SHAWVILLE – “I think there’s a perception in town that I can still see, but I can’t,” says Mike Hodgins, from the home he shares with his wife Mary and two children. Hodgins lost his vision 7 years ago after an accident. “People say when you’re blind, your hearing gets better, but it doesn’t. You use it more, so you are more attuned to it. For example, I know which houses have wind chimes or air conditioners.”
Hodgins underwent 25 cornea operations since the accident, each taking 6-7 hours, and was the fifth Canadian to receive an artificial cornea – a surgery he has gone through three times. “The artificial cornea is like a new windshield for your eye,” he says. The surgeries brought back his vision for 6 weeks and maintained it partially for 3.5 years. “Getting back even a little bit of sight is worth it in the long haul,” says Hodgins.
In September 2012, Mike applied for a seeing-eye dog from the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, located in Manotick, ON. “CGDB interviewed me about my lifestyle, where I live, my walking speed, etc. They want the dogs to be properly cared for as well,” says Hodgins, who spent 26 days at the CGDB bonding with a 4 year old Golden Retriever. “The bonding is the most important part of the training,” says Hodgins holding Nellie (photo).
Certain dogs are picked from a good litter, and at 6 weeks old they begin training in people’s homes, who are known as ‘puppy walkers’. They house-train the pups, get them used to wearing a harness, train them to walk on sidewalks on a leash, and teach them obedience. The dogs stay with the ‘puppy walkers’ until they are 12-14 months old, and then go to the CGDB where they continue more intense training until they are about 24 months old, at which time their performance is judged, and if they pass the test, they are placed with a matching caretaker. “Regardless how healthy the dogs are, they retire from service when they turn 11 years old,” says Hodgins.
“You can’t let them get away with too much. I’m not supposed to be the fun guy,” he adds with a laugh stating he is not always a grumpy caretaker. “I try to keep a regular routine, but it’s a work in progress,” says Hodgins. It can take up to 6 months before the dog and its caretaker settle into their new routine as a pair.
Hodgins invites people who spot him on a walk to feel free to approach him. “I encourage people to come up to me. I might ask where I am; it reassures me that I know where I am,” he says. “There’s just one rule; you basically ignore Nellie and don’t acknowledge her.” Nellie wears a CGDB harness saying ‘Please Don’t Pet Me, I’m Working’ during walks. “Her attitude shifts completely when the harness is placed on her, it’s all business,” says Hodgins. “Guide dogs are able to have some fun when they are not wearing the harness.”