Mike Hodgins has always called Shawville home. Born and raised in the Pontiac, Hodgins only left for eight years to study and work in Ottawa, returning to his hometown to work maintenance at the Pontiac Community Hospital. It was safe to say he knew his way around town, but in 2006, he had to refamiliarize himself with the place he’d known his entire life in a whole new way.
On October 3, 2006, Hodgins was on the job clearing a blocked floor drain with Drano, an alkaline drain cleaner. He poured it down and continued to work.
“No one told me there was a 15 minute time delay fuse on it,” Hodgins recalled. “It blew out of the floor drain and it sprayed across my face, blew a hole in the ceiling and of course, when it hit my face, it got in my eyes.”
Alkaline chemicals in cleaners are used to break down organic matter, which makes contact on skin more dangerous. Hodgins suffered severe burns on his corneas and eyelids as well as the rest of his face. Immediately following the accident, Hodgins had completely lost his vision.
“I’m in a white world, not a dark world,” he said of his range of sight. “Everything’s white to me, I have no focus. I can see some shades of colours, but it’s like someone threw a white blanket over my face.”
In the years that followed, Hodgins underwent 26 surgeries in Ottawa, Montreal and as far as Boston, MA, in hopes of regaining his sight. He did regain some vision; he came out of his first surgery with 20/30 vision and could see relatively well for six years. A plastic cornea operation was even approved in Canada using him as an example of success.
But after years of surgeries, the complications began. His ocular tissue was too badly damaged, scarred and fragile.
“The eyes had enough and I guess so did I,” he said. “So we stitched up my eyes and preserved what was left, hopefully for something in the future.”
For the last eight years, Hodgins has been living in his white world.
In that time, he was taught to use a cane. A trainer would visit him every day in Shawville and they would go for walks, sweeping the ground as they went. Hodgins could no longer enjoy his walks because of the constant concentration required and he described it as a difficult time not only for him, but for his whole family as well.
It was on a trip to Renfrew seven years ago with his wife, Mary, that would put the hardest times behind them. They came across a man with a guide dog, and they approached him for more information.
“He said, ‘Take the harness off your wife and put it on a dog,’” Hodgins recalled with a laugh. The man recommended a guide dog training school – run by Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind (CGDB), a non-profit organization – in the Ottawa community of Manotick.
“He heavily endorsed them. Great facility. Great dogs, well trained, and great instructors.”
About an hour’s drive away, it was the closest facility to Hodgins and his family, and he signed up for the course. That’s where he met Nellie, a then-5 year-old golden retriever.
After a 26-day stay learning voice commands, specific movements, canine health and bonding with Nellie, the pair returned to Shawville.
“Throughout the years, Nellie and I met a lot of challenges in Shawville walking down the streets. Our street here does not have a sidewalk on it. So that was challenging getting down the street, trying to stay over to the side.”
Distractions are also a challenge, as Hodgins can get disoriented if the dog wanders and pulls him off course.
However, while on the job, Nellie was very obedient. Though when she wasn’t wearing the fluorescent yellow harness, she was a playful and friendly golden retriever.
“When I put the harness on her, it’s like a flicking a light switch,” said Hodgins. “She’s all play-dog, but when she’s got that harness on it’s just work. She’s in work mode.”
For seven years, Nellie served as Hodgins’s companion and source of independence, guiding him all over Shawville. She reached her eleventh birthday – guide dogs’ age of retirement – on May 31, 2020, which meant it was time to hang up the harness and become a full time play-dog.
Keeping this in mind, Hodgins had applied for a new guide dog earlier in the year, and was set to travel back to Manotick for a 19-day course in mid-March to meet his new canine partner. Those plans came to a halt when COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, but fortunately, CGDB had a new plan: at-home, one-on-one training. Hodgins was to start this on April 1, but then the Quebec and Ontario borders shut down. With Nellie’s retirement date approaching, the timeline was uncertain.
The restrictions eased on May 31, Nellie’s birthday. The very next morning, Tosca, a four year-old labrador retriever, arrived and an instant bond was formed between the two.
“The first day [the trainer] let her out of the van, she came to me I said, ‘This is going to work,’” he said. “She’s a firecracker. She does circles around Nellie. She’s a very, very affectionate dog, very smart. They’re both very smart. But when she came in it was so much more energy to her.
“She adapted to the environment and the family, we all enjoy her very much,” he continued. “She’s here now and she gets along great.”
According to Alex Ivic, manager of development at CGDB, one-on-one training was only offered in very specific situations, and most trainees did group residential training. Everyone learns the same content, but “when it’s out of their own home, it’s different in that it’s all one-on-one instruction, it’s right there in their immediate community, but it is a shorter time frame.”
The biggest challenge in planning the at-home training was ensuring that all parties would be safe, which included obtaining necessary PPE and setting limitations on where they could and couldn’t go for training to keep everyone safe. It has gone on since then with promising feedback.
“The home-training people have had a very postitive response to it,” said Ivic. “The fact that we were able to do it safely but as quick as possible, people are really appreciative of that. And also the success of each of the teams we have trained in this way has been really good, so we’re really proud and satisfied with the results.”
Ivic noted that the team at CGDB will continue to review the responses that come in to determine if they will continue the home training after COVID restrictions have passed.
Hodgins said that COVID-19 worked out the best for him, since he was able to receive training from the comfort of home.
“I was very much excited about getting trained at home,” Hodgins remarked. “I got to stay at home with my family… and [I was] getting trained in my own environment, my own routes. If I do get another dog or when the time comes, I’ll ask if I can be home-trained again because I think that’s the way to go. It gets my confidence up more.”
Now, Tosca accompanies Hodgins on all of his walks while Nellie enjoys retirement and the occasional casual walk with the family. Hodgins, his wife Mary, and their two children, Hailey and Jaime, would not call their family complete without their dogs. Hodgins is grateful to have not only a supportive network of friends and family, but also for what his guides have given him.
“It gives me independence,” Hodgins said. “If I didn’t have them, I’d be straining going around with a cane, trying to feel my way, or walking on someone’s elbow, and so this way I can go out by myself and I don’t have to hang onto that person’s elbow.
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