Thursday May 09, 2024

Filling the Gap - Leash of Hope Assistance Dogs

It's a long process, and it's not cheap. We chat with the founders of Leash of Hope Assistance Dogs who are doing everything possible to meet the demand for service dogs to help the world become more accessible for people with disabilities.


Filling the Gap - Leash of Hope Assistance Dogs



We are back with DDA's Encouraging Abilities podcast, where we talk about all things related to disabilities. I'm your host, DDA Communications Manager, Evan Kelly. Today we are joined by Danielle Main and Tessa Schmidt, who are founded Leash of Hope Assistance Dogs. I've wanted to talk to them for a little while now. That of course sums up what that is. We're talking about doggos. We're big fans of dogs here at DDA and anything that makes things more accessible for people with physical or developmental disabilities.



Thank you for joining me today. My pleasure. Thank you. All righty. So Danielle, tell me a little bit about yourself. So as mentioned, I'm one of the co-founders of Leash of Hope. One of the things that we're very proud about, and I'm very proud about is the fact that our organization is run by two women that both have disabilities. I am low vision blind with optic nerve dysplasia.



And amongst running Leash of Hope, I'm also a full-time registered massage therapist and train as a competitive rower. So, oh, wow. That's a that's a lot of physicality going on. Yeah. And Tessa, what about yourself? I. I have a special career, and my main role in Leash of Hope is to train the dogs and the clients.



And alongside of that, I work with children as a BI. Oh, okay. That's interesting. So did you both found Leash of Hope Assistance Dogs? Or is this mainly your thing, Danielle? We both found it together. So when Tess and I came together, we both had...



very complimentary skill sets. And we noticed that there was a need within the industry and the community of people with disabilities that we felt like with our unique skill sets that we could kind of bridge a gap and fill. So the two of us together, me having more business background and my background with dogs was, more dogs with like behavioral issues. And then Tessa having a more formal background education and...



service dogs and dog training. We felt like our skills were very complimentary to be able to start something from the ground up. So what is your background with dogs?



So my, oh sorry, go ahead. No, Danny, I think that was in the... Oh, I'm so sure. So my background with dogs, first and foremost my education was doing equine sports massage, which led into extracurricular education in canine massage, and from there I spent some time working in vet clinics and then as well as



working in a grooming salon as a grooming assistant, as well as being a professional border for dogs, especially dogs with behavioral or medical needs. So that was my background with dogs before starting Le Chappot. And what about you, Tessa? I apprenticed under several service dog trainers.



that works with multiple different organizations and have learned a lot through hands-on and working with the Balanceable Canine Program as well. Wow, that's interesting. Now, Danielle, equine massage, canine massage, is that... I mean, equine massage, I've got friends who get involved in horses, so I understand sort of the need for that, but I've never heard of canine massage before. Is that a thing that people... Like,



look for that kind of a service? The main reason why I would get requests for that type of service would be anything from like dogs that were in some kind of sport, same as kind of with people, same as with horses. And, you know, the dogs might have very physical sport needs of whether it's dogs that are doing like agility or barn hunt or any kind of like,



canny cross and so just like people end up developing aches and pains and imbalances and then I'd also work on a lot of like steamer dogs with aches and pains and imbalances so Interesting So you you started Leash of Hope because you saw a need tell me tell me about that in you know I'm not someone who identifies with a disability so I Wouldn't recognize the need for a service animal or a service dog what?



What are the barriers that people are facing in order to access this type of service?



Um, so I would say that the biggest barrier would be availability, especially for properly trained dogs and the most evident way that that can be seen is the amount of people that are trying to self evaluate the necessity for dog and then train on their own because they don't feel like the resources are available for them to get.



professionally trained service dog. And if you look at, especially when we founded the organization, what was available at that time, it was very minimal, especially within BC. And so because of that, Tessa and I, both being people that were very active, that had unique needs, recognized that there was kind of a lot of gaps within services that are being provided, mostly because



of how long wait lists are for some of the bigger programs or how much people were having to go out of province to acquire a properly trained dog. And then the alternative to being people trying to, like as a lay person, raise and train their own dog and self-evaluate if it's appropriate didn't seem like the best option either. So we decided to go into this venture trying to fill that gap.



For someone like me, I'm quite ignorant about this process. Now we're talking about service dogs. Is that the same thing as a seeing eye dog?



Um, it falls under the umbrella of an assistance dog. Service dogs are considered generally like different as a seeing eye dogs specifically, um, or, or guide dogs specifically see seeing eye dogs or there's actually a school. Uh, so a guide dog specifically is a dog that's meant to guide and navigate, uh, someone with sight loss through a rigid handle often, or some form of handle.



But they all kind of fall under the umbrella of an assistant or a working dog. So what about the animals that you two train? What are they designed to do essentially?



We have three categories of dogs. So we have three divisions within Leisure of Hope. One is the guide dog division for people like myself who are low vision or blind. We have mobility dogs under a mobility division. And those are dogs that are trained to provide assistance to someone who has mobility challenges. Maybe they're wheelchair users. Maybe they're able to walk.



with an aid or they need walking support, people to walk, to ambulate properly and comfortably. And those dogs are tasked trying to often to do things like press buttons and pick things up, take off coats and socks. Yeah. And then the last division is our medical alert division. And those are dogs that are trained for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, may have other forms of invisible disabilities like PTSD, autism.



And the dogs are trained to do things like alert to when it's time to take medication or turn lights on, you know, sometimes even pull blankets off of kids and going, come on, we've got to get you a bed or find an exit if someone's in a state of distress because of the environment they're in. So all three divisions have very different specific tasks that they do for their handlers. Now, now Tessa, I would imagine.



given that there are three categories of training, there's gotta be three different approaches to training. Now, would you, like, say you select a dog. I'm gonna get to that selection process in a minute or two, but if you select a dog, is it, it's then trained specifically for one category, or can you train a dog for all categories? We do, that is a specialty of our program. We do cross train our dogs.



but they're all trained to a baseline of tasks. And then once they are matched with the client, the individual, then we finalize the training and put in more specific training if required to the individual. Now, how do you go through the selection process for an animal or a dog rather? Like how do you decide, this one's gonna be really good, let's train him, this one not so good, we'll...



find them a family or something like that. Where's that selection process?



So we do a lot of testing throughout the dog's entire time in the program during their in training period. We have our assessment upon intake and then monthly assessments after that where we where we go a little bit they're inclined to work still that they are are wanting



can be in this field.



And do you get into the training process and then discover that maybe this, you know, one particular dog isn't a good fit and then you sort of got to start over again? Yes, sometimes that does happen. Okay, so that and where like, where do you where do you get the dogs? Are there specific breeders that that sort of target your industry?



We do work with a few selective leaders. The majority of our dogs are actually rescuer dogs. Oh really? Yes. So you're sort of solving a couple of problems, not just assistance dogs, you're giving these dogs purpose and a home essentially? Correct, correct, yes. And we rescue dogs from all over North America. Oh wow.



What about Mexico? There's lots of good dogs down there getting rescued.



Um, Danielle, I think we definitely do have dogs from, from, uh, Mexico test is prompting me because of the original leash of hope dog was my guide dog, Pedro, uh, who came to me with that name as a street stray puppy from Mexico. And, um, one of the things that's neat about that is, is, you know, our motto is we provide hope at both ends of the leash for that exact reason. Cause we, we, you know, fulfill that purpose, but that's part of why we do such extensive testing and we work with our network.



to pull dogs in. And if nothing else, if we pull it, we rescue a dog or young puppy, and it can't work for a program. If nothing else, it's probably has a pretty decent temperament to be to have caught the attention of, you know, someone in our team, and it'll still make a great family dog, you know, a good member of society. And so it does, you know, double duty in, in doing a good thing, whether it helps our program or not.



Now, on that note, are there specific breeds that make better assistance dogs or better guide dogs? Because I noticed I've bumped into you both at our leisure fair, and it's not what I would have said as typical assistance dogs. They were like, you know, like some other kind of breed. So, yeah, I could just speak to that a bit. That's where the rescuing comes in, because we are a small enough organization that through all of that testing that we do.



We often end up with dogs that maybe wouldn't typically be working. And that's the nice thing, because we really test and look at the dog's individual temperament. We do end up staying away from certain breeds as far as ensuring that we meet municipal bylaw concerns, because there's lots of places, unfortunately, that there are breed restrictions.



Um, and in that too, you know, we, we do acknowledge that there's sometimes, um, inherently some problems if you're wanting to train a dog that, uh, might have a reputation for, for aggression. And some of that can be true. And then some of it also may not is really comes out to individual dog, but we recognize that that becomes a factor regardless. And so because of that, we do.



end up avoiding certain breeds and then otherwise the dogs that we look for have to be really solid in their temperament. They also have to be a certain size so that they're safe walking around in public especially in crowds and they have to be work-driven as Tess have pointed out and they have to not be protective in case you know something ever happened to a handler they need to approach someone or someone approaches them. So there's all of these things that we look for.



that aren't necessarily breed specific. And that also helps us because there's lots of people with different lifestyle needs and different breeds can fit those better for individual people. So my love for Chihuahuas means I'm never going to get a Chihuahua assistance dog. Probably not. But aside from that, too, part of what makes an assistance dog is that there has to actually be a need for someone to have one in public.



So besides for the Chihuahua thing, if an individual, as much as every people like dogs and they want to have a dog with them, there actually has to be a medical necessity that the dog is providing a purpose to help them to be in public. Yeah, of course. So I would think something like a lab or like a black lab or a yellow lab, those would make really good assistance dogs. Is there any particular breed that is one that kind of shines better than the others?



Uh, I think you could start a really big debate there. And I think that I would be trending on, on, uh, into delicate territory by saying that, um, I mean, personally, so my last dog, Pedro, the one who was a Mexican street stray, he was part red healer and Greyhound. He was a high energy dog and a really active person. My current dog is a standard poodle.



And so my dogs, for my specific needs, are these high energy dogs to keep up with the long days that I do of, you know, my job and training and different things. So I would have a very different bias and answer to that question I think then, you know, Tessa there who has a real love for labs, Tessa has a giant golden lab. Yeah, so I think the joke that I kind of make is for a guide dog.



Hmm. Labs and golden retrievers, I kind of make the joke of that they're really great for for being used as general program dogs, especially for handling to lay people, because they're so friendly and happy go lucky and easy going and even if they make mistakes, people are like, oh, that lab's funny. But they're kind of like giving someone who's learning to drive the guide dog will say or just drive, you know, like a Toyota or Honda Civic, whereas my guide dogs are like



driving a Ferrari for a guide dog. So you can't hand them to anyone. There are a lot and they test and challenge you but that's exactly what I need in a dog. And maybe one of you could speak to this, the question about, you know, what if there is, it's one thing to train the dog and get them up to speed, not mentioning Ferraris, but.



Is there sometimes an issue where a dog is not compatible with a client? Yes, yes, there is. And at that point, even though we've run all these checks and balances. Every school has hit this concern at some point or another where the dog is just not the right fit for the individual. And we would.



take the dog back and place another dog with the individual and place that dog with another individual. That's more suitable for what that dog's personality traits are, energy traits are. It's quite challenging for the dog because the dog is trying to bond with the individual and then moving on to another one and the individual as well, because they put a lot of thought into coming and applying for a dog and the process is long.



And it's hard, but eventually we find the right fit. And usually we find the right fit right out of the gate. Well, that's good. That's good, because I mean, your website says it could take up to 10 years for someone to wait for a dog. That seems like a ridiculously long time to get a service animal like that. That seems unfair. Why is it like that? Is there just not enough supply to meet demand?



Yes, that's you. That is the case with a lot of the schools and COVID did do a number, so to speak, on the amount of dogs that schools are able to produce because of the lack of socialization that happened in that period. And more people are needing the assistance of a service dog. Or an assistance animal, I should say.



So is that something we need to be focusing more on? Do we do we need I mean, do you for a service dog, where would someone get their funding? Is that are you guys supported by government programs or anything? Or is this covered by anything? We do a lot of like fundraising and we work hand in hand with our clients to fundraise for their dogs. We never expect anyone to pay out of pocket. There is some government funding out there, but I think.



The biggest thing is, I think actually comes down to a government level where we need to encourage the, our province as an individual to support the development of more professionals and programs to meet the supply that's out there. And that would help solve the problem as well as discourage people from putting a vest on their dog and going into public.



And then would also reduce the wait times on things if the government worked with an acknowledged more professional programs or individuals who are providing dogs at a standard that's being met for individuals. And I think that would help solve a lot of the problems. And lots of programs, including ours, do heavily rely on things like donations and fundraisers.



to be able to supply people with these dogs because they are expensive. So if I was to come to you and say, I would like a dog, I'm not worried about the money, how much from start to finish, assuming you've identified one of the categories and what I need and you needed to train a dog from start to finish, what does that cost? To be honest, it actually doesn't matter whether someone has the money or they don't. We're always gonna tell people it's a fundraising process because we are...



a registered charity, it's not like you're coming and buying a dog from us. But in total, the value of one of our dogs is about fifteen thousand dollars. What sort of issue like how long have you guys been in business?



This August will be 10 years, eh Tessa? Yep. Decadent. Nice. So what sort of issues did you face getting Leash of Hope off the ground? I think the biggest thing is that lots of other programs start as kind of satellites of bigger ones of other programs other places. It's not very common that you



that programs start from ground based up and for us it was really important that we built a program that met um assistant dog international standards and at that time the information on what that meant was readily available so we were able to take their standards and build our policies and training program based off of that. It was also important for us to to be an organization that actually



for someone like, especially with Tessa's background, to build a business, a for-profit business as a service dog trainer and go, give me $10,000 and I'll train a dog for you and then send people off. But for us, there was a big efficacy piece on trying to make sure that we were supporting the disabled community, a lot of which is like low income and also to hold the clients we work with responsible.



to a standard of training. Whereas the downside of being, I guess like for profit, especially in someone like Tessa's case, who could just go and train a service dog, is that once she's done the training and being paid, she doesn't actually have any ability to check up and make sure people are handling the dog appropriately in public anymore. And so for us, it was really important that the people we decide to hand these highly trained animals to be in public with.



were being held to the standards that ADI set that we were incorporating into our program. So they had the open the... So that... Yeah, sorry, go ahead. I was going to say, so that was definitely like the hardest part because we were starting with what we wanted to do in mind and we were starting from scratch. It was, you know, that was probably the hardest part about starting out. I would say, I don't know, Tessa might have a different answer.



But that is it is interesting that, you know, it's not just about the dog. It's about it's about making sure the people that get the dogs sort of know what they're doing. So is there a training aspect to that as well? Maybe you could answer that, Tessa. Yes, there is. So what's unique about our program compared to other programs is we spend a year working with the client after they receive their dog. And



We expect the client to commit to a certain number of hours over the course of a year where we gradually see them less and less and less so that we can ensure that the training is Followed and that they can maintain our level of training requirements.



This was designed because we felt that going to a school for two to four weeks and having all that information dumped into your brain was not retainable.



for an individual, or sorry, was not attainable for an individual to remember it all and then go home, back to their home environment and work with their dog independent of the program at that point. Now, Danielle mentioned an international standard. Where do these international standards come from? Who sets those?



Assistance Dog International is the recognized accrediting body of Silver Dog Schools. And so you kind of get accredited by them? How do they just come here and see what you're doing? Or how does that work? So international accreditation is quite a strenuous and extensive process for any program. We were well on our way down that stream to get that done pre-COVID and then



you know, the pandemic definitely put a damper on it. We previously did apply for ADI and we met a lot of the checks and balances except for the fact that in the States, I guess a nonprofit there is what our charitable status is here. So we'd applied only with nonprofit status and hadn't quite gotten charitable status yet. And so we had to return to it unfortunately and then the pandemic happened.



But it's quite a bit of red tape for programs to go through because at that point your dogs are at the highest level of recognition internationally. And it means that you meet the highest, you know, standards of training available and efficacy as far as ensuring that your dogs are being handled well and your clients are representing you well and are managing the dogs appropriately. And so not just any...



dog trainer or business can apply for this standardization at that level. And that I guess that leads my to my next question is what sort of competition do you have locally? Like how many how many people are in this game supplying dogs to people? Oh you know I don't think it's an issue of competition. I think the more people that are professionally properly training dogs out there the better.



where we have issues and I guess our biggest competition is people feeling that they are equipped to put a dog in public because they're watching things like videos online and it's not so much a competition as much as like I guess it does impact what we're doing because then you never know what you're going to encounter in a public place. And then there's definitely some people and trainers that



monopolize and make money off of that by telling people they will support and help train their dogs to be in public places. And again, there's that level of problematic discrepancy where it means that people aren't being properly supported to have their dogs in public. So I wouldn't necessarily say it's a competition issue. But those are the biggest things that I guess. It's a quality issue. And that's, that's where when we have people that come to us and go, oh,



Well, that's a lot of money to fundraise. I'm just going to go and buy a puppy and watch YouTube videos. That's that's where it becomes the most, I guess, problematic. At this point, how many dogs have you and Tessa been able to train? And adding to that, how many trainers have you got working for? Is it just you two running the show or is there is there more behind the scenes?



Um, we've trained 40 plus dogs at this point. We don't have that many teams because we are also because we've been around for 10 years, we're into that cycle of, we do prioritize people who have been approved in our program and already have dogs and we've got dogs retiring and we're needing to place dogs with existing clients. And we have a team of three main staff and then lots of volunteer power. Oh, nice.



And that must be difficult too. I mean, when you work with your own assistance dogs, obviously you're bonded to this animal, perhaps at another level than just a regular pet. So that must be hard to sort of say goodbye and then move into another animal. Yeah, both Tessa and I can attest to that. Like I said, my original guide dog, Pedro, was almost 10 when he retired.



And now I'm on my second guide dog, Starling, who you would have met with me at the leisure fair last time. He's the standard poodle. Yeah. And then Tessa, I'll let you speak to your own, but it's never easy. No, it definitely isn't. An incoming dog has some big cues to fill.



They will feel them in different ways is how I look at it. And so when when a dog like Pedro, for example, he's retired, is it is that because he just can't really do the job anymore? I guess they sort of start to, you know, not do as well just as any human would who's who's getting older. Yeah. And in Pedro's case, he did sustain an injury and you could tell he was kind of like not feeling it as much, not as as a



as keen to work and also being an older dog I think was he reminded me of like the grumpy old man yelling at people to get off of his lawn especially around the younger puppies in training so it got to that point we're like okay buddy it's okay um but in his case he just he has a retirement career now uh my my parents live remotely and uh his job is to supervise



you know, the collection of wood and things and stuff in my dad's workshop. And, and so I think he'll always be a dog with a job to some degree, at least in his mind, don't tell him otherwise. And as much as I wanted him to retire and live out his day directly with me, him being moved to family where he wasn't watching another job was much better for him. That's interesting. Sounds like a real good boy. Yeah. It's pretty incredible.



What else can organizations like DDA be doing or can we do better to support organizations like yourself? We love when we get invitations to come out places. I know we've connected at the leisure fair promoting whenever we have a fundraiser or any kind of participation where we're out in the community is always great. We love getting our dogs out into the community.



with people. We love collaborating with other organizations and figuring out how we can support that collective community between the two organizations. And that's, I think, is the best part and the best way that we can kind of be helped. So before we wrap things up here a little bit, how do people get in touch with you? You can follow us on social media. We have Instagram and Facebook with Lechapote.



We also have a website,, where people can reach out by email. We do have an office online, but if you ever call it, it usually says that if we don't answer it, because we're out with the dogs, but we will call you back, then it's all available on our website. And definitely coming out and connecting with us in person when we're at events is another good way to find us. Absolutely. Just one sort of



final questions are sort of backtracking a little bit. I'm just interested, always interested in sort of the process of this. If someone comes to you, how long, like you said, some people need to wait 10 years for a dog, not because of your business or anything, but in particular. That's a general stat. If someone comes to you and says, this is what I need, from that point to the sort of the finished product, how long does that take? That process can



be anywhere like, you mean the application of coming in. So the way that that works is that someone goes on to our site, there is a little self-evaluation to decide if, to help you decide if you want to apply. Once we get that in, then there's like a phone interview and an in-person one where we gather what you need. And then basically you have to play the waiting game until you get the email that says we have a dog for you. And that can be anywhere from six months to two years.



We generally try to make sure that if someone is missed in the immediate placement season after they've applied that after that we specifically will look for and train a dog for that individual if they've been approved. And then, as Tessa mentioned, then they spend a year of support in our program before graduating and going off in the world, so it can be a. It's a bit of a process, but it's a lifelong, it's a lifelong learning.



Yeah, absolutely. We'll be in like TESF. Can you speak a little bit about the actual training process for say like a Mobility dog. How long is that and how difficult is that? I mean that must be training dogs to do specific jobs seems difficult because I was very poor at it with dogs, but I mean tell me about that process a little bit



Um, so we, that process is a two year process. The dogs all go through basic obedience and advanced obedience. And then we do task training after that. Um, we do heavily rely on our volunteers as well to take them out in the community and further ensure that the tasking, like teaching them to push a button is.



able to happen in any environment. But a lot of the groundwork starts with the fosters and then their training sessions with us as trainers, where we lay down the baseline and then they build it up from there. Now, can you, is it possible to teach an old dog new tricks or do you have to start with puppies? No, it is possible to teach a older dog.



We prefer puppies, but we can take in a dog anywhere from 12 weeks to two years, as our usual timeline to intake a young dog. All right. So, do either of you have anything else to add today? I mean, I don't think so. I really appreciate you taking the time to connect with us and meet with us. And



And it's just great to connect with some more of the community. Hopefully we'll be able to connect with DDA and some of the other patrons out in the community in the near future. Yeah, absolutely. We'll keep doing it. Well, you have been listening to DDA's Encouraging Abilities podcast. My guests today have been Danielle Main and Tessa Schmidt. They're the founders of Leash of Hope, providing assistance dogs for the disability community. Thank you for joining me today.



Thank you. I am your host, DDA Communications Manager, Evan Kelly, see you next time.


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