.

Counting Canada, they’ve been to eight countries, including six vacations in Mexico – where both kayaked – and had a five-country tour of Europe in 2011.

“I would not be doing it if I didn’t have Howie.”

Photo: Lynn Jensen (left) and with Howie and her sister Lora on a tandem kayak in Melaque, Mexico, in 2008.

He’s been a fixture at Jensen’s work, too. In the past, a few former clients have phoned asking for Jensen, but couldn’t remember her name. They did, however, recall Howie.

“Hey stinker, I’m talking about you, aren’t I?,” she playfully asks Howie, who perks up from a nap in his cot on the floor of her office.

Howie, named for guide dogs supporter and hockey personality Howie Meeker, was raised in the North Delta home of Kristen and Scott Hamilton (Scott is the riding’s MLA).

The volunteer foster family continues to raise puppies for the Ladner-based BC and Alberta Guide Dogs (BCAGD), which trains dogs to assist the visually impaired (or depending on the training, those with autism).

At eight weeks old, puppies are placed with volunteer foster families who teach them basic obedience and socialization skills. At that time, they simply wear a puppy vest in public.

At about 15 months of age, the dogs are then given formal training by the BCAGD, in harnesses, as guide dogs to assist the blind – a process of another five to eight months.

They’re then placed with an applicant, where there’s further training as the two get to know each other.

Howie helps Jensen to get around, and at work, she uses a laptop with voice-output software to exchange emails and blog on the CNIB website, and also has an iPhone with customized controls. (While using it, she leaves the screen off to save power).

“There’s no reason you can’t do something. You just do it a different way,” Jensen says, smitten with the technology.

“I worked with a rehabilitation teacher at CNIB for a number of years and learned how to function independently and that’s the role that I have now. I do the same for clients who have experienced a vision loss.”

She teaches independent living skills that include cooking, cleaning, identifying clothes and handling money – “anything within the four walls of the home.”

To learn to get around, she worked with an orientation and mobility instructor before getting her first guide dog, Howie’s predecessor, a yellow lab named Mae.

Applicants for guide dogs must first be able to travel safely and independently using a white cane.

Jensen says the getting around outside with a cane and a dog are completely different experiences. Canes are made to feel for obstacles, while dogs are trained to avoid obstacles and to keep a straight line.

Photo: Howie in Norway in 2011.

Jensen relies heavily on her ears to tell her when it’s safe to cross a street.  She listens carefully to the surges of traffic and other auditory clues.

“When I cross the street, I have to tell Howie when it’s safe to cross.”

She adds: “Dogs are colour blind. A lot of people think the dog tells me when the light turns green, but that’s not true.”

On the street, Jensen is always offered assistance. She usually politely says no, but gets frustrated when otherwise well-intentioned people grab her without warning.

She is put off by sudden changes of direction, which can upset her balance.

Another change of direction is coming with her guide dog.

Howie turned 10 last October and is about to retire from active guiding.

On Feb. 17, Jensen will get her third dog, a 21-month old black Labrador-retriever cross just like Howie.

Howie will stick around for a while for Jensen’s commutes during the transition.

There’s no doubt he’ll remain her pet.

“I do get first choice,” Jensen says, adding she’s got people at home who are able to look after him when she’s at work.

“If he had to stay by himself, I wouldn’t be able to keep him.”

Jensen lives with her twin sister and her sister’s husband and young twin daughters.

Howie often comes to the door with a stuffed animal, “Mr. Beaver,” in his mouth.

(He’s got a duplicate Mr. Beaver in the office, too.)

Photo: Howie introduced himself to The Leader at the age of two in 2008.

“My house looks like a daycare, between Howie’s toys and the girls’ toys,” Jensen admits.

Jensen is aware of the changes coming with an new dog and the mutual dependence between her and Howie.

But she’s grateful to the BCAGD for their work in assisting the blind and optimistic about her new dog Misty.

“She’ll wiggle her way into my heart.”

The BC and Alberta Guide Dogs need assistance. People can make a donation, sponsor a puppy, pay tribute to a loved one, leave a legacy, support an event or volunteer. For more information, visit http://bcandalbertaguidedogs.com/

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind is a  voluntary, non-profit rehabilitation agency that provides services for people who are blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind. For more information, visit http://www.cnib.ca

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