Leading By Example

Leading By Example

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Edmonton Eskimos CEO Len Rhodes has opened up his heart and home to providing a service dog for those in need

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Photography by Grant Olson

When Len Rhodes took over as President and CEO of the Edmonton Eskimos in 2011, he knew that giving back to the community at large was an essential part of his role. While he has been involved in many philanthropic ventures over the years, including raising money for amateur football, to sitting on various community boards to helping women’s shelters. But one community society in particular has seen Len and his girlfriend Maureen open up their hearts and home for the past two years to help train and love a service dog for someone in need.

Dogs With Wings is a local Edmonton organization that aims to assist people with disabilities by providing fully trained service dogs to people who are have either visually or mobility disabilities, and recently to children with autism as well.

Their puppies, usually yellow or black Labradors, are put through an intense two-year training program for each dog that relies heavily on the good nature of it volunteers to open up their homes, time and energy, and more. Eventually, through the work of foster parents, trainers and community representatives, these dogs become fully graduated to help serve others.

Rhodes was paired with Oakley for the past year in the second stage of her “career” training, where they formed an inseparable bond, spending 24 hours a day together.

“We take her to church, to restaurants and even grocery shopping. It takes twice as long to shop though because of all the people we interact with have so many questions when they see she is a service dog. I think it brings a level of conscientiousness for people to understand that some functions we take for granted, other people rely on an animal to perform certain functions,” said Rhodes.

“You do make a sacrifice, but you have to keep in mind the bigger picture.”

Oakley was being trained to assist someone with a mobility and/or agility challenges and it has been a long but rewarding challenge for all involved. Dogs enter the Puppy Program at eight weeks of age, and are with their puppy raisers until they are approximately 12 months old. During this time, they are taught basic obedience and are exposed to many different situations out in the community. If they have met basic criteria for health, temperament and skill, they enter the Adult Program. The second stage, in which Rhodes was involved with, lasts another six to eight months during which time they perfect their obedience and learn many specific skills useful later on.

“When Oakley has her coat on, she knows she’s on duty, but it’s also very important at the end of their assignment to let them be loose and just be a regular dog. When they are done working, you say the word ‘release’ and she knows then she can just have fun and be like any other dog. But these dogs carry tremendous responsibilities on their shoulders, and they are well trained to do so,” said Rhodes.

Oakley was just recently paired with a woman in a wheelchair. And while it was hard to say goodbye, he knew that was what he, Oakley and more had been working towards.

“You have to love animals and you have to love people. Because at the end of the day that will be tested – your love for the dog and the fact that you know you won’t have that dog forever. You do make a sacrifice, but you have to keep in mind the bigger picture. You can’t be selfish, so you have to let the dog go to help someone who is in need of that help,” says Rhodes.

His love for animals also saw him recently involved with the Edmonton Humane Society’s Pets in the Park event, where Len and Maureen helped raise $19,000 towards the society.

“We take her to church, to restaurants and even grocery shopping.”

But giving back to the community is something that Rhodes says just seems to come naturally to him and that it’s something he has always believed in and something he helps pass on to other Eskimo players and staff.

“I feel it’s very natural for me and part of my calling in life. Yes, I do what I do for a living, but in being part of a community owned football team there’s an understanding that we should do more in the community. Yes, we play football, but when I took this role I understood there was much to it than football and doing this was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.”

To learn more about Dogs With Wings and how you can help, visit dogswithwings.ca

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