Yohan, an 18-month old Labrador/Golden Retriever cross, is a fully trained service dog now living and working in Duncan. (Robert Barron/Citizen)

Service dog makes big difference in life of youth

Yohan, an 18-month old Labrador retriever mix, is the new service dog for Justin Jensen

If people in the Cowichan Valley see Yohan the dog with his red vest on, they are asked not to call out to him or interrupt him in any way.

That’s because Yohan, an 18-month old Labrador/Golden Retriever mix, is a certified service dog focused on assisting his new master Jason Lillie, 16, when Yohan is in his work vest.

Jason has been diagnosed as having high-functioning autism and has anxiety and other related issues.

His mom, Jackie Jensen, said Yohan is trained to help Jason deal with his issues, providing comfort, calm, friendship and protection when required.

“Yohan is a touchstone to reality for Jason,” Jackie said from the family home in Duncan.

“When Jason wakes up at night feeling afraid and anxious, Yohan is there and his presence keeps Jason in the moment and comfortable. Yohan has even been taught to gently apply varying levels of pressure to different parts of Jason’s body to help keep him calm.”

Jackie said the idea for a service dog for Jason developed in 2015 when she learned that returning war veterans were using animals to assist with anxiety related post-traumatic stress syndrome.

She said she discovered that the Lions Club has a reputable service dog program in Oakville, Ont., called the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, that is free of charge for those who qualify.

“The waiting list was huge and we had to fill out a 17-page application form, have home visits, compile reference letters and much more before it was decided that we were good candidates,” Jackie said.

After a two-year wait, Jackie flew to Ontario last month to meet Yohan at the Lions’ facility, where he was reared and trained, and prepare to bring him home.

She spent 10 days there taking classes with trainers to learn how to care for Yohan, and how to help him with his job as a service dog for Jason.

The Lions Foundation paid for everything, including $25,000 to train Yohan, Jackie’s flights to and from Ontario, and her food and lodging while in Oakville.

“Yohan had his own seat on the flight home because, as a service dog, he’s considered medical equipment,” she said.

“He’s a full-fledged service dog, so he’s allowed anywhere where humans are. Yohan will retire after eight years as a service dog, and then the Lions will allow us to adopt him.”

Jackie asks that if people see Jason and Yohan with his vest on in the community, don’t call out to him or try to distract him from his duties.

“But feel free to ask questions,” she said.