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Vanier student credits service dogs with helping him graduate high school

Stephen Walcer never thought he would reach high school graduation because of his autism condition, but thanks to his service dogs, he’ll walk across the stage with his classmates in June.

Stephen Walcer never thought he would reach high school graduation because of his autism condition, but thanks to his service dogs, he’ll walk across the stage with his classmates in June.

“I’m excited. I’m ready to go to university with me and Doug,” the Grade 12 Vanier Collegiate student said recently.

Doctors diagnosed Walcer with autism when he was in elementary school, and while he excelled academically, changes in routine or sensory input easily upset him. Moreover, he did not attend school consistently, as he ran away regularly; he took off 20 times in one year.

However, thanks to the Lions Foundation of Canada, Walcer received his first dog guide, Bingo, a black Labrador, when he was in Grade 5. After a year of bonding at home, the service dog began accompanying the youngster to school in Grade 6, where he was able to focus clearly.

It costs the foundation $35,000 to train one dog, although it gives the animals to people for free.

After seven years of assisting Walcer, nine-year-old Bingo stepped back earlier this year — stairs and long-distance walks became difficult — and two-year-old Doug jumped in to support the University-of-Saskatchewan-bound graduate.

Bingo will live out his retirement days with Stephen’s parents, Laurie Ewen and Rob Walcer — and likely be spoiled with treats.

A constant companion

Walcer said he never expected to graduate high school while growing up, and if he did, it would not be on time with everyone his age.

“It was difficult just focusing in class and doing all the work that was expected of me in elementary school,” the 17-year-old said. “But once I got Bingo, my first service dog, he made it a lot easier because I could focus, and I just had a companion throughout all of school and I could go through the full day.”

Besides graduating from Vanier — with a 96-per-cent average, one of the highest among his peers — Walcer also participated in a spring graduation ceremony through the Lions Foundation of Canada. The organization released a video recently highlighting eight people who either graduated from school or a Lions’ program.

The ups and downs of autism

Having autism can sometimes be positive for Walcer since he remembers more things than others, although the negatives include having his senses overwhelmed by the surrounding environment, which makes it difficult to focus on schoolwork or other common tasks.

For example, at home, he sometimes cannot load the dishwasher because the dirty dishes overwhelm some of his senses. Yet, his dogs calm him and return him to a functional level.

His diagnosis hasn’t prevented him from playing football for Vanier and Team Saskatchewan. Practices are usually two hours long, so he can manage since Doug is nearby. Once training is over, he quickly reconnects with his service dog.

“(It’s) a very short burst without (Doug),” he said.

Walcer — an offensive lineman — said football is a structured and logical sport, which is why he can participate. However, he won’t carry on his football career in Saskatoon because it would be too tough to focus on engineering classes and athletics while having a service dog and living in a new city.

Having service dogs makes every day “more normal” for Walcer, while he can enjoy the little things in life that others take for granted. For example, he couldn’t attend hockey games or Roughrider games, so he stayed at home while his parents kept everything calm so he didn’t melt down.

“And now you’re the loudest one at the Warriors’ games,” said Ewen.

Walking on eggshells

Before Bingo arrived, Laurie and Rob never knew what would upset their son, and they expected him to live at home forever and do very little as an adult.

“Now he’s out the door about to do great things. The Lions Foundation of Canada are our heroes,” she added.

“People who raise these dogs do so selflessly to give others a better chance at life,” said Mr. Walcer.

Different personalities

Walcer said that Bingo and Doug are “very different” personality-wise, as the former wants to mostly sleep and rest during his off-hours, while the latter is “a chaotic dog” that runs around the yard constantly during his off hours.

Moreover, while Bingo never played fetch, the Vanier student uses three balls when playing with Doug so the animal can continue running since it rarely tires.

“But … they both are ready to work when the harness goes on,” Walcer said.

After interviewing Walcer online, the Lions Foundation paired Doug with Stephen because the animal has a better temperament and personality when dealing with a university setting. This includes regularly walking across campus to classes and sleeping until moving to the next class.

University will be stressful and “a big change” for the Vanier graduate because he will be living on his own, although he is excited about this new adventure and the fact a new friend is joining him in this next stage of life.

Besides his furry companion, Walcer can also visit his sister, who is in her fourth year at the U of S.

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