Blake Maher is a smart, energetic and loving 14 year old. What makes this Placentia teenager unique from others his age is his dog, Armani.
Armani is a service animal that has been a part of Blake’s family for the past three years.
Each day when Blake ventures outdoors for a walk, to the local skating arena to watch his brother Jagger play hockey or on errands with his mom Tara Greene, Armani will go along with him.
Wearing a red vest that says he is a Lions Foundation of Canada DogGuide for someone with autism, he walks along with Blake. If Blake gets anxious or overwhelmed, he can run his fingers along the dog’s fur, which can having a calming effect. But mostly, he is just proud to have him by his side.
“Blake is very proud of (Armani),” mom Tara told The Compass last week. “He tries to the best of his ability to tell people all about him.”
Although limited in verbal communication, the adoration Blake has for Armani is communicated through his actions. He shows him off to his friends, and when strangers want to pet him, they look to him for permission. And mom allows him to decide if it’s OK.
Finding a match
Lions Foundation of Canada organizes the training of dogs for all different disabilities through DogGuides. It trains seeing eye dogs, hearing ear dogs, seizure response dogs, diabetic alert dogs, service dog guides and autism assistance dog guides.
DogGuide spokesperson Jenny Gladish told The Compass her organization hopes to train 150 dogs in 2015.
The process to apply to DogGuides was a lengthy one for Tara and Blake’s dad Jerry Maher – a year-and-a-half. But it was worth it.
Since 2009, the organization has been training and providing dogs to autistic children.
The application process involves having the child’s doctor fill out forms for medical verification of their condition. A visit is made to the household to confirm the living situation of the family would be suitable for a service dog. Then, if approved, a handler would be trained at the organization’s Oakville facility.
When Blake got approved for a service dog, Tara flew to Ontario for training. It was there she was introduced to Armani, a beautiful Golden Retriever. This would soon become Blake’s dog.
The organization helps match a dog with an owner based on personality.
“They surely have a beautiful bond and were perfectly matched,” Tara explained of the pair’s connection, noting Armani sleeps in Blake’s bed each night. That was one way Tara got them to bond.
Blake and Armani are now best buddies and partners in daily activities.
“Blake has matured a lot since getting the dog, where primarily his purpose was to ensure his safety while walking or in public parking lots or stores,” Tara explained. “He would be tethered to the dog and could only go so far. Now all that is gone. Blake just naturally holds (Armani’s) handle and off we go.”
Many not aware
A service dog usually goes with its owner to public establishments, including grocery stores, parks, the bank and sometimes school. Blake, Tara and Jerry each have registration cards with a photo that allows them to bring the dog just about anywhere.
Although Tara said most places they take the dog are welcoming and understanding, there have been times when she has felt education could make things easier.
“It can get exhausting always having to explain yourself,” she said, noting she offers for places she and Blake frequently visit to photocopy his registration card so the staff can recognize him when he visits.
One such situation happened at the local boardwalk, where a handful of walkers have scoured at them for bringing a dog there. Service animals are the only animals permitted on the boardwalk.
The Town of Placentia wanted to help residents recognize service animals and created a “Did you know?” Facebook post. A photo of Blake and Armani accompanied a write up about the town welcoming service dogs. It specifically mentions the boardwalk as an acceptable place to take such an animal.
Tara was happy to be a part of the awareness campaign with the town.
“Being part of such an inclusive town and school community really makes life better for families of children with any type of exceptionality.”
She also believes educating the public is the first step, and has even given presentations to Blake’s peers at school. He does not take Armani to school.
“It’s amazing how much the children have learned and how they respect the rules,” she explained.
The Lions Club of Placentia is a big DogGuides sponsor, and has helped Blake since he got Armani. Lions Clubs across the country help fund the program. The price to sponsor a dog is $12,000. The Lions Foundation covers the remaining $13,000 to ensure zero cost to the new dog owner.
Some fundraisers also help offset the cost.
Each year, Blake and his family take part in the Purina Walk for DogGuides. The community raised some $6,000 the first time they took part.
This year the walk takes place on May 31st, starting at the Placentia Lions Den, and all proceeds go to six guide dog training facilities in the country.
It is this and other fundraising efforts that allow Blake and others to have a service dog at no cost. It is something Tara will always be appreciative of.
“Our family is still very thankful for such a gift that helps makes many days easier,” Tara said.