Volunteerism goes to the dogs

Jewel stands on all fours at the bottom of the escalator in the Eglinton Square shopping mall. She gets ready to take her first step onto the moving staircase. Once she masters it, she’ll be one step closer to becoming a guide dog.

And it’s all thanks to foster parent Missy Westgate.

“You never know where a client is going to take the dog,” Westgate said. “My job is to make sure it gets used to as many places and situations as possible. That way when she’s working, she’s familiar with things and she won’t get startled or scared.”

Over the past 11 years, Westgate, 34, has welcomed 25 dogs into her East York home. This year she’s working with Jewel, a three-month-old black Labrador. Like all of her foster dogs, Westgate received her as a puppy. For the next year, she’ll teach Jewel basic training — how to sit and stay — while integrating her into the city. Once the program is complete, Jewel will receive extensive training at the Lions Foundation guide dog school in Oakville. It will determine if she’s suited for a person who is prone to seizures, blind, deaf, immobile or autistic.

Westgate started fostering when she realized she and her husband couldn’t afford a puppy of their own. It was then they decided to combine their love of dogs with their passion for volunteerism.

“We heard about the program through a friend whose father had a working dog and decided that we’d foster one or two puppies,” Westgate said. “Here we are 11 years, 24 Labs and one standard poodle later.”

With help from Purina and the Lions Foundation, Westgate doesn’t have to worry about food or veterinary care. She’s responsible for purchasing the treats and toys, but her biggest donation is her time.

Westgate works as a seamstress during the day, but is compelled to work around the puppy’s schedule.

“When it’s left at home, I have to be there every five hours to let it out of the crate,” she said. “People in my life have to get used to it being everywhere with me. Plus, before I leave the house I always have to think about where the best places to train it are.”

Westgate believes East York plays a big role in her success with the canines. Sixteen of her puppies moved on to become working guide dogs.

“It’s great because we have the subway and GO train at our finger tips,” she said. “Plus a 24-hour grocery store, the Main Street library branch and, of course, the Eglinton Square mall.”

Shop owners and neighbours are very receptive and encouraging. Westgate jokes they often remember the dog’s name before hers.

“The week before Jewel goes into training, I’ll take her to her regular haunts to say goodbye to everyone. They always want to wish her luck,” she said.

Not all puppies make it as working dogs. Westgate believes some just aren’t “people pleasers” and can be a handful. But for her, it’s worth it because she’s fond of all her foster puppies.

“I regularly see my first dog that I trained,” she said. “He’s on the verge of retirement, but we still often go out for tea.”

Westgate admits it can be very difficult to give up a puppy after caring for it and watching it grow. But she’s worked out a special system with the Lions Foundation to help her recover quickly.

“My deal with the school has always been that as soon as I return a puppy, I have to pick one up,” she said. “The 100-metre walk between the two buildings is as far as I go without a puppy. Besides, once you start seeing how you’ve helped a dog drastically change a client’s life, it’s all worth (it).”