Sierra the pure bred black lab is like a little celebrity around Chemainus.
She can frequently be seen walking around town wearing her ‘B.C. & Alberta Guide Dogs’ banner under the guidance of Gillian or Chris Baird. The inclination of people young and old is to stop and pat her and Sierra could just as easily waver from her course and pay attention to them.
But Sierra is in training to become a valuable service dog and must stick to a strict course of actions as part of the process.
It’s a huge obligation to be a volunteer puppy trainer, but it’s a task Gillian and Chris took on willingly.
“You know she’s going somewhere she can make a huge difference in people’s lives,” said Gillian.
“We were puppy sponsors when I was working. When I retired, it seemed like an ideal thing for us to do.”
Samantha Jagt is the B.C. & Alberta Guide Dogs puppy training supervisor on Vancouver Island and she brought Sierra from Vancouver to the Island. She went to the Bairds’ house and checked out the community before they could become puppy trainers.
“We also went to Victoria for a couple of initiation classes and we went to Victoria and Nanaimo to watch training classes,” explained Gillian.
“They want the dogs to do well so it’s an undertaking on their behalf.”
Sierra came to the Bairds at seven weeks and went into the main phase of the training program at 10 weeks.
“At that point, you can start taking them more out in the community,” Gillian pointed out. “Since that time, she’s literally gone everywhere we go.”
New commands are learned each week in the puppy classes that later go down to every second week.
“It’s a fairly hefty formal commitment as well,” Gillian pointed out.
Sierra is exposed to everything - elevators and escalators, walking down sidewalks. The outdoor locations like Chemainus Lake, the Municipal Forest behind Fuller Lake Arena, St. Joseph’s School area and the beaches are all ideal for training.
“We just take her everywhere,” said Gillian. “We’ve been on ferries, docks. Anything you think she’s not going to walk over that, we’re going to walk over that - everything we can expose her to.”
Sierra’s also a regular around town at the grocery store, the bank, post office and restaurants, and appeared in the Duncan parade plus Canada Day events and the Chemainus SummerFest.
“The amount of walking we’ve done with her and the time it takes to work with her is extensive,” Gillian indicated. “Yeah, she’s well-known.”
Like any puppy, there are still behaviours like jumping that need to be curbed.
Good old Kibble helped “to reinforce the performance of the obedience,” Chris noted.
“Now at this stage of her training we’re starting to wean her off these types of rewards. She’s required to sit before we can advance. Before we would verbalize the command ‘curb’ and she’d wait till instructed. Now we’re waiting for her to initiate some of those things.”
The Bairds are grateful to everyone in Chemainus who recognizes what they’re doing and exercises patience while waiting for them to initiate their routine.
“She’s really good with her commands as long as she’s not distracted,” said Gillian.
“We’re not training the dog in any capacity other than to be obedient and in any situation,” added Chris.
The trainees will eventually go into one of three programs: Guide Dog, Autism Support Dog or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Service Dog.
“They’ll stream her depending on her strengths and weaknesses,” said Gillian.
That usually happens between 14 and 18 months, depending on the availability of the next trainers and what program she’s going into.
Sierra is a year old now and the time isn’t far away when the Bairds will have to give her up so she can continue on her path. It’ll be tough, but they’re prepared.
“She’s a good companion,” said Chris. “It’s very different when we’re home. She’s a pet. There’s just certain restrictions that have to be in place so the dog can do its job.”
“She’ll do something for someone else and that’s important,” added Gillian.