When volunteer work goes to the dogs

Growing up in Toronto, Francey Forster’s four-legged friends were always part of the family. So when she made her way to Western, it wasn’t surprising the second-year Social Science student would want to get a dog.

Even though she is allergic to them.

As Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, runs in her family, Forster chose to become a volunteer with Autism Dog Services (ADS). Founded in 2007, the grassroots organization relies on volunteers like Forster for much of its work training dogs for integration with children between ages 3-18 to offer them safety, companionship and independence.

Initially, ADS initially paired Forster with a 3-month-old Labrador retriever puppy, but the need for a hypoallergenic pup forced her to wait a bit longer. ADS works on the donation of puppies from local breeders, so there’s not really a choice, but rather what’s available. A few months later, Forster got the call she was waiting for – a chocolate poodle named Virgil was waiting.

In November, the 4-month-old dog quickly changed Forster’s life from quiet to hectic – but a fun hectic, admitted Forster.

“It’s kind of like being a young mom, to be honest with you,” laughed the 20-year-old Forster. “He was just 4 months, not house trained, and I, embarrassingly enough, started carrying around a baby bag where I had an emergency mess kit – food, water, toys and blanket. I figured, before I got him, that I’ve always had a dog growing up and I could take care of a dog, but I don’t think I really realized that responsibility was shared with the whole family, rather than just me.”

But from the beginning, Virgil followed instructions such as sit and lie down.

“When I go to class he simply lies down or chills out and relaxes when I go to the library,” she said. Unlike other service dogs, Forster’s responsibility is to socialize Virgil, so he is able to be pet by strangers, even though he wears his service dog vest when out and about.

Virgil goes wherever Forster does – the mall, grocery store, dates with her boyfriend, even grabbing his own seat on the Greyhound bus when traveling home to Toronto.

Prior to getting Virgil, Forster contacted all her professors to inform them how she was volunteering with ADS and a dog would be coming to class with her every day. The response she got was extremely supportive.

“They were all great with it. The profs love him and the students love to see him, too,” she said. “I have a professor who, in the middle of a lecture will be talking, and when he walks by he’s like, ‘Hi, Virgil.’”

And now, with Virgil, there’ll be no skipping class for Forster, she joked.

“It’s another reason to go to class in the morning, because it’s obvious to the professor if The Girl With The Dog isn’t there, so I’m kind of forced to go,” Forster said.

Come November, Virgil will be moving on. He’ll head to advanced training for four to six months, before being placed with an autistic child and family. It’s not a day Forster looks forward to.

“It’s definitely going to be an adjustment,” she said. “It’s going to be really bittersweet because, obviously, I’ve come to love him, he’s like my child. On the one hand, I love him to death and I wish there was something I could do to keep him. But, on the other hand, I know he’s not just going to change just one life, but a whole family’s life.”

She hopes to keep in touch with Virgil’s new family, maybe even get updates on how he is doing. But she has already made a date to see Virgil in early 2014, when he graduates from the program.

“It’s going to so fun to see him graduate,” she said. “It will be like my child is growing up.”