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For Noah Ooloonie Papatsie of Iqaluit, Nunavut, the phone call he received one “ very amazing” day last October could hardly have been more surprising, more welcome, more life-changing. In fact, the call, according to Noah, left him instantaneously “speechless.”

Noah and Xeno at home in Iqaluit. © COURTESY CGDB/KAREN HANLON

The call to his home came from the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind (CGDB) in Manotick, Ontario. The CGDB was calling to let him know that they believed they had found that “special match” to be his guide-dog in a young golden retriever they had named, Xeno. And would Noah come down to Ottawa for the initial four-week mobility training and orientation program in November, so the two could be introduced to each other and learn to work together.

“I was flying…flying up in the air,” Noah told above&beyond, “my heart was beating so, so fast!”

Life-changing events are something this very devoted family man, who is raising two young children and fostering another with life-partner Ineak Nooshoota, knows a great deal about. Once a successful Inuit Broadcasting executive-producer and video journalist, he was injured in 2005 in a workplace accident that cost him his eyesight. A major setback for anyone, yet Noah immediately began rebuilding his life, in his words, “preparing for the worst.”

He learned to read Braille and took computer training to upgrade his employability profile. He has devoted himself to helping others, becoming an outspoken and effective advocate for the disabled and is now the Treasurer of Nunavummi Disabilities Makinnasuaqtiit Society (NDMS) in Iqaluit.

Initially the most difficult challenge of all, certainly in terms of his own mobility, was for Noah to learn to navigate the varied, unpaved, sometimes difficult terrain of his beloved community using a cane as his guide. Getting around in the winter proved especially challenging. He also, on the advice of his local doctor, applied for the assistance of a guide dog. Assessed and approved by the CGDB for a dog, it still took some time, occasionally causing Noah to think that it would only ever be “a dream.”

According to CGDB’s Guide-dog Mobility Instructor, Karen Hanlon, (admitting that yes, it did take time to find a good match), the terrain dynamic of Noah’s far North community and harsh environment (even for people) required a unique match with “a very special dog.” To date, there had never been a guidedog assisting anyone in the North — until Xeno arrived that is.

“Xeno stood out from his large litter of seven from the very beginning. He was very responsive to training, very clever, showing exceptional intelligence, a real desire to please and a high level of initiative,” she says. Also under consideration when trying to match dogs with clients are the personalities of both handlers and dogs. Will they be able to work together?

Hanlon began preparing Xeno by “training him in stimulating, more rural, less urban settings and varying terrains, even construction sites,” to properly acquaint him with the less typical environs that he and Noah would encounter on a daily basis on their own in Iqaluit. Again, Xeno responded enthusiastically, showing exceptional capability and that he was a quick learner.

By all accounts the four weeks in Ottawa training with Noah and Xeno went very well. New handler and guide-dog were a team, albeit a novice one. By mid-December Xeno joined his handler’s family. They already had a pet dog of their own, but Xeno, true to his nature and willingness to please, quickly adapted. According to Noah, once at home with his spouse, the kids and family pet, it really only took “a day and a half or so for us all to bond.”

Mandatory to CGDB’s training and orientation program is the follow-up visit from the organization’s instructor to assess how the new handler and guide-dog are doing and, if needed, to help with further training. Ideally this follow-up should come fairly soon after both are on their own.

First Air, The Airline of the North, offered to fly CGDB’s Karen Hanlon to Iqaluit over the December holiday period so that she could spend time with Noah and Xeno in their own environment to continue with some more locally-relevant training and assistance.

“It was great,” says Hanlon, “they were both adapting really well. With Xeno’s intelligence and natural initiative to find the best way to go and Noah’s knowledge of his community, they work well together.”

With the strong affirmation of the same positive outlook in his tone, Noah told above&beyond that there is no doubt that Xeno has changed his life.

“Oh yeah he [Xeno] really likes the cold. We’re doing so well. Sure there were a few minor mishaps at first,” he laughs warmly. “But I really enjoy helping people and getting around. I can now go to meetings, go shopping, go to the bank when I want to. He’s really helped me regain my balance and my confidence.”

In a statement given to Nunatsiaq News in September of last year during Iqaluit’s mayoralty campaign, (Noah ran for that position), he stated categorically that, “Challenges are not barriers.”

Seems that on that score he and Xeno definitely agree, as they cover ground to meet and conquer both old and new challenges together in the future as — that very “special” match.

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