“They say independence is a big word, and it is indeed. It changed my life when I got the dog.”

Born with Usher Syndrome, Diane Allard found herself blind and hearing impaired by 38. But, after getting a guide dog, she regained her independence.

Allard was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome when she was 25. As a child, Allard was able to see during the day but would experience night blindness, a condition that made it difficult to see in low-light.

“You kind of get prepared for it. It’s not like from one day to the next —  it slowly and slowly degenerates,” Allard explains.

Claude Masse, Allard’s ex-husband, has known her for 25 years and offers to drive her to appointments whenever she needs it.

“When I met her, [she was impaired only by] night blindness. Eventually, it just got worse,” he says.

When Allard was no longer able to see colours, she bought a gadget that would read the colour of her clothes.

“She handled it well,” Masse says. “It doesn’t run her down.”

Zircon has been with Allard for almost six years. He is her third seeing eye dog. Photo by Michelle Huynh.

Allard lost the bulk of her vision at age 38. She got her first guide dog that same year.

“I’ll never forget it. It was the most overwhelming experience of my life,” she says.

During the initial training with B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs, Allard recalls being hesitant and nervous. B.C and Alberta Guide Dogs is an organization that breeds, raises and trains guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired.

“It’s a bit scary at first. When you think about it, you have to put your life in the dog’s hands. Or I should say in his paws!”

The instructors from the school reassured her as she continued following the dog.

“The more I walked with him, the more confidence I got. All of a sudden, as time goes by, it’s almost natural. We become one, the two of us,” Allard explains.

B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs interviewed and screened Allard based on walking speed, home environment and many other criteria.

Presently, she is matched with Zircon. Since 2013, Zircon has been her third seeing eye dog.

“Believe it or not. I trusted him by the second day,” Allard says. “It’s like we were meant to be together.”

Allard and Zircon goes for three walks a week. Zircon accompanies Allard wherever she goes.  Photo by Michelle Huynh.

Allard believes that getting a seeing eye dog changed everything for her. She was able to get control back in her life.

“It’s the simplest little things, like going out for a walk. I can just get up and go with him. I don’t have to wait and depend on somebody,” she says.

Zircon has been by Allard’s side for five and a half years now.

“He’s the first thing when I wake up in the morning. He’s the first thing that greets me. He just comes up and kisses my face every morning. I can’t think of a better way to start a day.”

With Zircon, Allard goes to the gym three times a week and manages to do most day-to-day tasks on her own.

Her regained independence also allows her to volunteer at Father Lacombe Care Centre.

“It’s good to be able to give for a change. When you’re visually impaired, there’s a lot of things we can’t do, and everybody is always trying to help me. But, this way I get to help somebody else, to brighten up their day,” she says.

Zircon is well-loved by those at the centre as well.

Service dogs will often be seen wearing a harness to let the public know they are working and should not be distracted or disturbed. Photo by Michelle Huynh.

“I’ve been told that some of these people never smile, but the minute he puts his head on their lap, it’s like an instant smile. It’s really contagious.”

Allard regularly visits the residents at Father Lacombe but spends most of her time with Marie, an elderly lady at the nursing home.

“Marie very seldom comes out of her room. But when Diane calls to tell her she’s coming to visit, she will get dressed, she will do her hair, then she’ll spend her whole afternoon with her,” Mila Pawlowski, a healthcare aid working at Father Lacombe says.

During the visit, Marie and Allard will often play cards and converse with one another.

“She likes to pray, so every time I go there she always prays that I’m gonna have my sight back one day. So we do a couple Hail Marys and things like that. It makes her happy. She’s very, very Catholic,” Allard explains.

On her way out of the centre, Allard makes sure that all the residents have the chance to pet Zircon before he leaves.

“Everybody loves Zircon,” Pawlowski says, “Everybody.”

Allard’s independence has enabled her to volunteer at the centre for the past five years.

“She brings the sunshine to Father Lacombe with her dog. She’s always happy. Always,” Pawlowski says.

Allard hopes to continue going out with Zircon and living her life as independently as she can. Zircon not only became her eyes but also her companion.

“I think it was love at first sight for us two!”

mhuynh@cjournal.ca

Editor: Kendra Crighton | kcrighton@cjournal.ca