People are immediately curious when Glenna Spelrem and Iris, a golden retriever-yellow lab cross, enter a coffee shop, the mall or a restaurant.
Spelrem has had the eight-month-old dog in her care since October 2009 as a puppy raiser with the organization Dogs with Wings Assistance Dog Society.
The organization has numerous volunteers who work to train the dogs to be used by people who are blind, who have autism or other disabilities.
In the fall, the Edmonton-based group expanded its volunteer area into Central Alberta, when there was an exceptionally large litter of puppies and they needed more volunteers to help raise them.
Spelrem lives in Rimbey, where she helps run an automotive repair business with her husband Keith and is the mother of three grown children.
She meets each week with other puppy raisers from Rocky Mountain House and Red Deer to train the bright-eyed puppies.
So far they’ve learned basic commands such as sit, stand and come.
But the dogs are also learning more complex commands such as stopping briefly at each stair up a staircase, and commands such as up sit, with them leaning into the leg of their owner, watch me and the loose leash technique, with them closely heeling with their owner.
Iris wears an “in training” vest to distinguish her as a service dog and Spelrem carries identification to show she is training her.
Often times people will want to pat Iris, but as a service dog it is best for them not to do so. Spelrem instead allows Iris to shake a paw with strangers, which delights many of the children she encounters.
Spelrem has been a dog-lover her entire life. She rescued her first dog as a Grade 4 student, when the family was living in Singapore, where her father was working in offshore drilling. The country is very clean, with huge gutters that collect any debris.
She was walking home and saw a small puppy stuck in one of the gutters, scraggly and sickly. About the size of the a chihuahua, with smooth fur, Spelrem took the pooch home and her mother nursed it back to health. She named the dog Peewee.
“He was my life saver,” Spelrem said.
As a child she was never a fan of liver, but she was expected to stay at the table until she finished her meal.
Spelrem would wait until everyone left the table and then slip Peewee liver under the table.
“I can’t imagine myself without a dog,” said Spelrem, who has a golden retriever-black lab cross named Solas, who is four years old. She believes a lot can be learned from dogs and says working with them has taught her patience, tolerance and understanding.
Spelrem will have her Dogs with Wings dog Iris for a full year, before turning the canine over to an adult trainer. She expects it will be difficult to see Iris go, but knows that when she gets to see Iris in her graduation when the dog will be given to a person to help them it will make all the difference.
“I would have to say it’s one of the most rewarding volunteer positions I’ve ever had,” said Spelrem, who has volunteered at Sunday School, as a hockey and figure skating coach and visiting long-term care centres with a previous dog.
“I didn’t feel like I was contributing enough.”
But she said getting involved with Dogs with Wings has made her feel like she has made a larger contribution.
More information on Dogs with Wings Assistance Dog Society or how you can volunteer is available at www.dogswithwings.ca.