[Note to Reader] I live in the UK so all information is correct as I am aware only as a guide dog owner from the Guide Dogs For the Blind Association in the UK.
Guide dogs have been a huge part of my life ever since I can remember. My first memory of knowing what a guide dog was and how it related to my life was when I was seven years old and at the Adam Brooks hospital in Cambridge with my parents at an eye check up. They had a huge ornament of a guide dog in harness standing in the waiting room at the eye clinic and my dad took me over to show me what it was. I felt the smooth impressions of the labradors face, the big ears and the smooth curves of it back, on which sat a harness. I proceeded to ask my parents what it was for and they told me to raise money for guide dogs which I then asked what a guide dog was for and why it wore a harness. My parents explained it was to help the blind get around but even then, I don’t think my parents would truly appreciate the length to which a dog could assist their daughter in the future.
I was seven then, and recently had lost my sight completely and so this news that I could use a dog to get around and break free from the new prison that I’d been placed in because of my eyes made life seem a little easier to handle at my young age. I kept this memory with me for all this time and twenty years later, I’ve been a proud, successful guide dog owner for four and a half years.
Although my journey is barely beginning with the association, I feel its time I shared my own guide dog story with you all.
The rules have changed along with procedures even since I became involved with the association. And surprisingly, my journey began before I even contemplated a dog. I was taken for a visiting day to the local Guide Dogs centre that was in Bolton when I was around nine or ten. I only really remember the puppies in the kennels, jumping and being playful. My experience then was limited but I think I had already decided that I’d love to have one of those four legged companions walking by my side.
At thirteen, our local mobility service had been stripped of several mobility officers and so a long cane instructor from Guide Dogs taught me long cane work for a few years. We chatted lots about guide Dogs and dogs in general. I’ve always loved animals, their innate ability to be loyal and non-judgemental always touched me.
Friends and family continued to ask me through my younger teenage years if I had ever considered getting a guide dog and when I said yes, they automatically asked: “at 16?” I always knew I didn’t want a dog that young. I’d rather be out with friends and doing things a regular sixteen year old would do. Since then, the rules have changed and there is now no lower limit to apply for a dog. But even with that limit in place, I wanted to have freedom and wanted to go off to university with no responsibilities. Maybe if I’d had a different personality, my choices may have been different.
However, once at university, I started wondering if I had a dog would my mobility be increased? I was in a different town, with limited mobility sessions and the area was difficult to work in with a long cane. So, I called up Guide dogs and asked to have a talk with someone. That someone turned out to be my old mobility officer who worked at Guide Dogs. After a long chat with him, I knew even then I was not ready for the responsibility of a furry friend. I had plans to do an exchange programme to the US and he advised me to wait until I came back.
I heeded that advice and after my exchange a two month trip, I finally decided I was ready for the responsibility of a dog. I knew I more than ready for the mobility adjustment but nothing could have ever prepared me for the real experience.
The assessment process began with an application form which I completed in December of 2004. In the January I had a general assessment shortly followed by a mobility assessment where a trained mobility officer walked with me on a route to check my safety and overall mobility skills. After I’d cleared that section of the assessment a guide Dog mobility Instructor came out to assess how I would work holding onto the dog’s harness. The guide dog Mobility Instructor is the person who trains the dogs in the advanced part of they’re training, where the dogs are placed in harness and taught to guide effectively. A double ended handle was used with the instructor acting as the dog would. It felt strange and even that could never prepare you for the real thing. The instructor also did a further application form with me and went over information about every aspect of owning a guide dog. Feeding routines, spending routines, to things I liked to do, social activities, my level of possible work load with the dog. This is to help the team recognise when a suitable match comes in. There’s little point giving an older person a dog that wants a high work load and someone with a hefty work load having a dog with the desire to only walk to the local shops and back. The matching process is a very good one and many around me have suggested my match was perfect because of my personality.
I was twenty-one when I applied for a dog. After four months of assessment I was placed on the waiting list. January 2006, I received a call from the guide dog mobility instructor [GDMI] who had assessed me for the dog section of the assessments. She told me she may have a possible match and could she bring the dog out to meet me.
The dog and instructor arrived and we went on a route I knew well with me holding the handle of the dog’s harness. This was incredibly scary yet altogether amazing. I relished in the idea that one day soon I may have a dog at my side. This little labrador wasn’t for me though. She was sweet and not really cut out for the lifestyle she’d be living in. I liked her but as I suspect the instructor knew, there was little potential of bonding.
A week or so later, she called again and said she had another dog. In bounced Bailey. He literally jumped through the door, a ball of energy and excitement. I remember my mum saying she didn’t like him because he was so boisterous but I fell in love. He followed me around the house, even upstairs and the walk out with him was incredible. Bailey and I bonded and after a month, my GDMI called with the great news that we would be going onto class.
The Guide Dogs for the blind Association has changed over the past ten or so years in how training is done. They used to have residential training schools but the majority of teams either train in the home or train at the a hotel and the surrounding areas. So off I went to Bolton, as the old centre was still there then and waited patiently in my hotel room after eating lunch and meeting the other potential guide dog owners. And in bounced Bailey again, full of love and affection. I was so happy and couldn’t wait to start our training.
We were taught obedience skills, the voice commands of forward, down, sit, wait, stay, come, steady, and taught to control our new friends. Feeding and grooming and learning how to spend our dogs correctly was covered and a health care session was held to educate us how to take care of our new friends, filling in vet books and how to contact Guide Dogs if our dog had to have treatment outside the realm of normality. In the UK, Guide Dogs is a charity and depends solely on donations from the general public and generous businesses to keep the services and production of more guide partnerships going. Vet bills and food are covered by the association if the person is not in a situation they can pay for those things independently. You can opt to pay for one or both of these financial areas if you are able too and would like to contribute. It’s a great service and means that people are not discriminated against for enhanced mobility if they need and want it.
So, after the two weeks we were permitted to take the dogs home for a further week of training and settling in at home. I was excited and nervous. I loved Bailey already but I was uncertain if I could cope with this new responsibility once at home.
He seemed a little unsure when we got home and his instructor had left. It was just he and I until the Monday when she would return to train. I cried like a baby the next few days. We had trouble with his spending due to a heavy snow fall and unfamiliar surroundings for him. But once we were out and about with the instructor, as the dog and you are housebound until you are qualified, it felt great to get him on the harness and working in my home environment. After three days of training at home, I was pronounced Bailey’s owner, and he my guide Dog. We were fully qualified and I could now work him independently with continued checks from his instructor for around a month and working reports submitted for six consecutive months with a check annually after the six month period.
Suddenly walking down the street felt like a breeze. No more catching lamp poles, bollards, shop displays on the pavement, Bailey guided me down the centre of the path, turned left or right on command and when asked to find doors, he would. Finding the crossings to get across the streets safely was now easy as he walked up to it once asked to find it and put his nose on the pole. A quick feel for his soft wet muzzle told me the pole was there and I directed him to the kerb and we waited to cross. On my forward command he moved straight across the street and I didn’t drift dangerously or feel unsafe or uncertain with him by my side.
There are myths, or not necessarily myths but different ways of doing things in associations around the world. Our guide dogs are asked to find objects, such as doors, crossings, or post boxes, and kerbs. We don’t instruct them to go to a specific store but Bailey at least with my experience usually tries to preempt where you want to go if walking on a certain route. He often gives my secrets away and I sometimes think smells of places have him wanting to enter those establishments, pubs and Starbucks or bakeries are usually the culprits. Others would argue it’s because I frequently visit starbucks that he wants to go their but I maintain its the scent of coffee that he may recognise, as we frequent a few different Starbucks around Manchester. He’s not trained to find an empty seat, just a seat and so you have to use other senses to know if someone’s seated there already. He does not dictate when we cross the street, I’m in charge of knowing when its safe, however, if I’ve not heard something that is coming he is taught to ignore my command. He’s rewarded when he’s found something or got through a difficult section of a route with a piece of his dried food and praised vocally and physically by a pat. He is asked to lay under tables or at the side of me in restaurants or cafes and many other public places. The dog does not have a GPS system in his head and usually goes off my body language for when its time to get off of the bus, collecting things together gives him a strong indication.
Bailey helps me primarily with my day to day navigation in familiar areas. His instructor will come out if we need to adjust or learn new routes. She’ll also check on us once a year to see how he and I are doing as a partnership. The aftercare never stops with Guide Dogs here in the UK. She’s on hand with virtually any problem I may be having with working with him while the health care team are always on hand if we have a health issue.
Bailey’s worked with me for almost five years and I can’t imagine life without him now. Sadly, he will retire one day but that is still in the future hopefully. Once he’s slowed down, wanting to take an easier life Guide Dogs will assist with the process and be on hand to support all the way. I will apply for another dog as I value the mobility a four legged friend can offer but Bailey shall never be far away. Depending on my own personal circumstances will depend if he can stay with me but plenty of people, including my parents who Bailey has lived with for the whole time he’s been with me are more than happy to keep him during his retirement.
I have so much respect for this organisation. Earlier this year I began fundraising for them so that they can keep offering a number one service to guide dog owners present and future. My thanks to them for what they have given me, not only with the enhanced level of mobility, the confidence I have going places independently with him by my side but the incredible companionship I have from him and the world class service and support I receive from the Greater Manchester Team. If I ever had the money to sponsor a dog myself, I would because everyone deserves a Bailey or one of his thousands of brothers and sisters treading the pavements of the UK. Let’s hope the patter of paws continues on our UK streets and the many campaigns the association is involved with continues to blossom and changes for the way the visually impaired community move around with their furry companions is nothing but a success.