A St. Albert-based trainer's company has been approved to offer service dog training as part of a provincial government effort to increase the availability of service dogs in Alberta.
Alberta's minister of community and social services, Jason Luan, announced June 24 that the province will provide $300,000 in grant funding to nine organizations with the goal of increasing the supply of service dogs in the province.
"This will lower the cost for Albertans with disabilities to obtain qualified service dogs for their needs," Luan said at the June 24 press conference.
"In fact, with the funding and additional organizations, up to 80 service dogs a year can be qualified to serve in Alberta," Luan said.
As part of his announcement, the minister also said three new organizations are approved to qualify service dogs, including former St. Albert resident John Dugas's Holdfast K9.
Dugas, head trainer for the family-owned and operated Holdfast K9, has been training service dogs for the past few years. As part of the charity he chairs — Courageous Companions — he provides service dogs to veterans and first responders.
To train service dogs under a new company name, Dugas had to apply to the province to be approved as a trainer again. Dugas said the process was simple, thanks to his years of experience training service dogs and working with other training organizations.
"I’ve dealt with Courageous Companion’s application ... so mine was really easy," he said.
Dugas, an army combat engineer for 30 years before retiring in 2008, said he usually receives twice as many calls from members of the public who do not qualify for Courageous Companions services, but who are looking for service dogs.
"I decided maybe I should start my own business," Dugas said.
With Holdfast K9, Dugas provides "owner training," meaning he takes clients who want their own dogs certified, and he will train both the owner and their dog to prepare them for the provincial government assessment.
“What happens is I help them train their dogs for a year, or year-and-a-half, depending on how long it takes, and they book the test with the province,” Dugas said.
"I would say probably 70 to 80 per cent will pass, and the rest will not," Dugas said. "It all depends on the dog."
Dugas said he recently moved to an acreage in Parkland County to expand Holdfast K9's services. The business provides obedience training, behaviour modification, a "board and train" program, and now owner training for service dogs.
Dugas said he also makes custom dog crates.
"If someone would have told me six years ago this is what I would be doing for a living, I would’ve laughed at them," he said.
"I wouldn’t even say I’m doing this for a living, I’m doing it because I want to help people. I sincerely mean that.”
Dugas said he is currently in the process of completing a working-dog training practicum. Once he completes the practicum, Dugas said he will be able to train narcotics dogs, protection dogs, and bomb-sniffing dogs.
When asked how he became interested in training working dogs, Dugas said, "it just kind of seemed the way to go with me."
"I’m actually more naturally drawn to that side of the house from my time in the army working with dogs overseas ... but I do like the medical service dog work.”
Dugas believes the addition of funding and newly qualified organizations will make a difference in Alberta, where he says the current demand for service dogs is "insane."
"I would get calls from people who’d say, ‘We’re calling these organizations and no one is answering the phone,' or, ‘They have a four-year waiting list.'"
He said he thinks the funding will make a difference, "maybe not a big difference, but you can only eat the elephant one bite at a time [and] we have to start somewhere."