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Seven-year-old Olivia Zwack of Warman has a real connection with her canine companion, Ivan.
In fact, she has two connections: one literal and the other figurative.
Olivia, who has autism, is physically tethered to the 18-month-old poodle. But more importantly, she’s developed a strong emotional bond with her four-footed companion since she was introduced to him last September.
Ivan’s job is to support, nurture, calm, and guide Olivia through her day. It’s a challenging task given Olivia’s unpredictable behaviour and inability to communicate verbally, but Ivan takes it all in stride.
“It’s absolutely amazing the difference that Ivan has made in her life,” said Jeff Zwack, Olivia’s father. “In fact, he’s made a difference for our whole family since we got him last fall.”
Jeff said Olivia literally embraced Ivan right from the start. “She’s so comfortable with him,” he said. “The bond she has with Ivan is incredible. We’re very grateful to the Lions Foundation for providing this dog to help our daughter.”
Olivia’s mother, Sheri, and her little brother Eric, agree that Ivan is a great addition to the family.
Ivan is a graduate of the Lions Foundation of Canada’s dog guide training facility in Breslau, Ontario. The largest school of its kind in Canada, the facility trains dogs to assist Canadians who have physical or mental disabilities. Since it began in 1985 as a program to help visually-impaired people, the Lions Foundation of Canada’s Dog Guide program has expanded to include Hearing Ear, Service, Seizure Response, Autism Assistance, and newly introduced, Diabetic Alert Dog Guides.
The Martensville and District Lions Club raises funds every year through its annual Pet Valu Walk for Dog Guides, held the last Sunday in May. This year the event is slated for May 28. Last year. the club raised the necessary $25,000 to sponsor a dog guide for a local family. Ivan is the dog, and the Zwacks are the recipient family. On Tuesday, February 21, the Zwack family paid a visit to the Martensville and District Lions Club meeting to thank club members for their donation, and to sum up how the past five months have gone since Ivan came to live with them in Warman.
Jeff said they first heard about the Dog Guide program last year when they were on vacation.
“We met a person who had a Seizure Response Dog Guide,” said Jeff. “We saw the special harness on the dog and asked the owner about it. From there we learned about the Dog Guide program, and were excited to find out they had Autism Assistance dogs.
“When we got home we checked it out online and started our application process. Every check-box on the application form was relevant to our situation. We heard back soon after from the Lions Foundation that our application had been accepted.”
After a medical validation, in-home assessment and other tests, the Zwacks welcomed Ivan into their home on September 29, 2016.
“Olivia has a lot of struggles,” said Jeff. “This is one of the strategies that really works for her. Every day the trust builds between Olivia and Ivan. The support he provides is so amazing.”
Sheri Zwack said having Ivan tethered to Olivia brings a measure of security to everyone.
“People take a lot for granted when it comes to doing everyday things like grocery shopping or going to a restaurant,” said Sheri. “But before we got Ivan, Jeff and I had to strategically plan every minute. Now it’s no problem.”
Sheri said a couple of years ago, Olivia ran away from her daycare and got lost in Warman. “The RCMP, the city staff and a whole bunch of people were involved in finding her that day,” she said. “It was a huge deal for us because she’s not verbal. She can’t talk and express herself. So it was very scary.”
On March 1, Ivan will accompany Olivia to Warman Elementary School, where she is currently enrolled in Grade 1. A full-time educational associate helps Olivia with her lessons.
“Warman Elementary School has been more than accommodating,” said Jeff.
Ivan will be the first Dog Guide to be at a school full-time within Prairie Spirit School Division when he starts on March 1.
The average career as a Dog Guide is about ten years, after which the recipient family has the option of adopting the dog to live out his retirement years with them.
“Ivan is special,” said Jeff. “He’s not a pet. He’s a very special tool. He’s also got a great personality and exceptional skills.”
The demand for Autism Assistance Dog Guides has increased exponentially in the last few years. The Lions Foundation notes that due to the success of the program, there is now a shortage of dog guides in this category. There is now a waiting list for applicants to the program.
More details on the Lions Foundation Dog Guide program is available online at www.dogguides.com .