After 11 years helping Smithers man Sieghard Weitzel ski, hike and make the most of life in the Bulkley Valley, guide dog Mulligan is retiring to let recent graduate Radar take over the duty of helping Weitzel see.
B.C. & Alberta Guide Dogs mobility instructor Jaime Arnup travelled to Smithers last week to deliver Radar, a yellow Labrador retriever, to his new owner.
Arnup said the 19-month-old dog with a high-energy personality has been paired with Weitzel because of his active lifestyle and experience with guide dogs.
Dogs are usually matched with people based on an interview and assessment process which takes into account their lifestyle, daily activities, home environment and fitness level.
However, Arnup said she knew right away Radar would be a good fit for Weitzel.
“I trained Mulligan years ago when he was just a puppy so I did the original match for Sieghard … so I’ve known him for their entire life together,” she said.
“I didn’t train Radar but when I heard about Radar and I got info about his work style and his personality … I immediately thought of Sieghard.”
Weitzel, who owns the Outdoor Essentials store on Main Street, skis and hikes trails with his dogs using a sled dog harness to feel their movement.
He said although the dogs had a strict training regime until they graduated, there was no reason they could not be pets and companions once they were matched with their owners.
“In summer I take them on the trails and take them to the river and I have no problem with them jumping in the water if they want to,” said Weitzel.
“I find from my personal experiences that has no negative effect, if anything I find it has a positive effect on the dogs.
“To me, if the dog is happy, he will work better.”
Before he got his first dog, Weitzel relied on a white cane for almost ten years after he lost his sight in 1984.
Although he was a dog lover, he had some reservations about getting a guide dog until a friend convinced him it was a great way to get around.
“I did have a bit of a notion back then that guide dogs were kind of, not really dogs, they were kind of these machines that were trained to perform these tasks,” he said.
“My friend said well, it’s all what you make out of the dog.
“You can treat the dog whichever way you like so I decided to give it a try.”
His first dog, another yellow Labrador retriever named Buddy, came from the Leader Dogs for the Blind in Michigan, U.S.A.
Weitzel quickly realized how much he was able to do with his new companion, who made navigating the world less stressful.
“It’s a whole different approach,” he said.
“The dog takes you around things whereas with a cane you always kind of walk until you touch something with a cane, and then if it’s a sign or a display in a mall and then you try to feel your way around it.”
Weitzel uses voice commands to tell his dog which way to go or to find a door, and the animal will stop at obstacles like curbs and steps to warn him.
Radar is ready to start that job now that Mulligan, who took over from Buddy in 2004, has retired.
The older dog can now relax, but Weitzel said it might take him some time to get used to retirement.
Mulligan has been trying to edge into the harness when Weitzel asks Radar to work.
Guide dogs usually stay with their owners when they retire unless their owners cannot afford to keep two dogs.
In that case they are placed in homes, sometimes with the people who trained them as puppies, but Weitzel has always been able to keep his dogs when they retire.
“He probably has a few more years life expectancy and I certainly will keep him and he will just come along and be a pet and hang out in the store,” he said.
Mulligan may also be able to play a role leading the younger dog by example. Weitzel said Radar was still learning to ignore distractions while he was on the job.
“He is young, Mulligan was a little bit older when I got him, but Radar is very full of energy, very exuberant, very happy dog,” he said.
“He just loves to go to people.”