Service dog Carrie stays close with partner Brett Merchant everywhere he goes. (Jensen Edwards/Boundary Creek Times

Midway man finds new freedom with a dutiful companion

Brett Merchant met his new service dog, Carrie, at a training facility in Ontario in September

Carrie’s eyebrows flick up and down, quizzical and probing as they frame her deep chocolate eyes – she’s hard at work at Mile 0 Restaurant in Midway on a sleety Saturday. At the faintest hint of an unexpected shift from her partner, Brett Merchant, or an irregular energy, she’ll snap into action.

“Sometimes I tremor a little too much and she starts to get excited,” Merchant said of his partner.

If and when something goes wrong – if Merchant has a seizure – she’s ready to jump into action, alerting anyone nearby to the danger to her partner.

“Anyone would know, without even thinking about it, it’s just completely different,” Merchant said, explaining Carrie’s alarm voice. “It’ll alert you, and when people see the red vest, [they know].”

Carrie has been Merchant’s shadow since September, when the two connected at an Oakville, Ont., training facility. Carrie, three, blonde and four-legged, is the 59-year-old’s service dog.

Not long ago, in 2016, Merchant was marching on the shoulder of the Highway of Tears – Hwy. 16 in northern B.C. – somewhere between Smithers and Masset on Haida Gwaii. Then, as now, Merchant was affected by lupus, early onset dementia and diabetes, but forged ahead with his companion dog Kura in a trans-province journey to raise awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

But soon after, Kura died. Cut from a thousand-kilometre trek to a walk to the grocery store, Merchant’s range of freedom and of peace of mind restricted with the loss.

“My whole life, I’d never gone a day without a dog, until my last died,” Merchant said.

Then, earlier this year, he learned that the Kettle River Lions Club was sponsoring him to get a new service dog through the Lions Foundation of Canada. The price would be insurmountable for many, without Lions support. According to the Lions Foundation, one service dog costs approximately $25,000 and two years of time to raise, train and partner with its handler. Through sponsorships and donations, the Lions cover all costs for hundreds of Canadians every year.

In August, the Boundary welcomed two sisters who were riding horses across Canada to raise one dog’s worth of money for the Lions Club’s program. The Kecas reached the Pacific in September.

But for Merchant, $25,000 funds more than just a companion; it funds freedom and mobility too.

Without a dog, Merchant said, “you don’t want to go anywhere, you don’t want to do anything new.”

The former contractor from Cranbrook moved to Midway nearly three years ago for the quietness and ease, “but even getting around here was – you don’t really want to go anywhere in case something happens when you’re by yourself,” he said.

With Carrie on the job though, putting herself between Merchant and unseen obstacles, sensing danger and making intermittent eye contact, pathways have opened up.

“It makes a big difference,” Merchant said. He’s already walked around cities like Grand Forks and Kelowna with his partner, where before it was daunting enough to just make it to the hardware store.

“I feel, now, the best I’ve ever felt, with her.”

It helps that Merchant can count on Carrie’s attention – she’s always on the clock.

“Twenty-four seven ‘til she’s 10 years old,” Merchant said.

A clattering bang from the Mile 0 kitchen doesn’t even draw the yellow lab-retriever cross’s ear back – it’s like she’s tuned out the atmospheric sounds to devote her attention to Merchant. Instead, she stretches her back legs and rests her jowls on his lap. Night or day, Merchant said, she’s never more than four feet away.

Just like most other working professionals on the job though, Carrie asks not to be touched – in fact, her vest reads quite clearly, “Do not pet.” That’s a lesson that Merchant hopes to educate the public about. Carrie, as with other service dogs, is working, and unwarranted rewards and attention can distract her from the task.

“The Dog Guide’s attention must be on its handler at all times therefore people are not permitted to pet or distract a Dog Guide while it is in harness,” the Lions’ Dog Guides program explains.

“They’re not a pet in any way,” said Merchant of service dogs. “Even at home, I can’t do certain things – I’d like to have her run around and jump – they can’t do it.

“The biggest thing, with the public, is to kind of just ignore them like they’re not there,” Merchant said. “That’s the best.”

That’s not to say that Carrie doesn’t get affection though. In a half-hour conversation, Merchant’s hand is constantly scratching the top of his partner’s head, ruffling and smoothing her short white hair. Carrie also gets her share of fun – 15 minutes of free play per day, which Merchant said she takes full advantage of the zoom around a fenced area.

“She’s usually bagged in eight to 10 minutes,” Merchant said. “She goes full tilt, like a rabbit – she just runs steady.”

The trim three-year-old gets the rest of her exercise exploring the paths that Merchant can now once again travel – she’s just got to tune out the squirrels that her canine comrades might more instinctively pursue.


@jensenedw
Jensen.edwards@grandforksgazette.ca

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