Everything you ever wanted to know about service dogs – wagging tails and all


I was accompanying a colleague to a concert a year or so ago, when she happened to spot a friend of her’s in the crowd.

“Oh, there’s Joan,” she said to me, indicating a woman taking her seat not far from us. Indeed, Joan was not difficult to miss, for she too, had a companion with her. But despite joining Joan for the concert, the companion had little interest in it, nor would she have had to dress up for the occasion. Have you guessed who Joan’s companion was? She was Talullah, a gorgeous black Labrador retriever service dog, who goes everywhere with her visually impaired handler.

service dog in subway

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Many of us know that service dogs may be admired but not pet or approached in a way we’d approach most other animals. Their function, after all, is to guide and be the eyes, ears or brain of their owners.

During intermission, my colleague and I went over to greet Joan, who turned out to be a lovely lady with a huge smile. I said to her, “I love your dog, but I know that we aren’t supposed to demonstrate any degree of familiarity with a working animal, so I’ll refrain from petting her.” Joan replied: “Oh, Talullah loves people, she wouldn’t mind a bit.” In an instant, my hand was being covered in doggy kisses!

It’s probably impossible to estimate how many dogs there are in service in Canada, but the Lions Foundation of Canada – one of the foremost training facilities in the country – claims that more than 2000 teams have graduated from their organization. Service dogs differ from working or therapy dogs in that their function is to help and guide a specific handler who might have anything from a visual or hearing impairment to a brain injury, mental illness, seizures or autism. There are no breed requirements for service dogs, the only criteria are that they are of good temperament and psychological make-up, are in good health and, most importantly, can be trained easily. For obvious reasons, larger breeds such as German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers have long been preferred due to their size, strength and endurance.

black lab service dog

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 A Mini History

Dorothy Eustis with service dog

Dorothy Eustis and Morris Frank; photo credit: National Women’s History Museum 

Details are hazy as to the origins of service dogs, but it seems they began in post World War I Germany where German Shepherds were trained to provide assistance to those blinded in the conflict. This particular breed was felt to possess a degree of loyalty towards its owner and with it, a strong protective sense. Around the same time, an American woman by the name of Dorothy Eustis heard about the program. She had been training German Shepherds as working dogs and soon began to train them as guides for the blind. Writing about her endeavours in the Saturday Evening Post, Eustis attracted the attention of Morris Frank, a visually impaired man from Nashville who wrote to her asking her to train a dog for him. She did so, and Mr. Frank became the first person to make use of a guide dog. As part of the arrangement, Frank started to train dogs as well, and his efforts blossomed into a foundation dubbed The Seeing Eye.

Training Service Dogs 

The first service dog organization in Canada was the MIRA Foundation, a community-based institution founded in Quebec by Eric St-Pierre in 1981. Each year, MIRA places roughly 150 service dogs with individuals across Canada and around the world. In 1991, MIRA created a guide dog program for visually impaired children, and to date is the only school in the world to provide guide dogs to those under age the age of 15.

At MIRA, the training process begins when puppies are just seven-weeks-old. Once selected, they are placed with a foster family who help them socialize and prepare for guide and service dog training in many different environments. The training family ensures the dog is involved in all its daily routines so that they grow accustomed to navigating places such as shopping malls, public transit and street traffic.

service dogs in training, sitting on steps

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Once the year–long training period has ended, dogs return to MIRA to continue training with potential handlers. Dogs are matched according to the personality and lifestyle of the new owner.

Joan, a retired librarian, acquired Tallullah (or Mrs. T) from the Oregon-based Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB). Joan chose GDB because she says its training program uses positive reinforcement and there is ongoing staff support once the handler training is complete. At the outset, Joan spent considerable time with Talullah, so that they could get to know each other. In the end, the lovable Mrs. T seemed a perfect match.

Man walking service dog

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Joan wrote about their life together after her retirement:

Since April 2010, Tallulah and I have had many adventures and travelled to Paris, Vienna, Prague, Leipzig, London, Oxford, and Dublin.  She has a European Passport and logs passport stamps just as I do.  We returned at the end of the summer to Oxford and stayed at the same place we stayed at two years ago.  She remembered and recognized the places we had visited.  With a tilt of her head, she would ask, “Would you like to go here?”

Tallulah has given me a measure of freedom that I did not have before.  She is the closest thing to seeing!  I can walk with freedom, take the subway (she finds me a seat), walk on to a plane with her, attend concerts, and go shopping (she finds my favourite departments and sales staff).  I did all of these things before, but Tallulah makes it easy!

As we’ve all seen, service dogs are sturdy, friendly and fiercely loyal to their human companions. Yes, they may look eager for a pat or a hug, but they’re there to do a job and fulfill a role. And contrary to popular opinion, they aren’t only for the severely impaired or for those at the end of a life-threatening illness.

Many people, including brain injury survivors, find the use of a service dog invaluable, helping to make their lives easier with the aim at achieving the ultimate goal of self -sufficiency. During their 100 year history, service dogs have been the eyes, ears, nose, legs and brains of their handlers, providing invaluable, and in some cases, life-saving assistance. Long may they continue to help those who need it, they’re most definitely more than just a friendly bark or a wagging tail!

Think you’d like a service dog? Stay tuned for our up-coming post on ‘How to get a service dog in Ontario’

Posted in Pets | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

How to have a pet on a budget: useful resources

Ok, so we know that pets cost money. But there are ways you can cut down on expenses and provide your animal companion with everything he or she needs. Here’s our list of resources that can help.

dog is superman costume

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Pet Food Banks

If times are tight, you can go to a pet food bank for free pet food. Unfortunately there are only two pet food banks in Toronto – and both are downtown. Though at times, your local food bank may have pet food as well.

The Toronto Humane Society operates both pet food banks:

The Toronto Humane Society (Mon – Fri, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m., Sat-Sun, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.) 11 River Street, Toronto (at Queen)

St. James Town Community Corner (2nd Thursday of the month, 12 p.m.-3 p.m.) 200 Wellesley Street East (at Parliament)

Veterinary Care

The Toronto Humane Society operates a low-cost, high volume spay and neuter clinic. The clinic prioritizes cats due to the high numbers of stray felines in town, though dog care is occasionally available. Also, people on financial assistance such as ODSP, Ontario Works, or CPP get a discounted rate.

The Farley Foundation provides financial assistance up to $1,000 a year to cover veterinary fees for people in Ontario who are on various forms of social assistance, such as ODSP. Medical procedures must be non-elective (necessary) and not part of an animal’s routine care (for example, the Farley Foundation does not provide assistance for food.)

Animal Rescue Groups

Animal rescue groups are volunteer-run organizations dedicated to keeping homeless animals off the streets, and out of shelters (where they will likely be caged, and if not adopted in a certain time period, possibly euthanized). Rescue groups tend to have no-kill policies, and animals are ‘fostered’ in volunteers’ homes until they are adopted.

Dog Rescue Groups

Canada’s Guide to Dogs has an online listing of canine rescue groups here – organizations include breed rescues (such as pugs) to your general, run-of-the-mill, awesome muts.

Dog in store looking at camera

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Cat Rescue Groups

Toronto Cat Rescue – The Toronto Cat Rescue says they usually have around 300 cats waiting for adoption at any given time. While the cost of adopting a cat is $175, if you adopt a cat older than 8-years-old, it’s pay-what-you-choose. Cost includes spay or neuter, vaccination and six weeks of pet insurance.

Annex Cat Rescue – The Annex Cat Rescue started as a group of dedicated cat vollies in  Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood almost two decades ago, but has since spread throughout the city. They say their adoption fee is ‘modest’ and includes vaccination, microchip, de-worming and four weeks of pet insurance. Right now, you can adopt a special needs cat for $80.

Forgotten Ones Cat Rescue – Forgotten Ones Cat Rescue charges $175 for cat adoption and $225 for kittens. Adoption fee includes: pet insurance for 30 days, vaccinations, physical exam, flea treatment, ear mite exam and treatment, feline leukemia and FIV test, spay or neuter and de-worming.

Cat Busters – Cat busters holds regular adoption sessions at Pet Valu stores in Toronto. Adoption fee includes six weeks of pet insurance, de-flea treatment, de-worming, or ear mite treatment, spay or neuter, and vaccinations as deemed necessary.

People With AIDS (PWA)

PWA provides a variety of services to assist people living with HIV/AIDs in caring for their pets such as:

  • Referrals to vets in Toronto who provide free or reduced cost veterinary services
  • The option to use $300 which PWA provides annually to its members on items their pet needs
  • Free pet food and supplies available at PWA’s Essentials Market
cat with half black and half brown face

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 For more information, see our post on How to have a pet on a budget here and be sure to tell us about the awesome animal(s) in your life via our Pet Photo Contest here

Posted in Pets

How to have a pet on a budget



The costs associated with owning a pet can vary widely – based on the species, breed, age, and even the area in which you live. But, costs are inevitable and should be included in your budget before you make the decision to add a new member to the family.

Cat playing in green tube

photo credit: Mr.TinDC via photopin cc


A recent report by the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association puts the overall cost of owning a dog for 13 years at about $29,000, and close to $24,000 to own a cat for 15 years. This breaks down to between $150 – $180 per month for the average pet owner. A little less expensive are bunnies and other smaller species, but you are still looking at about $450 a year for just the basics.

While the above costs include pet insurance payments, they do not include emergency medical expenses which can easily enter into the thousands if your pet is injured or severely ill. They also do not include many of the one-time expenses that owners encounter such as purchasing a crate or getting the animal spayed or neutered.

So how can you save money on your pet expenses?

Start by choosing a pet from your local rescue organization. These animals should already have been spayed or neutered, received their initial vaccines and deworming, as well as had a microchip implanted – all included in the adoption fee.

If you are interested in getting a dog, remember that size does make a difference in costs. Larger animals eat more, and medical bills may also be higher. In terms of energy level, a lower energy dog may be able to make it through the work day without the need for a dog walker or doggy daycare services.

Pay attention to their coat. Fluffy dogs and cats look fantastic when their fur is in tip-top shape, but keeping them well-coiffed may mean spending a fortune at the groomers.

Clip coupons and shop wisely. Pet foods often go on sale, and many stores offer frequent buyer cards for your favorite pet food brand. If cash is extremely tight reach out to your local food bank to see if they offer pet foods. The Toronto Humane Society operates two pet food banks – one at our 11 River Street location and one in St. James Town.

Bargain hunt. Look for gently used toys and crates at garage sales or online ads, but make sure you sanitize any purchases thoroughly before sharing with your pet.

Get creative. There are tons of ideas on the web for making homemade toys for our pets. It’s less costly than buying a ready-made toy and better yet, you made it with love.

dog chewing toy

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Barter services. Need a dog walker or kitty sitter while you are away but don’t have the cash on hand? Try to barter with a friend or family member with something you are good at – such as housecleaning, baking, or handyman jobs – and exchange it for pet care services.

Shop around for your veterinary clinic. Prices can vary widely, even between clinics that are located close to each other. While your confidence in the staff is very important, remember that a higher cost does not always equal a better service.

Purchase pet health insurance. This will add a bit on to your monthly budget, but will be a lifeline in an emergency situation, and could mean the difference between keeping or losing your companion.

cat looking at a mouse

photo credit: cloud_nine via photopin cc

Access low-cost services where available. The Toronto Humane Society offers low-cost vaccination and spay/neuter services, with special prices for individuals receiving a government subsidy. Keeping your pet up to date on their vaccines and ensuring they have been spayed or neutered will reduce the likelihood of them falling ill due to a preventable disease.

Brush their teeth. A major veterinary expense is dental care. Do your best to reduce or eliminate the need for a dental cleaning by keeping your pet’s mouth in shape at home.

Not everyone has the means to own a pet, and you should never take on the responsibility for an animal if you are not able to provide for its care, but using these tips might make pet ownership in reach for you and your family.

Be sure to check out our resources page for more information on how to have a pet on a budget and remember to brag about the animal(s) in your life on our Facebook page

Posted in Pets

Mark Koning: how our dogs helped with my mom’s ABI recovery

Every animal lover knows pets play a very special role in our lives. This story by Mark Koning is the first in a series where Brain Injury Blog TO will explore the relationships we have with our animal companions, as ABI survivors and caregivers.



I am what you would call, ‘a dog person’. I believe dogs are awesome pets. Forget about man’s best friend, how about a valuable family member? Great ambassador, hero, protector, therapist and motivator.

Growing up, dogs were always around by means of relatives and / or friends. But me and my immediate family, we had no pets … well, we did have goldfish. It wasn’t until 1998 that Casey (a Dachshund, a.k.a. a wiener dog) was adopted into our clan when she was two-years-old. We sadly lost her to cancer ten years later. We now have Petey, (an American Staffordshire) almost ten-years of age, brought to us through the OSPCA in 2005.

Casey left her mark, and Petey has already made a similar impact as well. I refer to all of the above, but specifically to the ‘therapist and motivator’ role.

My mom sustained her brain injury in 2001. She had fallen and a blood clot formed, forever changing all of our lives. After successful surgery that removed the clot and allowed oxygen to flow once again, she remained in a coma for the better part of a month. When she came out of it she could barely move, she could not talk, and the overwhelming depression made any further recovery seem hopeless.

When the doctors heard about Casey, they not only allowed me and my sister to bring her for visits, they encouraged it. My mom lit up being reunited with Casey, the cuddling and licking kick started a whole new determination. When she returned home the inspirations continued as Casey would sit there and watch therapy nurses (speech, cognitive and physical) come in and work with my mom.

Petey has now taken over, and while my mom has come a long way, there is still a journey ahead which the dog will be right by her side in taking. He watches out for her, he slows her down when it is needed, and he helps her speech. No, he does not engage in conversation with her, (imagine what that would be like) but he patiently sits there and listens as she speaks (and organizes) her thoughts.

I was a dog person before my mom’s tragedy, and now I am a dog champion. As short as a canine’s life may be in comparison to ours, (a sad fact) they do their best, in spite of tragedy, to help ours continue and shine. It makes a dog’s value, priceless!

Do you love to brag about your pet? Enter our pet photo contest on Facebook! Tell us about the animal (s) in your life + what they mean to you!



Posted in Pets | Tagged ,

Brain Tumour Awareness Month

October is brain tumour awareness month.

image of a brain tumour with a child's drawing scribbled over it

photo credit: The Guncle via photopin cc

Many ABI survivors are brain tumour survivors. This month, BIST will help spread awareness about brain tumours by participating in a social media campaign organized by the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada.

What is a brain tumour

  • Brain tumours occur when cells divide at an increased rate, creating an abnormal mass of tissue. They can be malignant (cancerous) or benign.
  • Benign tumours are not necessarily less serious than malignant tumours. Prognosis and treatment depend on several factors, such as the size and location of the tumour.

How a brain tumour can lead to a brain injury

  • As benign tumours grow, they can put increased pressure on the brain, compressing healthy tissue. While benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body, a person can have more than one benign tumour.
  • Because malignant tumours have the capacity to spread quickly to other parts of the body, malignant cells can ‘wear away’ at healthy brain cells, causing damage.
  • Brain surgery to operate on tumours may also result in injury.
  • Up to 60% of children diagnosed with a brain tumour will survive, though many of them will live with lifelong side effects.
  • Because tumours are typically located in the “control centre” for emotion, thought and movement, damage to these parts of the brain can result in significant life changes.
image of a brain tumour

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 How to spread awareness

Participate in the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada‘s social media awareness campaign here.

It’s as simple as sending out Facebook posts or Tweets such as the following:

If you want to take raising awareness to the next level, you can order an awareness or fundraising kit from the Brain Tumour Foundation here and spread the word by pounding the pavement and speaking to folks directly.

grey ribbon for brain tumour awareness

Sources: Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada, Headway, National Cancer Institute


Posted in Brain Tumour Awareness Month

Community Meeting Round-Ups: AGM + Use of Activities of Daily Living to Enhance Memory and Optimize Reasoning

At our August community meeting, BIST board member Steve Gregory gave a presentation, Use of Activities of Daily Living to Enhance and Optimize Reasoning.

BIST board member Stephen Gregory

BIST board member Steve Gregory

Here are some of the highlights from Steve’s presentation, which come from his perspective and experiences as an ABI survivor:

  • Recovering from a brain injury requires three components: infracture, support and effort.
  • Using the task of making a meal as an example of an activity of daily living (ADL) requires infrastructure (the kitchen, stove, pots and pans), supplies (food, water) and effort (doing the cooking).
  • Before a brain injury, we took tasks such as putting on a pair of socks for granted. After an injury, the key to regaining these memories is to bring them back to the front of our minds. As Steve says, it’s all about GIGO (garbage in, garbage out!)
  • Steve says it’s important to focus on one goal at a time. For example, if tieing shoes is too much right now, focus on a task you can manage, and use velcro on your shoes until you’re ready to try again.
  • Steve says it’s important to focus on new goals. As a brain injury survivor, you may need to modify these goals.
  • Try not to waste energy trying to get back to the old you, that might not happen.

For more information on Steve’s presentation, go here 

AGM Update

photo credit: Wandering Toronto via photopin cc

photo credit: Wandering Toronto via photopin cc

On Monday, Sept. 22, BIST held our annual general meeting. Due to construction work at our regular venue at the Northern District Library, we had to re-locate the meeting to our new office at Deer Park Library – meaning several members got to check out our new digs!

At the meeting, we said goodbye to two board members, Tonya Flaming and Julie Osbelt, who both served on the BIST awareness committee for several years.

We thank Tonya and Julie for all their hard work – we will miss you on the board!

BIST welcomed the following two members to the board:

Susie Cooke  is a senior manager at Deloitte with over 9 years of experience in accounting. Susie’s work with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and United Way has led her to want to further expand her work in the community. She has direct experience supporting family members who have been effected by brain injury. In addition to this, Susie has very close links with some of the research that is being undertaken at the University of Toronto on the area of brain injury.

Jordan Assaraf is a lawyer at Gluckstein Personal Injury Lawyers. By being involved in contact sports his entire life, Jordan has seen how traumatic brain injuries can occur and affect not only those who have suffered the injury, but also those that are surrounded by the injury. This has led Jordan be the personal injury lawyer he is today, but has also led him to volunteer his time and raise awareness about brain injuries by joining BIST.

Next Meeting: Monday, Oct. 27, 6-8 p.m.

Northern District Library

40 Orchard View Blvd, 2nd Floor Meeting Room

Topic: Lower-cost fitness club options in Toronto

Posted in Community Meeting Round Up

BIST Remembers: Lauren Noble


We are sad to announce that one of our founding board members, Lauren Noble, passed away on September 18, 2014.


photo credit: remysharp via photopin cc

Lauren joined the board when BIST was inaugurated in 2004. She was extremely active for her first term and was the chair of the communications committee.

BIST is most grateful and appreciative of Lauren for her leadership, dedication, commitment and the work she achieved in the early years. This included the BIST logo, brand, brochures, visual identity, web site, key messages, overall communication strategic objectives and operational excellence. Lauren was also active with OBIA.

Lauren was a wife, mother, past secondary school vice principal and she will be greatly missed by all those who knew her. Our condolescences are with her family and loved ones.

 For more information, you can read Lauren’s obituary.Those who knew her may wish to sign the guest book to pass on condolences

Posted in BIST Remembers