September 5, 2014

A Dog-Gone Great Cause

By Terry Jones

There’s a big difference between being a CEO of a company like CCM and Reebok compared to CEO of the Edmonton Eskimos.

With a company — even one involved in sport — to most people, you’re just another guy in a suit. But when it comes to a professional sports franchise, you sort of get to be something of a lower case sports celebrity.

If you have the vehicle, use it, Eskimo President and CEO Len Rhodes believes. He explains: “I was at an event at Northlands — one of the 102 of them I did last year — called the Young Achievers Business Awards maybe six months ago with my girlfriend, Maureen Harsulla. We both love dogs, and she came back from the lobby and said ‘There’s two service dogs with a trainer out there. Come see.’

“So I step out in the hall, go speak to the trainer and they invited us to a ‘Dogs With Wings’ graduation ceremony.”

It made an impact.

“This is a not-for-profit group that trains dogs to help people with disabilities. It ranges from seeing eye dogs, guide dogs, dogs that are trained to help kids with autism and then full service dogs for people in wheelchairs.

“Speaking with them, a gentleman named John Wheelright said ‘Len, with the Eskimos, I’d really like to talk to you and maybe we could do something together. Would you be interested in fostering a dog?

“I said ‘Well, both Maureen and I like dogs and, given my role with a community-owned team, it would be a natural.

“So, two months ago we fostered a dog. Her name is Oakley. She’s two years old, and the next step after we’re through with her is that she’s going to be allocated to someone who is in a wheelchair.

“She goes for training every day, nine to five, and then she stays with us at night and on weekends. And we’re responsible for her. We take her to restaurants and I’ve had her on the patio at every home game.

We’re going to have Dogs With Wings in our pre-game AMA Family Zone prior to the Student Day game against the Stampeders Saturday. And at the game I’m going to take Oakley around and see some of the people in our disabled areas around the stadium.

“Dogs With Wings are in need of two things: Money, like everyone else. But they also need puppy raisers, because that’s a bit of a challenge. They’re limited by the number of dogs that they can train because they need people who are available to them at home.

“The puppy part is for a year. One family takes the puppy when it’s young, and the puppy has to be in your house basically the whole time. So it’s a very demanding responsibility, but very gratifying too, because it’s the first step in the process.

“Then the dog becomes an adult and they go to the training school. Then there’s adult foster raisers and that’s what we’re doing right now.

“I think the Dogs With Wings people are absolutely amazing.”

The volunteer program, in addition to looking for puppy foster homes and adult foster homes, also requires boarding homes to provide temporary accommodation for when foster families have vacations or last minute trips away, to assure the dogs are never kenneled. And training volunteer assistants are also needed to take the dogs for walks and play with them, usually in one or two-hour time slots.

For more information or to apply for any of the volunteer programs, see www.dogswithwings.ca.

Dogs With Wings has been providing highly trained assistance dogs to Albertans since 1996. A registered charity, the school is accredited by Assistance Dogs International and the International Dog Federation.