Nina Steyn’s visit with Doc and other four-legged practitioners could be what the doctor ordered.
Steyn is a 17-year-old Vernon Christian School Grade 12 student who, in June 2022, became the first Canadian to attend Guide Dogs For the Blind’s Camp GDB in Sandy, Ore., near Portland.
She suffers from Stargardt Disease, a rare genetic eye disease that occurs when fatty material builds up on the small part of the retina that is needed for sharp, central vision. It’s the same affliction suffered by Lumby Paralympian alpine skier Logan Leach, 19.
Steyn went to camp at the end of June, looking forward to getting practical experience with a guide dog and meeting other teens going through the same experiences with vision loss.
“I applied online to attend the camp,” said Steyn. “They seemed pretty excited to have a Canadian in attendance. And it was great. There was a lot of hanging around with people and with dogs.”
At Camp GDB, participants explore the companionship, independence, and responsibility of having a guide dog.
Attendees receive hands-on guide dog instruction with an emphasis on understanding the specific orientation and mobility skills required to be a successful guide dog handler, as well as the fitness and endurance necessary for guide dog travel.
“The first day we practiced walking the dog with a trainer. The trainer would hold the dog’s harness and we practiced commands, getting to work with the dog,” said Steyn, partnered up with Doc, a black lab. The camp is full of black labs and golden retrievers.
On the third night of the camp, Steyn got to do a sleepover with Doc.
“We learned how to groom the dogs, feed them and learning the responsibility of taking care of them,” said Steyn. “It was more to help think about the guide dogs and how and if we wanted to proceed with having a guide dog. It was to help us make an informed decision.”
While she wishes she could have brought Doc home to the North Okanagan – which would have been to the chagrin of Rosie, the Steyn’s pet-in-residence West Highland white terrier, or Westie – Steyn feels she’s a year or two away from having a guide dog, wanting to wait until she’s in university.
Jane Flower is Guide Dogs for the Blind’s youth outreach specialist. She said her organization provides services to people in the U.S. and Canada, and that Steyn was the first Canadian to ever apply to attend the camp.
“For attendees and parents, Camp GDB is a great experience,” said Flower. “Especially for younger residents who want to learn and see if it would be worth having a guide dog in their life.”
Steyn, who plays the cello and piano, and who enjoys ballet, skiing and reading, was grateful to have attended Camp GDB.
“It was a very meaningful experience,” she said.