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Bonnie Genin, with Can Do Canine program graduate Emily Cox and her new mobility assistance dog, Mason, are pictured with Executive Director Al Peters and Co-chair Linda Altergott of the Deerwood Lions. They all recently attended training at the headquarters of Can Do Canines in New Hope, Minn. Submitted photo

'Bonnie and her dogs' give others a new leash on life

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Bonnie Genin has a 'can-do' attitude about helping people in need.

The Perham woman is closely involved with Can Do Canines, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs at no cost to people with disabilities.

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Based in New Hope, Minn., Can Do Canines trains and places hearing assist dogs, mobility assist dogs, and dogs that help people suffering from diabetes, seizures or autism. Its service area includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Iowa, Missouri and parts of Illinois. 

As a representative of the organization, Genin travels around the Lakes Area and beyond to speak to various community groups and clubs, and to local media, raising awareness of Can Do Canines in hopes that her efforts will result in more people applying for the program. 

Her wish - and the wish of the organization itself - is that everyone who needs and wants an assistance dog is able to get one.

"There are so many people who could benefit from having a dog, and they're just not aware that they would qualify," she said in an interview Monday.

She's seen with her own eyes the remarkable benefits that the dogs bring to their human partners.

Twin Cities-area resident Emily Cox, for example, who has limited mobility, used to live at home with her mom and sisters, who helped care for her. But now, thanks to her mobility assist dog, Mason, she is living independently, in an apartment by herself. Mason has taken over many of the duties that Emily's family members used to be responsible for.

All dogs trained by Can Do Canines can open and close doors, turn on light switches, retrieve water bottles out of refrigerators, bring an emergency phone to a person in need (and in some cases even push a special button to call for help), assist with laundry, and more. 

After that basic training, the dogs are paired with their humans, depending on the needs and personalities of both. A dog that likes to sniff, for example, will be trained as a diabetes assist dog. These dogs detect low blood sugar levels by sensing a change in their partner's breath, and alert their partner by behaving in a certain, easily recognizable way.

This kind of specialized training is done one-to-one with the person's specific needs in mind, and the people who benefit from the dogs must go through an application and 'training' process of their own. After they graduate from the program, they each get to take their dog home permanently, free of charge.

Genin, a Lions Club member, first heard about the program back in 1993, at a club convention. She learned then that one of the organization's earliest beneficiaries (outside of the Twin Cities area) was a hard-of-hearing man from Henning, so there was a local connection. She also liked that all the dogs in the program were rescued from animal shelters. At that time, the program trained only hearing assist dogs.

Today, the training programs have expanded to include other kinds of disabilities, but about one-third of the dogs are still rescued - some have come from Lucky Dog in Detroit Lakes. Most, but not all, of the dogs are black labs.

As one of the projects that the Lions Club regularly supports, Can Do Canines was never far off Genin's radar over the years.

"I was donating to them whenever I could," she said, "and I had a secret goal all along to do what I'm doing now."

Today, she's a Lions District 5M9 co-chair for Can Do Canines. She's been representing the program in this way for the last three years, and has no plans to quit. If anything, she'd like to get more involved in the future, covering a wider area.

Those who know her, know of her passion for the program.

"I'm referred to as 'Bonnie and her dogs,'" she said with a laugh. "But I think you have to believe in it to represent it."

Can Do Canines has a staff of 40, 10 board members, 100 puppy raisers and more than 200 volunteers. There are also some regular financial supporters, including Perham-based NutriSource, which provides food for the puppies in training.

The nonprofit relies on this kind of generosity; it costs roughly $25,000 to sponsor one assistance dog from start to finish.

The cost is high, but as Genin pointed out, the dogs can end up saving their human partners a lot of money on ambulance rides, emergency room visits and other healthcare expenses. One woman, she noted, saw her previously frequent ER visits reduced to nearly nothing after getting an assistance dog, simply through early detection and prevention of health problems.

Even though the work is unpaid and keeps her plenty busy, Genin relishes it because of stories like that woman's.

"The dog allows freedom and independence that a person may have never known before," she said. "And to know that I may have been a part of getting the word out to make this happen (is really rewarding)."

In addition, she added, "You can tell when you see these dogs, they're very happy, very content."

WHAT CAN THE DOGS DO?

Assistance dogs are different from therapy and seeing-eye dogs.

Hearing Assist Dogs: are often selected from animal shelters. They alert people who are deaf or hard of hearing to sounds by making physical contact with them and then leading them to the source of the sound. This is especially helpful at night, when many hearing devices get turned off.

Mobility Assist Dogs: work with people who have mobility challenges and other disabilities. They carry objects, pull wheelchairs, open doors and help to pay at tall counters.

Diabetes Assist Dogs: detect low blood sugar levels by sensing changes in a person's breath. They alert their human partners by touching them in a significant way.

Seizure Response Dogs: respond to a person having a seizure by licking their face, retrieving an emergency phone, and alerting other family members.

Autism Assist Dogs: keep children with autism safe in public settings and help them experience the world more fully by offering comfort and assurance. These dogs also serve as a social bridge between the family and the public.

WANT TO KNOW MORE, OR DO MORE?

• Visit www.can-do-canines.org or call Bonnie Genin at 218-346-2583

• Volunteer to be a puppy raiser, or provide a foster home for a dog

• Attend a Can Do Canines graduation ceremony. There are two every year. The next one is scheduled for Oct. 28 at 1 p.m. at the organization's headquarters in New Hope, Minn., at 9440 Science Center Drive. The ceremonies are free and open to the public.

• Attend a fundraising event. The next one - a black tie event called the Fetching Ball - is coming up on Nov. 10. See the website or contact Genin for details.

• Participate in the Can Do Canines puppy-naming program. Any group or individual is able to name one of the puppies after raising $2,500. The names can be as creative or as far out there as you like: "If you like Guns 'n' Roses and want to name a dog Axl Rose, you can do that," laughed Genin.

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