By: Marshall Chapman | October 2, 2023
“It’s hard. I’m not looking forward to it. You go through a lot together and it’ll be a tough drive back.”
Now that Professor Chuck Ma has returned his guide dog in training, Zenith, we thought it would be appropriate to sit down with him and discuss their past year at Redeemer. Have you ever walked down a hallway, or by a classroom and heard a bark? Or have to do a double-take because you thought you saw a dog in a classroom, but figured it was too good to be true? Well, it’s not: meet Zenith, a dog guide in training, and his trainer, Professor Chuck Ma. On Friday, September 15, I got to know Professor Ma and his furry friend, Zenith, the one-year-old poodle puppy.
As a relatively new professor (year three at Redeemer) Professor Ma and Zenith have thoroughly enjoyed their Redeemer experience thus far. Professor Ma is a business professor and an instructor for the CTS 410 Core Capstone course, where Zenith joins him at the front of the class. Ma was initially not a professor but was based in the IT industry, from which he retired in 2022.
Prior to getting more involved at Redeemer, Ma became a foster for Zenith from the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides as a short-term trainer during Zenith’s “puppy stages”. Zenith was only two months old when Ma picked him up on August 8th, 2022, and trained him for the next thirteen months. He focused on acclimatizing Zenith to everyday life, transportation, and socialization before Zenith began his dog guide training this fall.
When I asked Professor Ma about his Redeemer experience as “the professor with a dog”, he firmly stated that the experience has been fantastic to date. He and Zenith have been well received, though it was a bit of a shaky first month with Zenith in the classroom as a puppy still adapting to his surroundings. Staff and faculty were also receptive to Zenith, Professor Ma later added.
I asked Professor Ma about how long he’d been training guide dogs, to which he quickly replied with a smile: “Oh, Zenith is the first dog I’ve trained…I initially didn’t even want a dog!” He added, “God just puts things in front of me, and I want to step through the door He gives me.”
Ma had stopped by a McDonald’s in Oakville which had a display by Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides. He spoke with the booth’s attendant who explained the process and then signed up. That was in April of 2022, and by early August, he had Zenith. As a “temporary” trainer for Zenith, Ma fosters the dog through his puppy stages, teaching him basic commands, getting him used to crowds and people, socializing him, and equipping him for normal, everyday life. Ma, who initially didn’t want a dog, now has a friend for Zenith, as his son’s dog is staying with him permanently.
As someone who is unfamiliar with the training process for a guide dog, I couldn’t imagine making a connection with a puppy knowing that it’s only temporary. Ma said, “It’s hard not to make a connection with the dog. When you look into a dog’s eyes, they look into your soul. They stare back at you. I always have to tell myself that it’s ‘not my dog, I am only fostering it’.”
He added that some of his friends who are in similar situations have dropped their dogs off as recently as this week and last. “It’s hard. I’m not looking forward to it. You go through a lot together and it’ll be a tough drive back from the LFC Dog Guides facility.”
Ma confirmed that September 25th was the return date for Zenith—he’d told his students that he was taking Zenith back, and wanted to allow them an opportunity to say goodbye. “It will be a sad moment,” he concluded.
Having a puppy in the classroom can be a distraction for students, as a few anonymous students brought their concerns about the distraction to Student Senate last year. I asked Ma about the reception of Zenith by students. Ma immediately noted that of course the focus is still on teaching—the dog is there at the beginning and the end of class, but the focus is on education.
“Sometimes I reference Zenith throughout the class, but for the majority of class he’s either sleeping or resting,” Ma said. Collectively, Ma says there has been a great response from students with many exclamations of “Aw, there’s a puppy!” Students often ask to pet Zenith, which is a great practice (for the record, Zenith was allowed to be petted because he hadn’t yet begun his official dog guide training).
“Staff have also been receptive, as well. Some faculty will even puppy sit for me while I proctor exams and midterms. He gets excited when he sees certain faculty in the hallway because they’ve puppy-sat him in the past.”
Ma did add regarding the situation of having a puppy in the classroom, “He [Zenith] can be a random variable; students need to focus on their exams and their work so it makes the most sense to keep him out of the exam room—and staff and faculty were generally open to puppy sitting if it fit their schedule!” Ma added, “Sure, [having a puppy in the classroom] can be distracting. Early on in the year, he would bark in the classroom which would be quite distracting. It didn’t happen a lot, and when he settles he’s like furniture; he just lies down and relaxes.”
Ma added that he believes having a dog in the classroom can help foster a different environment too, where it can change the dynamics in a positive way. It’s not just a normal lecture. “There’s a huge lineup for service dogs, there’s a real need out there. I think students would benefit from service dogs. It’s important.”
Now that Zenith is back with the Lions Club Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, Professor Ma has admitted that he is open to a few new options for training additional dogs in the future. “Yes, I will consider a few options for guide dogs,” he said. “One option is puppy-sitting for folks who are on vacation, watching the dog on short notice for a limited amount of time. I might also pick up a new puppy in May of next year, allowing me to get through the super early puppy stages, and then at about five months or so when they’re a bit more mature they should be ready for the classroom.”
Putting in a plug for the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, for whom Professor Ma was temporarily training Zenith, Ma said, “[I’m] impressed with what they do. They take people like me off the street to foster puppies, teach us to train the puppies for everyday life, and they don’t have tremendously high expectations.” The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides receives no government funding but operates solely off donations.
Wrapping up, Professor Ma was clear he wanted folks at Redeemer to know how grateful he is for their reception of Zenith and for allowing him to be on campus and partake in campus life. “It’s been huge for his growth and development to allow him to be a part of this environment and his maturity. I really, really appreciate it.”