Wendy
Credit: Robert Kenney

The Century Plaza Hotel CEO helps guide dogs lend a paw

When Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia isn’t managing her Vancouver businesses, she devotes herself to charity activities. Since 1987, her Women’s Media Golf Classic has raised millions of dollars for child-related organizations, including Variety Children’s Charity and the Children’s Foundation, although it recently ceased operating.

“As a result of founding Pacific Autism Family Network with my husband, our fundraising focus has shifted a little bit,” says Lisogar-Cocchia. The PAFN Launch holiday luncheon fundraiser for 1,000 guests is November 29.

Along with her husband and business partner, Sergio Cocchia, and others who have family members with autism spectrum, she formed PAFN in 2008 to provide a centre for research, education, treatment and support. The 60,000-square-foot GoodLife Fitness Autism Family Hub in Richmond, opened eight years later, offers assessment, therapies from music to medical, a preschool and adult daycare. The centre has since added spokes in Chilliwack, Kelowna and Prince George.

Weekends and evenings, Lisogar-Cocchia volunteers with BC & Alberta Guide Dogs. “I wish I was a puppy raiser, but I’m not,” she confides. “What it involves is visiting with them to share some autism knowledge with their dog trainers.” The organization provides professionally trained autism and PTSD service dogs, as well as guide dogs for the visually impaired, at a symbolic cost of $1 to the recipients.

A registered charity, British Columbia Guide Dog Services relies on volunteers (supported by BC Guide Dog staff) at every stage of breeding, raising and training its dogs—golden and Labrador retrievers—which do not live in kennels. Volunteer families board males and females in the breeding program, plus mothers and puppies. At seven weeks, the youngsters go to live with puppy raisers, who socialize them, take them out into the community to get used to different environments and teach basic obedience skills. When dogs are ready for advanced training, at 15 to 18 months, they move to new homes closer to the BC Guide Dog offices in Ladner, where professional trainers pick them up each morning and drop them off in the afternoon. 

At this stage, the pooches receive about five months’ training to specialize in autism or PTSD service or guiding the visually impaired. Trainers teach tasks specific to each career stream, such as telling a guide dog to find a bench. If trainers of autism service dogs have questions about the behaviours and sensory challenges of people with autism, they might visit the PAFN centre to chat with Lisogar-Cocchia.

There’s a wide variety in the spectrum, she explains. “It is important for the dog and the trainers to understand that it’s not a real straightforward pattern sometimes. A child or an adult might not be feeling well for an hour or a day, and then improve later on, so it’s not a clear-cut path any day.” The main role of autism support dogs is to stop a child from bolting, known as eloping. The dog is tethered to the child, whose parent holds the leash. It’s also trained to apply deep pressure, lying across a child’s legs to ground them if they’re overwhelmed.

Service dogs are carefully matched with their owners. “It’s never a case of presenting, Oh, here’s your dog,” Lisogar-Cocchia says. “It depends on the individual what requirements they’re going to have. At different stages, they would meet the child, the family, the child’s caregivers or aides to get lots of information, making sure that the training was personalized and customized.” Trainers work with families for at least two weeks, with followup visits throughout a dog’s working life.

“People should know that it’s an absolutely invaluable gift,” notes Lisogar-Cocchia. “It truly takes a village to raise a guide dog for any challenge.”

Warrior Spotlight

Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia’s business is a family affair. What is now called the Century Plaza Hotel & Spa was built by her father, Roy Lisogar, on Vancouver’s Burrard Street in 1972. Growing up, she did pretty much every job there from painting rooms to housekeeping and stints at the front desk.

“That was an invaluable training ground to then, years later with my husband, be working at the hotel,” says Lisogar-Cocchia. She and Sergio Cocchia are CEO and president, respectively, of Crew Management, launched in 1996, which also oversees Absolute Spa Group, Soluzione Spa Products, a recording studio and property holdings.