17-year-old Stephen Walcer is in Grade 12 at Vanier Collegiate and will be graduating from high school this year. 

It’s something his mom, Laurie Ewen, did not know was going to happen when her son was diagnosed with autism at 7 years old. “We were planning for having him home for life. That was going to be our baby at home, and now he’s going into Civil Engineering because of the dog.” 

The dog was Bingo – Walcer’s first Dog Guide trained by the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides national training school in Oakville, Ontario. 

The non-profit organization trains service dogs for people who have different needs, including dogs for Autism Assistance, Diabetes Alert, and Seizure Response. The cost of training, accommodations, and travel for the recipients costs about $35,000 but is provided free via fundraising efforts, including the upcoming Pet Valu Walk for Dog Guides on June 2. 

Dog Guides for Autism Assistance like the ones that Walcer has can help with providing heavy pressure, an opportunity to fidget, and companionship. 

Walcer’s mother went for two weeks of training at the Oakville facility to learn how to be a handler for Bingo back in 2016, after Bingo was paired with her son. Walcer went to the facility himself this year to train with his second Dog Guide, Doug.  

“They took us to lots of malls to try to get used to these big places. Us and another group – we all were returning, but everybody else, it was their first service dog, so they were really trying to make sure we could all succeed,” explained Walcer.  

The Dog Guide and the person are paired together after several factors are considered on both the part of the dog and the part of the individual. Dog breeds that the organization trains include labradors, golden retrievers, and standard poodles for those allergic to dogs. 

Walcer said that Bingo and Doug have been instrumental. “They helped me get more of a normal life, so I can now go to school full days. I wouldn’t have been able to go to University – or probably even high school – without them." 

“It was very difficult before them. I’ve suppressed it a little. It was just very stressful. Everywhere we went, I could barely handle it,” he added.  

He said it’s hard to describe what it’s like to have autism, because it’s all he’s ever known, but said that part of what he experiences is difficulty in processing information. “It just gets so much sometimes, especially in a school when there’s a classroom that I’m in, beside us, and then there’s people walking up and down the hall – just so much, you can’t block any of it out. That’s where these amazing dogs come in.” 

Walcer is graduating on time, at the top of his class, and is planning to attend the University of Saskatchewan to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Engineering in the fall. He’ll be living on campus with Doug.  

His mom is proud of the steps that he has taken, and thankful for the two Dog Guides that have helped make this possible. “He is just overcoming all of these obstacles, and it’s amazing to watch him grow, and I’m excited to see where the future takes him.” 

Dog Guide Bingo is semi-retired and currently used as relief for Stephen’s new Dog Guide Doug, with Bingo expected to be fully retired at the end of August as Stephen and Doug head to Saskatoon.  

Walcer hopes that people participate in and donate to the upcoming Walk for Dog Guides on Sunday, June 2. “I want more people to experience the life-changing effect of these amazing dog guides. I want anybody who needs them to have one.” 

Registration will start at 10:30 a.m. at 341 Wellsley St on the day of the walk, with the walk itself starting at 11 a.m. While pre-registration is not required, you can do so online here, and it will give them an idea of numbers. Pizza is going to be provided to those who donate courtesy of Family Pizza. 

Ewen said the event will be accessible, and receipts will be issued for donations over $20. 

The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides trains approximately 100-150 dogs per year and have trained over 3,000 in the 40 years they’ve been operating.