Man-and-dog duo become familiar sight on campus
Labrador retriever getting his own kind of education at SAIT.
It's lunchtime when Nghia Vu enters one of the campus's bustling food courts.
Heads turn. People smile.
Attention is nothing new for Vu, who understands the attraction.
"I'm just the guy behind the leash," he says, laughing.
The real celebrity, of course, is his 16-month-old yellow Labrador retriever. Vu, as a volunteer for the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), is training Hector to be a service dog.
Which means the two, as they make their daily way around SAIT, are inseparable — Vu with his backpack of school necessities, Hector with his yellow vest.
No downtime for trainers and their puppies
"Our dogs are with us all day long," says Vu, who is in his second year of the Engineering Design and Drafting Technology program.
"They go with us to class. They go with us on public transit, on trains and buses. They go with us into movie theatres, restaurants."
And, as it turns out, SAIT serves as an ideal environment for training — with hours and hours of quiet class time, punctuated by distraction-filled intervals.
It's perfect for fine-tuning a dog's focus.
SAIT supportive of training
Vu appreciates SAIT — including his teachers and peers — for being so open-minded about having a puppy on campus.
He does what he can to ease any concerns.
"I ask students ahead of time if any of them have fears or allergies," Vu says. "At least then I can mitigate their concerns by sitting in certain areas. The students have been great and the instructors have all loved the experience.
"SAIT's been just wonderful in helping us out."
PADS, too, has hit the mark for Vu and his wife Carmen.
Shortly after Carmen lost her family pet, the couple began exploring options that would satisfy their love of dogs.
"Carmen wanted to do something more than just have a personal pet, so we just opened up our hearts to this organization," says Vu, adding they joined the PADS program four years ago.
"The more we got to know them, the more we wanted to be a part of it. It's just been a wonderful experience."
A tough goodbye
After being extensively trained by experts, handlers begin to work with puppies at eight weeks of age. After two years with their handlers — which includes weekly progress meetings — the dogs leave to undergo a year of advanced training. At that point, the animal is ready for placement — often with someone who has mobility-assistance needs, such as those in wheelchairs.
Saying goodbye to the dogs is bittersweet.
"It's really hard," Vu says. "You get really attached to them. You see them go through a lot of growth. You see their maturity, their playfulness."
But those tough goodbyes are made worthwhile when meeting the client, says Vu.
"Knowing the dogs are going to change that person's life, there's no better feeling. It's wonderful to see these dogs grow up. And it's more wonderful to see them get paired up with someone who needs them so much."
Popular puppy bound for service success
For Hector, expectations are already high.
Minutes before the visit to the food court that day, Hector made a bathroom stop outside. Doing his business on cue is one of the 20 basic commands he has mastered.
"Hector is amazing," says Vu. "There's no doubt in my mind he's going to be a full-fledged service dog, that he's going to graduate with flying colours. He's attentive. He's confident. He's sociable. Just a perfect amount of everything in that recipe that makes a great service dog.
"Hector is a superstar."