Molly has worked tirelessly for most of her life to help Sam Dubas manage her many serious medical issues and live a better, more functional existence.

The golden retriever warns Dubas of oncoming seizures, buying her time to get to safety and take medication. Molly also helps fend off panic attacks and picked up a few guide dog skills after Dubas lost sight in one eye a few years ago. 

She can go find help for the 25-year-old when needed, warn her when her heart rate spikes and fetch medications.

Dubas says Molly, who now sports a salting of stately white around her muzzle, has saved her life many times.

Molly is a "unicorn dog," Dubas said Monday.

"Molly's like a living, breathing miracle for us," said Mackenzie Clark, Dubas's fiance. 

But repaying the seven-year-old medical service dog by finding a replacement and ensuring she gets a graceful retirement as she enters her senior years has been anything but easy, Dubas said.

"She's worked very hard since she was about eight months," she said Monday. "She had a big job at a very young age, so we wanted to give her the retirement she deserves." 

In anticipation of Molly retiring, Dubas and Clark secured and started training a poodle a year ago that they only recently found out won't work out as a service dog able to meet Dubas's needs. 

Due to potentially facing years of needed lead time in securing and training a new dog that's a right fit for the job, the worry is real that Molly could end up working well past the point she's still comfortable.

"Sam, because of her health concerns, needs a service dog. It's not just an option," said Clark, who's 24.

But it's not at all like bringing home a pet.

"It's not like you can just hit someone up and be like, 'Hey, I need a dog,'" Clark said. 

Sam Dubas, right, and her partner, Mackenzie Clark, are navigating the many issues around finding a medical service dog to replace Molly, who has assisted Dubas for more than six years and soon will need to retire. (James Turner/CBC)

The couple got a nugget of good news recently. A potentially suitable dog is available through a U.S. agency, Healing Hounds, based in Oregon. The agency is willing to work with Dubas on a compressed timeline, the couple said. 

"They think that they will be able to adopt a dog to what Sam needs, which is really hopeful and really we're really grateful for, because we were scared we wouldn't be able to find a dog that has everything that she needs," Clark said. "Because seizure alert is a big one and it's not guaranteed in a dog." 

But with that is a new and significant wrinkle: Coming up with more than $30,000 to cover the cost of training the new dog, travel and other expenses. 

Clark started a GoFundMe page but has since nixed it over concerns about how much of a cut the company was taking from the donations.

Dubas and Clark are currently choosing to make appeals through Instagram and a Facebook page documenting Molly's work. They plan to do an in-person fundraiser when Dubas feels up to it. 

George Leonard is a master dog trainer with MSAR Service Dogs, an organization that trains and provides support to people with service dogs. (Submitted)

"We've had a couple of people reach out to us and want to donate in person and we're totally open to that," said Clark. So far, they've raised about $750, Clark said.

Winnipeg-based MSAR Service Dogs, which trained Molly, will be asked to certify Molly's replacement, Dubas said.

MSAR's website maintains a page about Dubas and her dog, calling Molly "an everyday hero." 

MSAR founder George Leonard said Molly's ability to pick up new skills is special, but it is common for dogs to be trained to do three or four tasks, then learn more once they bond with their owners. 

"You lay down a foundation and then you hope to expand from there," Leonard said.

It's good to allow a dog to retire, he said.

'It's only fair'

"At a certain point, usually nine, 10 years of age, a dog can get tired and start getting sore, can get overwhelmed. They just might need a break, and that's pretty common for dogs that are heavily working in multitask areas," he said. 

"It's only fair when it comes to that kind of stuff. They put in their good eight years — can't ask for anything more than that out of a dog."

The service dog sector has long wait lists and financial challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

During the pandemic's first two years, fundraising dried up, meaning agencies can't afford to donate dogs to people. 

"So right now, if you're trying to get a free dog, like a dog donated, that's extremely difficult, because they just don't have the funds," Leonard said.

As well, trainers left the field due to a lack of work at the time, leaving gaps today.

In some instances, people are now being scammed by people unqualified to do the training, he said. 

There was also a boom in demand for service dogs 10 years ago and those dogs are being retired, Leonard said.

It's all piled up to create a real problem for some agencies, Leonard said. 

"Not only do they not have enough cash to get new dogs now, they can't even fill the past requests of people that need second and third dogs," he said.

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