All posts by A5Paige

About A5Paige

I'm 20, from the South Coast of the UK, registered blind and just feel like rambling... An open university student working towards a BA Health and Social Care degree; loyal Liverpool FC fan; pretty lousy computer user. Follow me on Twitter @A5Paige or subscribe if you fancy being updated with my babbling

Mobility Update 27 July: Guide Dogs mobility assessment

Last week, I received a call back from one of Guide Dogs’ mobility officers to ask when I was available for my Guide Dogs mobility assessment. We agreed on this Tuesday, July 25th, at 10am. I was nervous even on the phone. The instructor who was coming out to see me was the lady who had dealt with my case before I contacted Seeing Dogs and who, at that time, said she felt then wasn’t the right time for me to have a dog and that I needed a lot of route training before I’d be ready. Then, we agreed on a My Guide partnership, whereby they’d match a volunteer to me to help out with whatever I needed, which in my case was route training. Unfortunately, before I was suitably matched to a My Guide volunteer, John from Seeing Dogs had told me that Zena was a successful match. Of course, as someone who has always desperately longed for a guide dog, I was hardly going to take the opportunity of more cane training over the offer of a dog. However, as I soon discovered on Tuesday, I was wrong to be worried about seeing this particular instructor again.
I knew I’d have to show her one of my routes and I hoped, even though she’s seen it once before, she’d be happy with the simple route to my local Co-op. Luckily, a lot of discussing was done before we set out for the actual mobility part of the assessment. Mostly, she wanted to know what routes I currently have and use, whether they’d improved since we last met and what had happened with Seeing Dogs. Before Tuesday, I’d had advice from everyone about what I needed to say in order to prove that I have enough of a workload now to need a dog and that having a dog for me works so much better than a long cane. I explained all about Zena and what had happened regarding Seeing Dogs. I told her that I felt there needed to be more support and that for me Zena was totally the wrong match. I tried not to linger over all this for too long, instead emphasising how often I used to take Zena out and all the places I could go to with her. I made it quite clear how much more confident I felt with a dog in place of a long cane and how I felt able to get out of the house whenever I wanted to. She knew, from interviewing me last time I applied for a guide dog, that this was all a massive improvement on where I was 18 months ago.
Even before we went out for the long cane demonstration, she told me that she would be putting me forward for a guide dog assessment. This is the next step towards actually getting a dog. An assessor comes out to your house and discusses everything to do with owning a guide dog as well as making you walk with the handle of a harness, to judge your reactions and posture I think. This is when you can specify whether you’d prefer a particular breed, colour or gender of dog. As I commented when she was explaining all this, I’m not going to be disclosing any preferences. As long as the dog is matched appropriately and correctly, I’m not bothered if its female or male, Labrador or Shepherd, or golden or black. As long as our partnership is based on professional judgement, it doesn’t matter what kind of dog I get.
I was really surprised to discover that the long cane part of the assessment went really well. The instructor said that all aspects of my mobility had improved massively and when we arrived back at mine, she said that this was what they needed, that she hoped I understood now why they had to say no last time. If she’d said no tis time too, I don’t think I’d ever had agreed with her. But I do; I get it completely. I needed more routes. I needed more confidence. And it’s John and Zena I have to thank for that. I don’t think I’d ever have accomplished it so well with a cane. The assurance I have that a Guide Dog is the right mobility aid for me has made me determined to have one; and I’d never have known that for sure without the 5 months I spent with Zena.
So the next step from here is the Guide Dog assessment. The instructor told me to wait 8 weeks to hear from someone. If time stretched on longer than 8 weeks, I am to contact them immediately to hurry them up. If I am successful at the Guide Dog assessment, I’ll be put on the waiting list for a dog. As a side thought, I asked if I’ll be able to have further help to learn routes while I’m on the waiting list and the instructor reassured me by saying I could. Although I’m happy with how much progress I’ve made with routes in the last year, I’d still like to add more to my growing list. The more routes I have, the more I have to keep a dog busy. It has to be said, though, that I couldn’t have hoped for more from this assessment. I was absolutely terrified about it before it happened and afterwards I couldn’t have been happier but more shocked about the outcome. There isn’t a better option than what i’ve come out of it with.
My homework, while I wait for my Guide Dog assessment, is to do the routes to the leisure centre and the library independently with my cane. I’ve never done this before so it’s quite a challenge to be presented with. I’ll do it, though, at some point. I’ve asked my dad to do the leisure centre route with me so that i can log it onto the Trekker Breeze before approaching it alone. It’s not that I don’t think I can do it, it’s just that having the Breeze as backup is a big reassurance. Anyway, as I have two months to get it done, I think it’s ok to take an extra precaution with it.
So I’m on my way towards getting my very own Guide Dog. One more assessment, which everyone seems quite confident I’ll pass, then hopefully a match, then training and then hopefully freedom, even better freedom than what I had with Zena. I’ve been warned that the Southampton waiting list for a dog is currently 18 months so it could be quite sometime before i get that freedom. It’ll be worth it when I do though. Next stop guide dog assessment.
I just want to thank everyone who supported me in the lead up to Tuesday and who greeted my amazement at the outcome with enthusiasm and positivity. I wouldn’t be in this position I am,having the confidence and determination to continue with the guide dogs application process if it wasn’t for your support. Lets hope that I can get through the Guide Dog assessment successfully and be put on the waiting list. I don’t think I’ll believe it’s true if I’m that lucky. But I’m hopeful, really hopeful that this time everything is going to work out in my favour. I mean, if Tuesday is anything to go by, I really am going to be very lucky.

Open Uni: K118 results day

Amazingly, I am already 2 months into my Open Uni summer break and that can only mean one thing: results day was looming. Our module result date was set to be the 19th of July and after assessment marks being released, module result day is the most tense part of the whole academic year. Even if all your TMA’s have come back with outstanding grades throughout the module, on results day you’re still sitting there with the horrendous possibility that you may have still failed the module. To pass a Level 1 module, you have to receive 40% or higher in your overall continuous score, which is all your assessment scores combined, and then 40% or higher in your examinable component score, which is either an EMA (examiner marked assignment) or a physical exam. The dread that somehow you may have completely messed up your chances of passing by performing terribly in your EMA hangs over you until results day. Of course, if you do grade lower than 40%, your whole module experience is ruined. The OU are slightly generous in that they give you roughly 6 weeks after results day to resubmit your examinable component, giving you the chance to pass second time around.
My results were released a day earlier than scheduled. For about two weeks prior to the due date, everyone was checking their emails and student home obsessively, certain that results would be out early. As it turned out, we weren’t wrong but they were nowhere near as premature as last year.
Not that it mattered. On Tuesday 18th July around 11am, OU results were finally available. I happened to be out and about when the first posts of ecstasy appeared on Facebook announcing the exciting news. Immediately, I logged onto student home using my IPhone, uncertain of whether the mobile site would actually show my results, and held my breath.
Pass. That was the first word that VoiceOver read to me. Pass. Then, overal examinable score: 75; overall continuous assessment score: 76. To say I passed the pass grade boundary is definitely an understatement with those scores. I was hoping for scores in that region, to be honest. My previous two modules, AA100 the arts past and present and K101 an introduction to health and social care, both received similar scores to what I’ve managed to achieve with K118. This of course means that my two level 1 modules have set me a good standard for Level 2 and 3 of my degree. Although i was hoping for scores in the 70s or higher, there was of course a very valid chance that I wouldn’t do that well. I could have perhaps not done well with the EMA and scored lower than the required 40, or maybe just scraped the pass. Neither of those would have satisfied me. There was no reason why I should do that badly. To grade lower than 40% would be a real disgrace for me.
So I passed. I have a third Level 1 module securely under my belt and a strong foundation to the basis of my degree. I can easily progress to Level 2 without any concern about Level 1. In October, I’m signed up to start studying two Level 2 60 credit modules: K217 and K240. I can’t remember the full titles of them right now, but one is based solely on mental health and the other is a continuation of the ones I’ve already been studying. One has an EMA and one has a proper exam. I’m already nervous about the prospect of an actual exam but a friend of mine, who is also VI, has reassured me by explaining how well the process went for him. He’s doing an OU degree in law and had to sit an exam for his second Level 1 module. I’d of course prefer to have EMAs for all modules, but I’m not sure that’s even possible. I think there is a way to do it, but that way you’d have to stick to a very specific pathway with your degree and I like the idea of choosing whichever modules I fancy regardless of the examinable component.
Another bonus to July 18th this year was that I noticed my student finance application for the academic year of 2017/18 has been approved. I’ve been allowed the full loan amount to cover both modules. To say I’m relieved is an understatement. Obviously, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be granted my full loan request as I’ve had no disagreements with student finance in the past. It is nice to know that my studies are paid for for another year, though. I can’t imagine trying to fork out that kind of money to fund my own degree. My full loan amount is under £6000, though, which is a lot less than the cost of studying at a regular university. It is nice to know that if ever I’m in a position to repay my loan, I’ll be paying a lot less than I would have had I attended normal university, especially as I don’t have to add accommodation and living costs onto that already hefty cost.
Yet again, I’m ready to start back studying. It is very strange having this much free time on my hands. With no uni and no Zena either, I really have nothing to do with my time. I miss having study and a dog to fill up the long hours during the day while nobody else is home. In October, it will be nice to have something to focus all my attention and energy on again. The idea of being busy with two modules is more of a relief than a fear. Although, when I looked at my assessment calendar on Monday night, I was a bit daunted by how many TMA’s I’ll be completing in such a short space of time. But I feel ready for the challenge. Just like the last 2 years of Open University study, I’m going to give it my best shot and am hoping to end up with as good if not better grades than I’ve already achieved so far. According to my sister, the scores I’ve managed in both K118 and K101 are equal to a first in degree pass grades. There’s no way I could have ever hoped for more than that. I plan to keep it at that high standard. If I can continue getting those kind of scores at Levels 2 and 3, I’ll be coming out of this degree with something I thought was impossible for me to achieve. A first in a degree is a pretty amazing achievement so if i can manage that, I’ll have surpassed all my academic dreams. That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway. Whether I get there is currently a mystery. But for now, I’m pretty chuffed with a high pass in K118. 

Mobility Update  13 July 

Since Zena left, I have been struggling to get back into a normal routine, adjusting to life without a guide dog. as I spent all my time with Zena — she even slept in my room — I’ve found it quite difficult to keep busy without her. the main thing I’ve struggled with is adapting to using a cane as my primary mobility aid. as I relied on Zena as my guide for five months, it is very strange to transition back to using a cane. the first thing I noticed was all the things I hadn’t had to think about when Zena was guiding me. Swinging a cane and finding every little detail along a route is a lot different than walking in the direction you know your route follows with a dog avoiding all the unnecessary details. The one thing Zena has taught me is that a guide dog is definitely my preferred mobility aid. Using a cane feels tedious and long-winded. Some people say that a long cane feels like an extension of their arm when it comes to being mobile. I feel that way about a dog. Some people have said that I criticised Seeing Dogs, their training and Zena herself. I have not. I quite clearly recognised how vital Zena has been in my journey to being independent. I will forever be grateful to John and the charity for giving me the chance of being Zena’s partner and for Zena for showing me that a guide dog is definitely what I want. However, when I signed my Seeing Dogs Ownership Agreement, I did so with the knowledge that Zena was going to be my guide and that if ever I felt she wasn’t fulfilling that purpose, I’d be able to contact Seeing Dogs and something would be arranged that was in the interest of both Zena and I. I felt that I tried every option available to me to make sure mine and Zena’s partnership worked and when I ran out of options, I did the last thing available to me. Some may feel that I wasted the charity’s time, effort and money. A lot of money, resources and time is put into every partnership they produce. But I feel that Seeing Dogs give people the chance of matching with their dogs with the full understanding that maybe the match won’t be successful, that some matches do fail. Therefore, I don’t feel that handing Zena back was a waste of the charity’s money. They gave me the opportunity that nobody else ever has, to learn that a guide dog is exactly the mobility aid I need. Having Zena taught me many valuable lessons, including how to look after a dog and how to function with a guide dog. Those things are invaluable. Anyway, even if the charity’s money was wasted on me, Zena was well looked after, loved a lot and will hopefully be matched to someone who she can help more than she could me. Moving on, this post wasn’t supposed to be a rewrite of my last post where I explained my decision to have Zena withdrawn. This post was to explain the plans I’m putting in place for future independence.
Last Thursday, I reapplied to Guide Dogs for the Blind. I wrote an email in which I explained that I’d like to apply for a Guide Dog again and also use the My Guide service to its full potential. The My Guide service is where a volunteer is matched to a blind person to help them get out and about more. As my way to learn routes is with a sighted person helping out, the My Guide service could certainly help me. I have been rejected from being put on the Guide Dogs waiting list for a dog twice before because it was felt that I didn’t have enough routes to form a good enough workload for a dog. Before I had Zena, I didn’t go out anywhere on my own. The only time I used my cane independently was while I was learning new routes and that was always with a sighted person following behind. Now that I’ve had Zena and she is gone, I will go out by myself with just my cane. Having the additional aid of the Trekker Breeze has so far been invaluable. It makes me feel safer in the knowledge that I can rely on it to tell me what street i’m on if I feel lost. Unfortunately, the overlap of Trekker and Zena wasn’t big and I wasn’t able to log all of the routes and locations I went to with Zena on to it before she went. I did manage to go to the local Co-op with Zena and Trekker, recording the route as i walked. The local Co-op is literally a couple of side road crossings and a corner turn away. It only takes me about 10 minutes to walk there with a cane. But that Co-op is incredibly useful and a very valuable little route to have in the bank. I’ve been lucky in that Guide Dogs have responded fairly quickly. I received a phone call from the Southampton office on Tuesday and went through the Guide Dog application form there and then. The lady on the phone said she’d send out the medical forms they need and forward my email to the mobility officers so that they could arrange a mobility assessment for me. Usually the first step is to attend one of their information mornings in branch but the lady on the phone suggested that was probably unnecessary for me as I’ve been to one before and been through the application process twice before. I agreed to this suggestion as I didn’t really see the need to attend another information session, especially as I’ve had Zena and now know what it is to look after a guide dog. Guide Dogs themselves have the added benefit that they cover food and medical costs. So in a way I’ve already had a bigger responsibility than I’d have if I was matched with a Guide Dogs dog; I wouldn’t have to add cost as a contributing factor to whether a guide dog is right for me. THe next step is to fill out the medical forms that came in the post today and get them posted off to Guide Dogs. I’m hoping i’ll hear back from them relatively quickly regarding a mobility assessment , My hope from there is that they will see that I have a need for a dog, offer me more help to learn routes with My Guide and find me a match., This time, I don’t intend to take no for an answer. I need a guide dog to be comfortably mobile and all i need to do is prove that to them.
I think I’ve dealt with Zena’s absence quite well mobility wise. I haven’t just sat at home every day feeling sorry for myself because my partnership failed. I’ve gone into Woolston twice to meet grandparents for lunch and taken myself into town on the bus to meet friends three times. I’ve also wandered up to the local Co-op by myself twice. The first time was just to get me out of the house but the second time Mum had given me the electric key and some money to put on it. It was good to have a reason to go out again. But that’s definitely the scariest walk I’ve done alone without Zena. I’m not really sure why it was so terrifying because if anything the Co-op route is the one I know the best. But it was horrible. I was sweating loads when I got home even though I was only wearing three-quarter length trousers and a t-shirt and it wasn’t even hot. I just felt so nervous. That’s where walking with a cane is so different for me. At times I felt nervous walking with Zena but those nerves don’t even compare to what I feel with a cane. That’s another thing that makes me know a guide dog is the right thing for me. The confidence I had with Zena despite our flaws as a partnership were incredible so the confidence I should have if I’m fortunate enough to be matched with a Guide Dogs dog who meets the requirements I have should make the confidence I had with Zena pale in comparison. I’ll be flying, I know it.
And that is exactly why I have to convince Guide Dogs. I and others around me saw the massive impact Zena had on my life so we can only imagine the changes a well-matche dog could have on my life. I don’t mean in the fairytale way of everything will be perfect and I’ll be able to go wherever I desire. I’m not that clueless. Zena has taught me that its hard work to have a guide dog and maintain a partnership. But if the dog and I were to work well together in a way Zena and I never managed, I know I would benefit hugely. Of course, if I’m exceedingly lucky and am offered both Guide Dog waiting list and My Guide opportunities, I’ll be able to build up my knowledge of routes while I wait for a dog, making the likelihood of a stronger more successsful partnership more promising. Obviously, I’m just dreaming there; I very much doubt that I’ll be offered both. If anything, I’ll be told I still don’t have enough routes, even though I’ll have proved to the best of my ability, and given a My Guide volunteer to help me learn more routes. But I’m trying to be positive. A lot has changed since they last told me to learn more routes. I’ve had an assistance dog, I’ve learnt new routes and it had massive benefits on my life. I’ve discovered truthfully that a guide dog is the right mobility aid for me and I have plenty of experience to use for a future partnership. I’m going to be stubborn about this. I know for certain it’s what I need and I know I can make a success of it if I’m given a chance. I just need that chance.
While I wait hopefully and impatiently, I’m going to do all I can to get as many solid routes under my belt as I can. I still have all the routes I could use with Zena and there’s always potential for more, especially as Southampton has the talking bus service. I’ve been logging all the routes I’ve been doing on to my Trekker Breeze and adding landmarks to its memory every time I go somewhere. All these little things will be helpful and build up to the bigger end picture that I’m hoping for. In thes next blogs focused on mobility, i’m going to write about every little detail of my journey with Guide Dogs, whether that be being lucky and being put on the waiting list for a dog or progressing with new routes with a My Guide volunteer. I want it all written down, i want to be able to look back in a few years and know I made good decisions regarding my independence. I feel like currently I’m making all the right decisions and doing my best to make myself independent. Zena and Seeing Dogs have been a great catalyst for my desperation to be independent again. I was desperate when I applied to Seeing Dogs but now I’m desperate in a whole new way; I’m desperate for something that I know exists, for something I know I can have given the opportunity. Somehow, I’m going to make this work.

The hardest, most thought through, heartbreaking decision I’ve ever had to make

So this time I have sad things to write about. Since January this year, I’ve had the pleasure of a four-legged maniac in my life. Her name is Zena and she’s been my guide dog. Until last weekend, I thought she’d be mine until she retired. But things haven’t been going well for Zena and I as a partnership for quite some time and so I made the decision to have her withdrawn. It is not a decision I made lightly or easily and only most of me believes it is the right decision to have made. All of me knows it was but there’s still a lot of me that wants her here with me, where I believed she was meant to be. But last Thursday, John came to collect her and she has gone home with him to be trained and matched with someone else; someone better, I hope. There are many reasons why I felt our partnership wouldn’t work in the long-term:

First, she always seemed to be racing ahead of me. No matter how much I’ve picked up my walking speed since the beginning of training at the end of January, I could never seem to match her pace. No amount of correcting and stopping to slow her down made the difference. John taught me how to flick the handle and say `steady` in the slow kind of sing-song tone to slow her down. He taught me how to stop abruptly and give her a firm correction with the lead repeating that `steady`. Nothing happened for it. For a little while, I thought Zena had improved with her speed. But it just became erratic. Sometimes she’d react to the corrections and the tone of my voice. Other times, she’d continue to speed along towards whatever it was that had caught her eye or to the destination in sight. I’m not saying I need a slow dog, but a dog who is happy to wander along at my side sticking to a steady pace would definitely be preferable. If I’m running along trying to keep up with a dog, I’m putting more energy to staying with them than I am to where we’re going and what’s happening around us, two vital things I need to be constantly taking note of.

Second, there was the crossing issue. Even on the most repeated routes we did, Zena was constantly over-shooting crossings (flying over them and into the road). John taught me the methods to correct this problem and I was forever using them but usually with no result. Sometimes, she’d pay attention and the route would improve for a while. But then the next day we’d be back to over-shooting. I don’t think I really need to explain why getting crossings right is crucial. As a rule, Guide Dogs teach their dogs to sit or wait at the crossing no matter where you are or the situation you are in. Zena needed several prompts before she’d sit and not often would she sit facing the direction we needed to go in. My sister pointed this out to me during our stay in York and I hadn’t really realised the severity of what Zena was doing until she explained how guide dogs generally work. From then on, I noticed it all the time; I had been thinking it wasn’t right beforehand, as it took me some time to get Zena sat at the crossing, but I hadn’t realised just how bad it was until afterwards. When I spoke to John about this, he gave me some further advice to improve the situation, reminded me to use what I’d learnt during training. But nothing worked. I corrected, rewarded, corrected again. No change. No matter how many some we went back over the same crossing, it had very little effect. Sometimes the rest of the route would go well because that correction had happened. But other times she’d just continue to be unreliable at every crossing.

Furthermore, she couldn’t guide in unfamiliar areas or if a member of the family or close friend was around. If I tried to get Zena to guide in unfamiliar settings, she’d just about do the job and I wouldn’t say particularly safely do that job. She wasn’t very good at weaving around people, rather preferring to say hello to everyone she passed therefore usually barging me into them. No amount of correcting changed that, either. With family and friends about, she’d race ahead, making it impossible for me to hold conversations or hear them if they decided to go in a different direction to the one Zena was pursuing. Also, if someone she knew well was around, they distracted her from actually guiding. So for both of these situations, I’d ask a family member to guide me. This in itself presented a problem. Zena walks a lot faster than anyone in my family does. So I was forever pulling her back, checking her lead to slow her down. In the end, the Halti head collar was agreed to by John and I started using that. It made quite a bit of difference whenever I just had her on the lead. But she still pulled. Even with the restraint of the half-check collar plus the Halti, she still attempted to get ahead. Again in unfamiliar settings, we had the crossing problem. She wouldn’t immediately sit at the crossing so I wouldn’t always know if it was a crossing or if she’d just stopped to have a sniff or seen something that had taken her concentration away from her work. Of course, I’m taught to encourage her on, to tell her to get back to her job, which I did; that then either meant she would eventually show me that it was a crossing or would continue forward into a potentially dangerous situation. I don’t know where this behaviour appeared from as during training, when John was present, she never hesitated. Especially when we learnt the new route of going to the gym, she was almost spot on. At that time, I was learning too so if we both made mistakes then that was fine. But even with the gym route, whenever she over-shot a curb, I’d immediately give her a lead correction, bring her back and do it again. No amount of this repetition seemed to make her understand. Sometimes, it would encourage a good response from her and the rest of our route would be smoother, more comfortable with no over-shot crossings and quicker reactions to sit at the upcoming curb. But then the next day we were back to square one again. And here I’m talking about our regular routes such as the gym and local shop. Those, which we did several times a week, were the ones she should have known off-by-heart. We did them so often it was impossible for her not to have known what she was supposed to have been doing.

However, this is where distractions came into play. As lovely a dog as Zena was in the house and off-lead greeting people and being generally loving, this should have ended when her harness was put on. On free runs, she loved to stalk birds; it’s in the Vizsla breed to hunt and a free run was the perfect opportunity for her to exercise this talent. Not on lead. No matter where we were or how much control I had over her, whether that be on harness or just by the lead, Zena was always distracted. It could be a crisp packet, bird, another dog, cat, small child, cyclist or group of people. Whatever was around took her interest straight away. Of course, I hurried her on, using corrections and encouragements whenever needed, and tried to continue with our route. But soon enough another distraction would come in the shape of something else. I understand that there’s no way she can concentrate constantly. It’s a lot to ask of a high-energy dog such as Zena. But I needed more concentration than she was giving. I needed her by my side, not at my side with er focus elsewhere. Perhaps I sound too critical of her but when you’re using an animal as your eyes, it really is true to say that you need the bond, trust and relationship to be perfect. Again, John was quick to suggest things I could put in place to minimise these distraction opportunities. Take the lead in my right hand and keep her going with encouraging words whenever I thought a distraction was looming. Reward her with praise and a small treat whenever she calmly passed something that was potentially distracting. No doing. Whether it be because I couldn’t hear whatever it was that she was seeing or because there was just too much to distract her, these actions to keep her focus weren’t always possible to implement. And believe me when I say I tried. I tried to be patient, kind and forgiving. She is only a dog after all; a dog who’s had hours and hours and mounds of money put into training her to be someone’s eyes. A dog who I’m supposed to rely on to get me to and from places safely, with my guidance and encouragements, all of the time.

Then, there’s the toilet problem. Ever since Zena first came to stay — and I’ve written about it before many times — she never seemed to get the hang of going to toilet once in the morning and once at night before bedtime. John told me that this was the necessary amount of times she needed to go to ensure that she didn’t spend on route. Fine, I thought, no problem at all. The last thing I wanted was for her to be going to toilet on route. That would just be another excuse for her not to pay attention. So I persevered. Every night about ten pm and every morning around eight, I’d take Zena out into the back garden and to her handmade spending pen. I’d shut the gate and stand on the other side, saying `busy busy` in as cheerful voice as I could manage. She’d do her circles and, if I was lucky, she’d speed them up to the point when she’d actually go to the toilet. At that point of knowing she was speeding up, I’d praise her, telling her she was a good girl and encouraging her on. If I was unlucky, however, she’d just mess about. It got to the point where some mornings and nights, she’d actually lay down on her belly at the far side of the pen and refuse to move. Now many will say that this was a clear sign that she didn’t need to go. Wrong. If I went out with her after she’d not spent, there was a guarantee that at some point during the route, she’d go. After a while, John told me to try some kind of punishment for not going. So, after a while of standing and encouraging, I’d clip her to her lead, walk her swiftly into the house and sit in the kitchen with her. She’d have to lay down on the floor and wouldn’t be allowed to move. If another member of the family came into the kitchen, they were to ignore Zena and she wasn’t allowed to greet them. Five or so minutes later, I’d take her back to her pen and begin the routine again. We would go on until she went or, the more likely option, it was that late that I needed to go to bed. If it was a lucky night or morning and she went straight away or whenever she actually went eventually, I’d produce a tasty treat — usually a gravy bone, milky bone, bonio or one of her favourites of a cheesy nibble or bacon chewy — and make her sit to receive it. Then, she’d be allowed out of her pen to go wherever she liked. Sometimes that was inside to receive fuss from whoever else was still around or other times it was for a frolic around the garden. That was her reward for going. My hope was that this would encourage her to go regularly knowing that as soon as she did, she’d be given a treat. Oh how mistaken I was!

Towards the end, when the toilet situation hadn’t improved and seemed to be getting somehow worse, I reached out to John for more advice. It had reached such a low that it was preventing me from going out. The dog that was supposed to be enabling me to be independent and leave the house more often was actually making my days more difficult and limiting the amount I could leave the house. So then John suggested a crate as a punishment. I let Zena into her pen and when five minutes of encouragement have passed with no result, I take her into the house on lead and put her in the crate, securely bolting the door shut. I leave the room and go off to do something else, which means that she’s alone and cannot be with me. Half an hour later, I come back, let her out, attach her to her lead and off we go to the pen where I encourage for another five or so minutes. This continues three times. If she hasn’t spent after the third opportunity, she’s locked in the crate. If it’s daytime, I go off to do whatever I have to around the house or if I need to go out, I do it without her. If it’s before bedtime, she’s sleeping in the crate. She only slept in the crate twice and the following morning she was quick to go. However, during the day it made no difference. Even when I went out without her and came home and tried to spend her, she still refused.

Several of my Guide Dog friends questioned why I had such an issue with this and the truth is simple but ridiculous. Nobody ever taught me how to pick up after Zena. Also, many guide dogs show clear signals to their owners that they’re going to go on route. Zena did not. There was pretty much no warning of when and where she was going to go, except that I knew that she would most likely go on route if she’d missed a go that morning or the night before. Combine the fact that I was unsure when she was going and didn’t know how to pick up after her cleanly and I was pretty screwed. So it came down to the fact that I was praying she’d go just so that I could get outside. It isn’t supposed to be like that. A suggestion John had to save me the humiliation of not knowing if she’d gone and to allow Zena to spend was trying gutter spending. This means that if Zena is showing signs of wanting to go, I take her to a safe space at the side of the road, lead her into the gutter and instruct her to go. With her issue with roads and crossings, though, I didn’t really see this as a valid option. Why encourage her to spend in gutters when she has problems staying on the pavement already?

The one other thing, and this is a smaller issue but one nonetheless, that I struggled with is that when John interviewed me last October and told me that he’d recommend me for training, he also said that he thought he could make it work — me having a guide dog despite my previous issues getting one — because he was prepared to put the time and effort in, if I was too, to help me get there. Obviously, he understood what I was trying to say to him and saw the need for a guide dog in my life. That I will indefinitely be grateful to him for. He believed in me where nobody else ever has. He gave me the chance I so needed to prove to myself and others that I was right about a guide dog. I’ve always had this feeling that a guide dog would improve my mobility millions. On good days, of which, despite this outcome, there were many, Zena and I bloomed together. I was able to go and meet friends confidently, walk to the gym confidently, go into shops boldly and ask for help with shopping. John was prepared, even with my lacking amount of familiar routes, to give me the chance to show that I could do it. And I did. But he also agreed that he’d come out in the future and help me learn new routes. Apart from learning the route to the gym during training, I haven’t had any support to learn any others. I bought a Trekker Breeze — it’s a little machine that you attach earphones to and attach to your belt that directs you along routes once you’ve programmed in where you want to go — to help me with this. That way, John would only have to go over a route with me once perhaps twice for me to have a vague idea and the Breeze to have the route programmed in. From there, Zena, Breeze and I would be fine to tackle it ourselves, with the back-up of Google maps if we got horrendously lost. But that never came. We’d agreed that June would be the month to do it. Now of course I understand that John is an incredibly busy man. He is pretty much single-handedly training all potential Seeing Dogs. Currently, he has three pups lodging with him who he is at the very early stages of training to become the next batch of Seeing Dogs. I know that I can’t expect him to come when I call and I certainly didn’t. But I needed to make progress. As Zena doesn’t work well with family around, there was no point in asking relatives to help me learn new routes with her. Even if I did, nobody was available to help. Both parents work full-time and Zena walks miles too fast to ask my grandparents to step in. Sadly, if she’d been a plodder, they’d have been gladly available to help because they did when I was using my long cane and preparing for a Zena to arrive. But by the end of the month, with all the problems outlined above not being resolved by every solution I tried and no hope of progress with new routes on the horizon, I’d had enough. I felt that Zena, more than anything, would be better off without me. Perhaps she needs someone with a little sight to guide because they will be able to spy when she’s being a cheeky monkey and stamp it out straight away. It took me until I could tell she was doing something naughty to be able to crack down on it. By then it was too late; the flow was interrupted and she’d most likely got away with whatever it was she’d wanted to do. Maybe she needed someone who has a full life. They work five days a week, meet friends or do activities every evening and have full weekends of things to do, all of which involve Zena guiding them somewhere. Perhaps that would keep her focused. I don’t know. I do know that I’ll never be that person for Zena. Probably, by the time I am, she’ll be a little old lady long passed working age. She needs someone now. I’m not her someone, however much I tried to be, however much I desperately wanted to be.

Of course there were things Zena was great at. She was good in restaurants whenever I went out to eat, happy to lay under the table as long as she had room to stretch out. She was good whenever I went to anything that required her just to lie down at my side. She was happy to lie still as long as she got a little fuss every now and then. She was the best companion and friend in a dog that any human could ever have asked for. She was always at my side whenever I moved but stayed put whenever I requested. She let me groom her even though she made it quite clear she detested the event. She let me clean her ears with horrible stinky liquid and cotton discs even though they must have been painful with the infection that flared up. She behaved perfectly at the vets, letting them prod and poke her, trim her nails. She didn’t even flinch when she received her vaccinations. Not even a squeak could be heard as the vet injected the needle. She’s certainly a braver girl than I. She waited, almost always patiently, whenever I presented her with a treat. Once she learnt how, she was queen of tug-of-war with her best toys: Jim the Kong teddy, tiger, rabbit and fox/mouse. She almost always greedily gobbled down her meals, sitting and waiting for the whistle to sound beforehand. She was loving to every other member of the house, too, but always coming back to pay me the most attention. An absolute angel on a free run. She’d run like mad but always come to the whistle for a treat or to be clipped back on to her lead. Running along nicely but energetically saying hello to every other dog in the park. If Zena was a person, she’d certainly be a very social young one. She’d be the kid out all the time for sure. She ate her worming tablet like it was a tasty treat, sat still to have flea treatment applied. Gave the best cuddles when I was feeling rubbish. Slept happily at the foot of my bed in her basket every night. Never howled if she was left home alone. And when I wanted her to work around other guide dogs, no problem. With my sister and my friend across the road, who have a lab retriever and German Shepherd guide dog respectively, Zena would be no problem. She’d follow along behind, keeping fairly close to our company. The only thing she struggled with then was not getting too close to the other dog that I was tripping over them and over-shooting crossings so that I collided with the other dog and/or person. But that was just her eagerness, I think. With more practice, I think she’d have been a star at working around other guide dogs. But I didn’t feel I had more time. I didn’t feel that I had the energy to teach her. Nothing was getting better. Nothing I tried was working, no matter how many times I repeated the action. So many people were commenting on Zena’s bad efforts at guiding. Several of them said that they were genuinely worried for my safety. Now I don’t know why she wasn’t doing the job she’d been trained to do. I don’t know if she was bored, if I wasn’t fast enough, if she really hated working, if her breed just shouldn’t be a guide dog. Most of me thinks it’s a bit of everything. For quite some time, I felt that Zena’s skills, especially her boundless enthusiasm, would be much better suited in another profession such as sniffer dog. Or just a pet dog. As a pet, she was wonderful. You couldn’t have asked for better. But as a guide? Not so much. And that’s the difference. I applied and made a commitment for a guide dog, for independence, mobility and confidence. At no point did I expect it to be instantaneous. Not once did I think it would be perfect — far from it! I’d been warned more times than I can remember how hard it would be, how much I would feel anything but love for my furry companion. But never was it supposed to be this hard. I wasn’t supposed to be waking up every day wondering if my dog would go to the toilet so that we could go out to do a route where she’d over-shoot curbs, walk me into people and pull frantically on the lead. Yes, I was supposed to feel tested, but not constantly like I was getting all the wrong answers. We were supposed to make progress, not take a baby step forward and immediately jump ten giant steps backwards. So I made the decision that enough was enough, I called time, I let her go. And for anyone who may have read this and thought I’m heartless, I quit, I didn’t think of her. I’m the opposite. I tried one-hundred percent of every day for the last five months to make mine and Zena’s partnership work. I loved her like I’ve never loved another animal. My sister calls her guide dog her furry daughter and I’ve never before thought an animal could feel like your child should. Now I’ve had Zena I know, even more so now she’s gone. As for not thinking of Zena? She’s exactly why I made the phone call and told John he had to take her away. If nothing else, Zena deserves more. More of everything that I can’t give her. We were not the right match in the slightest. She’s enthusiastic and speedy. I’m steady and methodical. They are opposites. Opposites do not attract where guide dog and owner are concerned.

There is nobody to lay blame upon for this. Seeing Dogs and John gave me the opportunity. I gave that opportunity everything that I had. It hasn’t worked out. Guide dogs are withdrawn all the time. It is the most hard, heartbreaking and thought through decision I’ve ever made and I wish it upon nobody. I wish every guide dog partnership could work out, that no one ever had to let their furry child go. If I could still have Zena here with me now but not have to make her be my eyes, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But to Seeing Dogs she’s a guide dog and maybe she can be someone else’s eyes and do well at it, like that person I mentioned above. Maybe she’ll be their superstar. To Zena’s next owner I’d say to watch out for the dribbly beard. There’s nothing you can do about it but she will leave puddles of water everywhere. To love her like no other, because she already unconditionally loves you. She’ll trust you and love you no matter how frustrated with her you get. She gives the best cuddles; if you lie down on the floor in the fetal position, she’ll come and curl up with you. Play tug-of-war with her, it’s her favourite. She loves a Dentastick every evening. They really do make her breath a bit better. If you get him, Jim is her favourite toy. She has him in her basket to sleep with and will bring him to you should you request. He was a present bought for her by my mum earlier this year and Zena’s adored him ever since. Let her have freedom, she loves that more than anything. Give her endless fuss. She’d sit or stand in front of you for hours just for a stroke if you let her; that’s the first thing I learnt about her. She loves raw carrot as an extra special treat, especially if you scatter them in her dinner. She is the most wonderful dog in all the world and you are definitely the luckiest person to live to have her, just like I was the luckiest to be her mummy for five months. I didn’t ever not love her even at the toughest times. I will always treasure that gorgeous bundle of ginger crazy fur. Despite our flaws together, she opened my eyes to what having a guide dog can be for me. She gave me the chance to see exactly what I want. She’s the most loyal, loving, forgiving, kind friend you’ll ever know. If you’re down, she’ll know about it. She’ll put her paws on you and nudge her nose against you. That’s her way of telling you `it really all will be ok in the end, mum` and that she loves you more than you know. I love her more than anyone could ever know. Sometimes, she loves a big comfy cushion to sprawl out on. Others, she’d love to just lay by your side whatever you’re doing. Don’t forget to appreciate her and all she is. I know I certainly didn’t do enough of that. I was too caught up in making her a guide dog. Her favourite food here was Arden Grange chicken. Other stuff might be cheaper but she loves it and she’s worth every penny, even if she’s being a cheeky monkey. That’s the best part of her. There’s so much more to her than the funny furry dog exterior. Let her have as many free runs as you can. If you want to take the risk, give her a tennis ball. She’ll race after it, get it and bring it back to you for hours on end. Afterwards, she’ll drink the bowl dry and drip her beard all over your floor. But she’ll love it. She deserves the best that anyone can give her and I wasn’t that person but I sincerely hope you are. I hope she gives you the independence and confidence you’ve been craving. I already know she’ll be the best companion you could ever have hoped for, because she was the best furry friend I’ve ever had and letting her go was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. But if she’s your superstar, I know it was the best decision I’ve ever made, for all of us.

What’s next for me? I hope to keep in touch with John and hear how Zena gets on, if and when she’s matched to someone else. I intend to phone Guide Dogs at some point and reapply for a Guide Dog and the My Guide service. I’d like to learn new routes and definitely want another guide dog. Mobility with a dog is so much more than that with a cane and a guide dog really does enable me to go places. I get out of the house with and because of a dog and that makes all the difference to my life. So my eventual aim is another dog and I intend to do everything I have to to achieve that aim. My only fear is that it will take years and years. I’m not a particularly patient person when there’s something I desire so much and when I know that it is more than possible and something is preventing me from having it. I guess I’ll just have to make sure that there’s no reason for me not to have another dog. The best thing Seeing Dogs and Zena have given me is the proof that a guide dog benefits my life more than even I thought it would. If Zena benefitted my life even with all the bad stuff, having a dog who really is a good match will be even more of a positive to my life. I miss Zena more than I can say and the only way to make sure that letting her go was the right thing to do, apart from her making a massive difference to someone else’s life in ways she never could mine, is to ensure that everything I learnt whilst she was mine doesn’t go to waste. The only way to do that is by having another dog and using the confidence I built up with Zena to allow a second partnership to flourish the way ours never could. My gratitude to Seeing Dogs but especially John for giving me the opportunity of Zena is infinite. She gave me so much in such a short space of time and for that there are not enough words of thanks. But for me the charity just doesn’t work. I need more support and that, I’m certain, Guide Dogs can offer. So now is the time to do everything I can to enable that potential to be fulfilled. And yet again, that’s exactly what I intend to do.

“A turd the size of Disneyland Paris”

Another lovely time has come and gone and so, even though I’m a little late in doing so, I’m going to write about it. On Wednesday the seventeenth of May, Kieran boarded a plane and flew down to Southampton on the late flight from Newcastle. Again, I stayed into babysit Tamsin, who was in bed, while Mum collected Kieran from the airport. He was coming down to stay because it was soon to be my birthday and he had arranged to go to a festival on Southampton Common with Josh. Also, we had booked to see Jon Richardson at the Mayflower Theatre that Thursday evening. It had been booked for months and we were all very much looking forward to it. Thankfully, Kieran’s plane didn’t land early like last time so Mum was there in time to pick him up. 

Unlike usual, Thursday wasn’t a particularly lazy day. Normally, on Kieran’s first day of staying, we hardly do anything. Of course, with the comedy show that evening, there was already plans for the day. We managed to fill the rest of the day with bits and pieces, too. Our usual breakfast of Weetabix and tea was nice, as always, and once we were all tidied up, I decided to take Zena out for a working walk. I wanted to try as hard as I could to keep up Zena’s work while Kieran was staying. Obviously, I’d much rather spend all my time with him, but Zena needed to be worked, too, and I didn’t really fancy any judgmental comments from anyone about how much work my dog should be doing and how lazy I was for not going out. She didn’t work very well, though; I only went to the local Co-op, which is about a twenty-minute walk there and back. Not a big walk but a decent route to keep Zena’s concentration. That part of the plan failed, anyway, as she hardly concentrated at all. But I was glad I’d taken her out for a working walk all the same.

 

After that, Kieran and I agreed to watch Jon Richardson’s Funny Magnet comedy DVD on my Ipad to prepare us for our evening. For dinner, we’d agreed to order a takeaway as we were meant to be meeting Josh around seven o’clock. As Mum doesn’t usually get home until between a quarter past and half past six, I knew there was no way she’d be able to cook us something in time. Anyway, the takeaway we were ordering from had mozzarella sticks so there was no way I could resist. In the end, Kieran decided on a cheese and bacon burger with cheesy chips and I settled on a portion of donner meat and chips. Alongside our meals, we added a cheesy garlic pizza bread, onion rings, mozzarella sticks and doughnuts to share. We had a can of fanta fruit twist each. The food was delicious; I hadn’t tasted such nice donner meat in ages. The kebab van to which I go when I want donner meat sometimes burns their meat, making it crispy. But this meat was so nice. The chips weren’t bad, either. Kieran’s burger was pretty big and he enjoyed it very much. We both picked at the sides we had to share, eating as much of them as we possibly could. There was plenty left over when we were done, though, and again we commented that whenever we order takeaway we get far too much. Eyes bigger than our bellies wasn’t really an appropriate line, but words to the same sentiment would have worked.

 

When Mum arrived home, we were already ready to go. She drove us to the theatre, where we met Josh for the show. I’d checked with Josh several times beforehand and the theatre had agreed that I would be allowed to take Zena to the show. I don’t really like leaving her with anyone. Even though they’re my family, it’s hard to trust anyone to look after her, especially as I’m trying to stick to the rules as closely as I can. To a lot of people, she’s just a cute and very affectionate dog but to me she’s the guide dog I’ve been desperate to have for years. I don’t want anything to go wrong. Plus, exposing her to atmospheres such as those at a theatre is good for both of us as a partnership. Once we were inside the theatre, Josh navigated us to a standing area, where we’d been told it would be safest to be with Zena. Beforehand, when Josh had mentioned it to me, I’d assumed that I’d just stand with Zena and the boys would sit in their paid for seats. But they both stood with me. The show was great. Jon was hilarious. We were all laughing pretty much constantly throughout. To begin with, we all stood up at the rail and I made sure Zena led down in the space behind us. But eventually our legs were aching too much and we sat down on the carpet with Zena, who was very happy with the sudden company. Every now and then, we stood up for short periods of time to listen, laugh and applaud. Each time, though, we ended up sat back down on the carpet. I felt very guilty that both boys had aching bones; after all, it was my fault for insisting that I bring Zena with us. But neither of them seemed to mind. If they did, they didn’t let on to me even once, and I appreciated that.

 

After we’d come home and I’d let Zena out to do her business, Kieran and I headed upstairs, with pints of water to drink, to watch some more comedy. During his show, Jon Richardson had mentioned his once flat mate Russell Howard several times. This had made me want to watch one of his DVD’s. So we watched the one with the strange name, Dingledodies, which was also hilarious. While we watched, I ate one of the doughnuts we’d bought with our takeaway, feeling a bit hungry. It was nice to have had such a nice evening with Kieran and Josh. It only happens when we manage to get together, but it’s always great.

 

Friday was a lazy day. We filled the day time with watching Judge Judy and The Chase and in the evening, once Mum was home, she cooked us lasagne and chips. While Mum and I caught up on East Enders and Red Water from the previous night, Kieran watched The Big Bang Theory on his phone.

 

Thankfully, Saturday was a little more active. In the morning, we watched Gogglebox, The Last Leg and more Judge. Then, when she was ready to take us, Mum drove us into town and we went on our first Nando’s date in a little while. Kieran chose the double burger with hot sauce, sides of spicy rice and peri salted chips and a beer and I had my usual of a double lemon and herb wrap with peri salted chips and a refillable coke. Unfortunately, the waiter was quite slow in serving us and I was concerned about how much time we had because Mum was just browsing the shops in town waiting to collect us so that she could then drive to pick Dad up from work when he finished at five o’clock. Although there may have been time, I declined Kieran’s offer of dessert. One day, I am going to have their frozen yoghurt like I say I will every time we go. While we ate and chatted, Zena led down underneath the table in the space free beside me. She was fairly well-behaved and I was pleased.

 

When we were home, we watched more Russell Howard, this time Right Here Right Now and Wonderbox, both of which were very funny. Kieran had some prawn cocktail crisps, which made Mum very happy as he’s the only one who eats them and we had a bit of a back log of them, while I had some sweets from the cupboard that needed eating. After the comedy was over, it was time for a serious film. Kieran had told me, after he’d watched it with his parents, that I needed to watch I Daniel Blake because I’d like it very much; he was also quite sure that it would make me cry. It certainly fulfilled that promise. The story tells of a man who has a heart problem and therefore can’t currently work. He’s desperate to go back to work but is told to claim benefits. It shows of the struggles faced by anyone contacting the DWP and how hard it is to be granted benefits. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to claim benefits and live comfortably on them certainly needs to watch this film.

 

Sunday was the final day of the Premier League, which meant a lot of football. Before the football started, we watched even more Judge and some Come Dine With Me. Then, it was football time. While I listened to commentary of the Liverpool vs Middlesborough match, Kieran listened to the Sky Sports commentary, which updated you on all the games going on. During the football, Mum cooked us a very nice spaghetti bolognese with garlic bread, which we ate in the kitchen with our earphones still in, glued to the commentary. Overall, there were 37 goals and afterwards we watched Chelsea lift the trophy and John Terry’s send-off. I was pleased, too, because Liverpool had won their game by three goals to nil which meant that they were securely in the top four of the Premier League.

 

After all the football, we watched a bit more Come Dine With Me before going downstairs and watched The Super Vet with Mum. After that, there was a count down of the greatest eighties movies on Channel 5. This lasted for three hours so we didn’t get to see all of it because Kieran wanted to watch Match Of The Day upstairs, during which I fell asleep.

 

Monday was a really hot day at 21 degrees but I managed to get out to work Zena for a little bit. On our big route to the local gym, I managed to get to the library corner, which is before you turn on to the main road that leads up to the gym, before turning back to come home. We were both really melting by the time I got home. While I’d been out, Kieran had been updating both my laptops; Windows 10 had a big update and that sort of thing is probably beyond me so it’s just easier and better for everyone if Kieran tackles it. To be fair, he offered. Out in the back garden, I groomed Zena and gave her a wash in the warm water and oil mixture a friend advised me to use to keep the really strong doggy smell she seems to have at bay. When Mum came home, she cooked us beef and caramelised onion and minted lamb burgers with chips and spaghetti hoops for tea. I didn’t like the beef burgers much and think I may have liked the lamb ones better. Kieran said both were nice. Afterwards, we watched East Enders and then The Chase before going to bed.

 

On Tuesday, we awoke to the news that there had been a terror attack in Manchester at a concert. When I awoke around four in the morning and saw the headline, I woke Kieran and told him. We were both very shocked. For the majority of the day, we watched the news headlines to see what was going on. It was incredibly scary and upsetting news, especially as the amount of casualties was confirmed and their names and ages were released. To think that those people had just gone to a concert to watch an artist they loved and had consequently lost their lives as they were leaving. It was heartbreaking as a lot of them were young people, many under the age of sixteen, and some were parents coming to collect their children from the concert. The only humbling thing about it was to see how the emergency services and general public had reacted minutes after the first panicked calls had come from the scene. The way England responds to terror attacks is incredible. Since then, a concert has been held to show that the country, and indeed the world, is standing together in the face of terrorists and that with their evil crime they haven’t accomplished anything, except for a country pulling even closer together.

 

In the evening, Kieran offered to buy everyone pizza. We bought two medium pizzas, potato wedges, BBQ chicken wings, garlic bread, cookies and coke. Everyone tucked in while we watched East Enders followed by Holby and then Wentworth.

 

Again, Wednesday was another hot day but at last I managed to take Zena on our long working walk to the gym and back. We really were melting by the time I got home. We didn’t do much for the rest of the day but when Mum got in she cooked us chicken nuggets with chips and spaghetti hoops. We all watched the Manchester United vs Ajax Europa League match.

 

Another hot day came on Thursday and Zena had managed to roll in something smelly so I had to wash her again. I used warm water with the oils in plus a squirt of baby shampoo. My hope was that the nice smell of this might take to Zena’s fur or at least remove the nasty smell she was wafting about. It was absolutely boiling in the garden, so much so that Kieran’s phone came up with a warning that it was too hot to continue functioning. In the afternoon, we finished off the Dominoes cookies and Kieran booked the table for six at Yates Southampton for my birthday the following week. After this, we watched The Chase. Then, Mum cooked us dinner of garlic pork (for me) and Chinese chicken (for Kieran) with mashed potato and carrots. We watched East Enders, The Super Vet and Red Water.

 

On Friday morning, a parcel came for me. It was flowers from Kieran and a big birthday balloon. The flowers were called unicorn dusted roses and apparently sparkled. They smelt lovely and the balloon was great. Generally, I’m not a big fan of balloons but the helium foil ones are fine. I booked a table for the two of us at Frankie and Benny’s that evening. Another date night was in order. Kieran said it was his treat and I felt a little guilty about that because I knew it would be expensive. They had a good deal on though where, if you bought two main meals, the cheaper one was free. In the end, Kieran and I ate like royalty. For a starter, I had BBQ loaded potato skins with cheese and bacon and Kieran had Louisiana hot wings. I had a peach iced tea and he had a beer. Then, for mains, I had mushroom ravioli and Kieran had spaghetti and meatballs. I had a side of a cheesy garlic pizza bread and Kieran had cheesy bacon chips. I had another iced tea because it really was that nice. The food was lovely and afterwards I couldn’t resist the warm chocolate brownies with ice cream, whipped cream and sauce. The menu has it as chocolate sauce but I asked if I could swap it for salted caramel sauce and they agreed. It was amazing! Probably one of the best puddings I’d had in a while. Instead of a pudding, Kieran chose a cocktail, which he enjoyed very much. I think it was the best date night we’d had in a while and the nicest food I’ve eaten in ages. The ravioli had been a risk because I wasn’t sure if it would be nice or not. But I was really glad I’d taken the risk; it was delicious and I know I’ll be having it again on another Frankie and Benny’s trip, along with those amazing brownies. The size of the plates that my ravioli and Kieran’s meatballs came on were unbelievable. We definitely ate more food than two people really should eat in one evening.

 

Saturday brought the festival that Kieran and Josh had bought tickets to go to together. It was on Southampton Common and I felt bad because the traffic was bad in Southampton that morning so we were late in meeting Josh at Southampton station. Thankfully, we managed to get the boys there in time.

 

The following day, Josh and Kieran came back to mine at around four and told me all about the great time they’d had. It seemed to have been even better than they’d anticipated and it was really nice to hear about everything they’d done and how much they’d enjoyed it together. After Josh left, I went downstairs to have cheese and leek pasta while Kieran had a shower. Then, we watched the film I Give It A Year, which I hadn’t seen before and Kieran recommended. It was very funny. After that finished, we watched Gogglebox and Micky Flannigan’s Back In The Game. While that was on, midnight came and went, meaning it was my twentieth birthday. Kieran gave me his presents of a new Sky remote branded with the Liverpool crest, a lovely bracelet to replace the one he’d bought at Christmas that had broken and a mug which says `everything is better with a dog`. I loved them all, especially my bracelet as I’d missed wearing the one he’d bought before. The new one looked a lot stronger. It’s metal and although the strands of it are very thin and fragile, it seems to be held together well and I’m hoping it will last a long time.

 

In the morning, we went down for breakfast where Mum and Dad gave me the presents they’d bought. Kieran and I spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out how my new Apple Watch charging stand actually worked. It had come in several pieces which fit together to make it hold the charging cable and charge the watch in nightstand mode. Eventually, we figured it out. After showering and dressing, I made sure Zena was comfortable in her little room with a full bowl of water, her Nylabone and her new Kong teddy bear, named Jim by Kieran. Then, we all bundled into the car and headed for Yates where we were joined by Josh, my grandparents, my aunt and cousin for my birthday meal. I had a southern fried chicken wrap with curly fries and a coke and Kieran had a loaded stack burger, which literally contains everything, with curly chips and a beer. Mum had bought me a pick-and-mix birthday cake which was shaped like a cupcake but the chicken in the wrap had made me feel a little queasy so the cake was far too sweet to eat. Everyone else seemed to enjoy it, though. Before the wrap made me feel funny, I had fancied the toffee apple crumble from the menu so am determined to try it another time when we go to Yates again.

 

When we got home, we watched a bit of Judge Judy before changing channel to watch the brand new series of The Chase. ITV had stopped it about a month earlier and it had outraged a lot of people. But I was very happy it was back. Afterwards, we watched Pointless and then more Judge. While I had a bath, Kieran watched The IT Crowd and Family Guy through the chromecast. Downstairs, we watched East Enders, diabolically awful Britain’s Got Talent and then Can’t Pay, We’ll Take It Away. Overall, it had been a pretty great birthday. I’d been spoiled with lovely gifts, including those that had come from afar from Imi and Kieran’s family, and spent time with some of my favourite people.

 

Tuesday was another lazy day. We watched telly during the day, including Police Intercepters and The Chase. In the evening, I bought Chinese takeaway for everyone as Mum had said she fancied it the night before. We had: special fried rice, prawn crackers, curry chips, Hong Kong style sweet and sour chicken, chicken balls with sweet and sour sauce, mini spring rolls and a blackbean delight which included chicken, beef, pork and king prawns. Kieran chose the blackbean delight and prawn crackers, Tamsin wanted the chicken balls, I picked the sweet and sour chicken and we decided to share the rice, mini spring rolls and curry chips. When I was ordering the food, I asked Mum what she wanted but she just said she’d share Tamsin’s chicken balls. I was a little annoyed as it had been her idea to have the Chinese and I knew she’d normally choose her own meal; also, she didn’t end up eating much of the food, even though we had quite a bit left and Kieran had seconds. We watched East Enders, Holby and The Chase.

 

Of course, Wednesday arriving meant the end of Kieran’s stay. Two weeks had flown by so fast and I was sad that he was leaving, even more so this time because we really have no idea when we’ll see each other again. Kieran is waiting to hear back from the council where he completed his work experience trying to decide which part of the IT department he’d like to work in. They said they’d put an apprenticeship together for him and then get back to him on when he can start. I’m really pleased that the work experience is leading to something and that it will be paid work that can go on to his CV and hopefully lead to good career prospects in the area he wants to work in. It’ll be great for him to be working again as he really enjoyed his job in Worcester and the work experience he’s just finished. Sadly, employment means it’ll be harder for us to see each other. I feel very sad about that. We’ve done really well for the last almost year and a half and I only pray it can continue if either or both of us gain employment. It was quite easy when Kieran worked in Worcester because I could go and stay at the weekends once a month or so. The train journey to Hereford was quite a nice one. But I don’t think there’s any way I’ll be able to do that once he’s working in Newcastle. I wouldn’t expect him to do the same if I got a job here in Southampton because a weekend, although great, is a very short amount of time for quite an expensive flight. Although I’m not sure how we’ll manage it, I know somehow Kieran and I will find a way to see each other, however infrequent and short the time we get is. I’m sure that somehow we’ll make it work, hopefully with our parents helping out whenever they can. Most of all, though, I’m thrilled for Kieran; I’m glad he’s able to take a step in the right direction towards employment and the career he wants. I hope that I can gain employment or at the very least experience to boost my CV, too. It’s all steps in the right direction towards the future we want.

 

Before going to the airport, Dad took us to KFC so that we could have lunch. I was glad because it meant Kieran had had something more than just breakfast to eat before his flight. He’d fancied it the night before but we’d agreed on Chinese because Mum wanted it. I had a large popcorn chicken meal and Kieran had a mighty bucket for one which included chicken wings, chicken fillets and pieces of chicken with a side of gravy. We both enjoyed the food. At the airport, the check-in process was very speedy and they were ready to take Kieran through security straight away. It was a sad goodbye, but we really have had a great two weeks. I just hope the next time isn’t too far away. Long distance isn’t much fun but it’s definitely worth it for the time we get.

 

Zena update May 2017

Saturday 13 May

With some advice from John, today I bought a bottle of sunflower oil to add in small quantities to Zena’s meals. I explained to John how Mum noticed that Zena seems to have been struggling to poo recently and he suggested that I add a teaspoon of oil to each meal. The likelihood being that it would loosen Zena’s bowels and make the process much easier. In contrast, though, he warned me that the down sides to this may be that Zena’s fur becomes oily or developing a kind of dandruff flake to it. Neither of these would be particularly visually or textually appealing so I would really rather avoid them. However, anything to possibly aid Zena’s toileting routine. It still hasn’t really improved since during training. She still goes irregularly, although I’d like to think that she doesn’t skip times as much anymore. When it does happen, though, it still frustrates me beyond belief. I’ve spoken to everyone imaginable, asking for advice. The Vizsla community on Facebook came back with mixed advice, including those who felt the routine was too strict and turning the dog into some kind of machine. I can understand how, from an outsider’s perspective, it could seem that way so I, backed by the majority of the others who posted comments, tried to explain how vital the routine is. Another view, from my sister, was that I shouldn’t take the routine so seriously and shouldn’t feel that it dictates every other part of our partnership. She said that she doesn’t abide by a strict routine with her Guide Dog and there are hardly ever any poo hiccups whilst working. For a short amount of time, I tried her relaxed attitude to the routine, acting calm when Zena missed a time and trying to continue with our work. However, if she misses a morning’s poo, as soon as she is out in harness, she tries to go on the pavement or any neighbouring grass. John’s advice to this was to give her some sort of restriction which forms a type of punishment. His suggestion, which I tested during training, was to keep her on lead after taking her out of her pen when she’s refusing to go and make her lie by my side whatever I’m doing until I decide to take her back out to her pen and try again. If this is upheld, she should learn that if she doesn’t go to toilet when I want her to, there’s a consequence of her not being allowed to be free inside the house. She isn’t able to get to her bed, any treats, water or toys. The hope then is that she goes to toilet knowing that she can keep her freedom and in dread of being restricted. John said it’s me having all the cards, me having control; because if Zena gets control, she’ll use it in all aspects of our partnership, including her work. I put the oil on her food and she gobbled the lot down no problem, just like she always does. I bought some measuring spoons to pour the oil into to ensure I’m giving the right amount but even that is tricky. Trying to balance the spoon and then tip the bottle at the right angle, gauging how much is pouring into the spoon is just too difficult. The bottle is too full and spillage is guaranteed. So I’m going to have to trial other methods of getting an exact teaspoon from the bottle into Zena’s meal. My next idea is a syringe. If I fill a syringe with the oil and then slowly dribble it into the teaspoon, I can accurately gauge how much I need and put the remaining oil from the syringe back into the bottle. This should minimise spillage and make the task a lot easier. As soon as I find a syringe, I’ll be able to test it.
Monday 22 May

Last week was a bad week. We hardly went out at all for working walks. I didn’t manage to get to the leisure centre at all and that made me feel pretty rubbish. It probably made Zena quite restless, too. The weather was generally quite rubbish and then, when it started to improve, I started feeling awful. My stomach was bad, my skeleton ached and my head felt fuzzy. I didn’t feel able to work her. When it was pouring down with rain and the wind was howling, I didn’t think it was safe for us to try and work. The wind affects my ears and bucketing rain makes things harder. I explained my worries to John and he didn’t seem overly concerned. I knew I just needed to keep trying my best. On the days we didn’t work, I tried to play with her a lot with her squeaky toys. I didn’t want her to become bored and even destructive if she had too much energy. She didn’t, thank goodness. We managed to get out to the local Co-op on Thursday, but it wasn’t a good walk. At least it was something, though, I told myself. I vowed that I’d do my best to make this week better. The weekend wasn’t as bad as we went out so that Kieran and I could go on a date. Zena didn’t work but at least we were out. But today we’ve managed to go out. It’s 21 degrees outside and really feels it. While Kieran and I ate our breakfast, we left the back door open and Zena enjoyed racing around the back garden and basking in the glorious sunshine overhead. Our walk was good, too; one of the best we’ve had in a while, I’d say. There wasn’t much sniffing, she got almost every curb right and she stayed at a good speed. But it was boiling and we were melting. My plan was to make it at least passed the shop but hopefully to the gym. We sailed passed the shop and I was pleased. Sweaty, but pleased! We continued on to the library corner, which is where we turn to head up to the gym. I decided to return home. I was sweating a lot, Zena was panting and had slowed down considerably. I thought pushing on to the gym was asking too much. But I’m proud we got that far. It’s a big improvement on last week already. I’m hoping tomorrow will be even better. If not, I’d at least like to keep equalling today’s progress.

After our walk, I decided to groom Zena. Because it was so nice outside, we went into the garden and I filled a bowl with warm water and added drops of lavender and t-tree oil to it. This makes it and Zena smell nice. The scent isn’t so strong on Zena as it is in the water but it still makes a little difference to her fur. It makes my grooming process more thorough, anyway, and removes all loose dead strands of fur as well as any stains or sticky bits that have clung to her coat. She hates it but the benefit overall is good. It makes her nice and clean.
Wednesday 24 May

We had another good day today. The weather has been really hot all week and John advised that I didn’t do too many long walks in the blistering sunshine. Zena already tires herself out when running around the garden and comes in panting so I didn’t want to push her too car. However, today I decided to tackle the gym route again. After Monday’s success, I wanted something good to think about again and the rest of the week’s weather forecast told that it would be even warmer. So we went to the gym; on the first leg of the trip, there was minimal corrections needed and the walk was generally quite nice, if a little too hot. She got many of the crossings right and didn’t wander off down side roads or out into the main road. The return journey wasn’t as pleasant; I think she was all puffed out and fed-up with her task. I couldn’t blame her, to be honest, as it was boiling. But we got home all in one piece, with her seeming to be trying very hard to stay focused and behave appropriately.
Thursday 25 May

Today it was definitely far too hot for any kind of walk, working or otherwise. Instead, I took Zena, her grooming tools and a bowl of warm water, to which I’d added lavender oil, t-tree oil and a dollop of Jonson’s baby shampoo, into the garden to set about the task of making Zena smell better. She’d acquired a really stinky scent and I wanted to get rid of it as it seemed to be spreading around the house. With advice from someone on the vizsla Facebook page, I’d added the shampoo in hope that it would help erase the smell. Quite sometime later, when we were both rather soggy, I was finished. Half a new dog’s worth of fur had come out of Zena’s coat and she was smelling a lot fresher thanks to the oils and shampoo. The nasty scent was gone and we were both pleased the task was complete. It was so hot outside that by the time we headed back indoors, her fur and my jeans ! completely dry again. Thanks to the doggy deodorant blueberry muffin bought for Zena as a Christmas present from my sister, her coat really was smelling a lot nicer. Due to the hot weather, the doggy deodorant had dried out straight away, leaving the scent on her coat and taking away the opportunity for it to turn into a doggy stench.
Saturday 27 May

Whilst out shopping today with Mum and Tamsin, we had to go up on to the first-floor of a shop to get to what I wanted to see. Usually, when this situation occurs, we find the lift located somewhere within the store and use that to go upstairs. However, Mum wasn’t sure if this particular shop even had a lift. Instead of wasting time trying to find one, I said I’d use the stairs while they used the escalator. Guide dogs aren’t supposed to use escalators unless they’ve specially trained to do so. Even if Zena and I had been, I’d feel weary about using them considering the length of her claws. The idea of them getting caught in the moving staircase is worse than a nightmare. So Mum took me to the stairs and they used the escalator, which was directly alongside them. I picked up Zena’s harness handle and gave her the command. Off we went. The stairs had a platform break in the middle, which Zena dealt with confidently; she has to pause at the foot or top of any set of stairs in warning to me of what’s next. Then, once the command is given, she proceeds with me by her side. Today she stopped expertly at all necessary places in the staircase, both ascending and descending. As we’ve not done many solo trips up and down stairs, I felt this was quite a proud moment and definitely a good one in what has been quite a tough month for us. I was especially pleased because Mum and Tamsin were still in view and there were several other shoppers passing us in the other direction. Although Zena wasn’t giving me her full attention, there was no slip-ups in her work and she didn’t directly pull me towards anyone. That, in my eyes, is a success.
Monday 29 May

For my birthday, I’d asked my parents for several different things, giving them options, but one item was a toy for Zena. Usually, I’ll buy her toys from anywhere I see a good-looking one. However, the Kong toys are recommended by many pet owners and even by Guide Dogs themselves as suitable for a guide dog to have. Kong do a plush bear toy who has a squeaker in its belly and a knotted rope skeleton to reinforce it. They claim that this means it is stronger and will withstand a lot of rough play from even the toughest chewers. As Zena seems to have taken an interest mainly in soft toys, I thought the knotted rope bear would be a good next step with toys. Surprisingly, Mum bought the bear for Zena; she doesn’t like buying dog accessories as presents for me as she thinks it’s not really for me. But it saves me money and benefits Zena which in turn benefits me. As soon as I’d removed the packaging from the toy, I gave it to Zena. Immediately, she fell in love with it. Jim, as the bear has been fondly named, has slept in Zena’s basket each night since and I’ve even taught her to find him. When saying the command, `find Jim`, I can make Zena look and retrieve the bear. I thought it was a fluke the first couple of times she did it but now, each time I say it, she goes and finds her new beloved friend and either brings him to me or plays with him by herself. I’m really glad Jim is such a success, especially as she doesn’t take a massive interest in toys most of the time.

Open Uni: the end of K118

Amazingly, my third Open University module has come to its end. I can’t believe how fast time has flown since I quit the literature module and switched across to my second Health and Social Care one. The process of getting onto this module was complicated and full of hurdles, but as soon as I was enrolled and had contact with the relevant support staff, time started to fly by. I’ve just this week, a week earlier than the due date, submitted my EMA (End-Of-Module Assessment) and have started my very long five-month OU holiday. It seems crazy that the module is over already and that I have finally completed Level 1 OU study, for the last time! Of course, technically I finished Level 1 study in September after completing both K101: an introduction to health and social care and AA100: the arts past and present. But as soon as I decided to switch to a health and social degree in October last year, I made AA100 redundant. Despite the fact that I scored a decent pass in the module, it cannot count towards any of my degree for the simple fact that it is the wrong subject area. History, literature and art doesn’t count towards health and social care. But a second health and social care module has easily fixed that. Of course, it means that I’m now a year behind on the schedule I had for completing my Open University career. If I can complete two Level 2 modules in the next academic year and then two Level 3 modules in the academic year following that, it’ll only have added an extra year on to my journey. However, if, as all the advisers have warned, I’m unable to achieve that giant goal, I’ll be adding extra years on to my intention for each module taken. As job searching isn’t going too well currently, this may not be the worst thing in the world. I’m already feeling boredom creeping over me and I’m only five days into my five-month OU break so dragging the degree out while I hunt for employment might be worthwhile. At least I’m not sat around doing nothing. Even if this degree contributes nothing towards the employment I finally manage, at least I don’t yet have any worrying gaps in my CV. That’s when employers start questioning things and doubting your competence and reliability.

The final TMA (Tutor-Marked-Assignment) of the module was particularly difficult. It took quite a lot of my energy to complete this assignment but it was definitely worth all the hard work as I achieved a respectable 76 percent. Alongside the TMA’s, there has also been three ICMA’s (Interactive-Computer-Marked-Assignments) to complete. As I said in a previous post, I was worried at the beginning of the module whether I’d be able to participate in these at all. My tutor explained that they were a lot like the quizzes throughout K101, except that the quizzes had been voluntary and the ICMA’s were not only compulsory but counted towards our final OCAS grade. Even though only a tiny percentage, it was still a little way to boost your grade. Also, it meant that if you did particularly badly with a TMA but got good grades in an ICMA, you had that tiny glimmer of hope that your OCAS would be saved a little. I was almost spot on about completing them, though. It was a bit of a disaster; several of the questions were diagram or graph based or had drag-and-drop features. These are totally useless to me and usually I’d just bypass them, hoping that my marks in the other questions would make up for it. In all three of the ICMA’s I got grades of 63 percent. The pass mark, for everything, is 40 percent so I surpassed that easily. To say that I didn’t answer all the questions for each assignment, I think I did quite well.

For the rest of the TMA’s, I scored pretty good grades. Chronologically, they are as follows: 88, 95, 65 and 76. I think the fact that the first two grades were very high and the final two a little lower reflects the difference in difficulty of the assignments themselves. The final two TMA’s were a lot harder than the first two seemed to be. However, I’m pretty thrilled with the scores overall. Even 65 is a good 25 percent above the necessary pass level. Also, they don’t go anywhere near my two lowest grades scored for other modules of 53 and 58. So it’s an improvement overall. I’ve just got to hope that my EMA can do the same. As long as I’m over the 40 percent necessary pass level, however, I’ll have passed the module easily. The calculator on the OU website predicts my OCAS (Overall-Continuous-Assessment-Score) as somewhere around 75 percent, which of course is pretty high and would be a good achievement if it goes through the moderators the same. If my EMA score could be close to that, I’d be thrilled. But either way, as long as I’ve passed the module, I’ll be happy and able to continue on to Level 2 with a solid foundation to my degree.

The EMA itself was quite difficult. It was split into two parts, an essay-style question and a non-essay question. When I first read through the assessment guidance, I was terrified. It looked impossible. But with the help of my tutor and the student Facebook support group, the aim of the questions finally came into focus. I threw myself into tackling the second question — the non-essay question — first because it looked a little simpler. The purpose of the question, to my understanding, was to take a website related to one of the topics studied throughout the module and analyse against a criteria we’d used to figure out the reliability of sources during our studies. As soon as I understood the question, I knew which website I wanted to analyse. My sister, Imi, writes her own blog. It’s become quite famous, actually, and has loads of subscribers. It has its own Facebook page and she updates it regularly. It’s called Upside Down Chronicles and mostly talks about her experiences with mental illness as well as some posts discussing her blindness. It fit the criteria perfectly as one of the main topics we covered was mental health and mental illness. I’m not sure how well I actually completed the question. I did what I thought the guidance was asking of us and met the word allowance easily. But I didn’t include any material from the learning guides and think maybe if I had my overall grade might have been boosted. But my tutor reassured me I didn’t need to as it was my own analysis.

The second question was a bit more of a challenge. The question asked us to discuss how combining the models we’ve learnt about with case studies used to back them up makes for a better understanding of the theory overall. We had to choose a model from each block, which made three models in total, and talk about the case studies that we’d studied alongside each one. Again, I felt like, eventually, I completed the question to quite a high standard. I felt like I addressed all of the pointers made in the guidance and did a good job of describing the benefits of combining the two, using evidence to verify my reasoning. But I guess I’ll just have to wait and see for result release day. The module website advises that our results should be available no later than the nineteenth of July. They have to have all the assignments marked and validated before they can release anyone’s results so I guess waiting two months for our grades isn’t a big ask. There’s thousands of students studying this module at any one time. I don’t mind, anyway. I’m quietly confident that I’ll have passed the module. My OCAS predicted grade suggests I’ll be fine. Unless I completed the EMA really wrong I’ll be fine. I’m quite sure I didn’t get it totally wrong.

So, another module over. One more towards my degree. Evidently, it’s not as far ahead as I’d hoped to be by this point when I signed up to be an Open University student. By now, I’d banked on being about to start Level 3 study. Clearly, I’m nowhere near that. But I’m trying my best and really I think that’s all I can do. Changing the degree pathway was my own choice but by the grades I’ve been achieving throughout this module, I’m quite sure it was the right decision regardless of the additional time it takes me to fully complete the degree. I’m just praying that Level 2 and Level 3 study go this well. If they do, I’ll be a very lucky girl.

Zena update: the last weekend in April

I’ve decided to continue my writing from the time of qualification and training, where I documented how things were going with Zena. Of course, we are now almost three months on from qualification so I’m growing in experience each day with Zena. The main reason for writing these pieces is so that I can see how things are going; I’ll be talking about the good and bad. I don’t intend to sugar coat anything. I will be brutally honest about our progress and my feelings on being a Seeing Dog owner. This is all very brand-new to me, having my own dog and also the assistance dog thing, so I want to be able to look back on my attitude towards it in weeks, months and even years to come to see how my feelings are evolving about it. Also, I feel that generally the stories written about guide dog ownership — and I write `guide dog` with lower-case lettering because I’m implying all types of guide dog and not just those from the major charity Guide Dogs — are very fluffy and warm and lovely. Usually, the awe-inspiring stories of people’s matching, training, qualification and then glorious ownership are portrayed, showing how the dog has miraculously changed the person’s life for the better, completely transforming the way they are. Now I don’t say this to imply that it’s incorrect, because I’m certain, as I’ve seen it happen for friends myself, that it definitely does occur. However, I think that the negatives and less beautiful details of the journey should be available for people to see, too. When only the luscious details are shown, potential owners aren’t given a clear precise picture of how things can go. Not everything about owning a guide dog is perfect, as I myself have definitely experienced. Some things, though, are the mind-blowing miracles they are portrayed to be. So in these Zena-related posts, I’m going to be talking about my highs and lows, whichever are occurring, mainly for myself but also in hope that a clearer picture of what can happen is understood. I don’t know yet, as I’m only mere steps into my journey, what kind of picture mine and Zena’s partnership will paint in the long term, and that’s why I want to write about it in small chunks, so that gradually I and others around me can get a certain understanding of the way things are going, whether they be good or bad. So, I’m going to start the story with events from a fortnight ago, when Zena and I were testing new limits as a partnership. On the Saturday, we attended a cricket match together and, on the Sunday with the new equipment of a Halti attached, we attended a comedy show at one of my local theatres. Here’s how it went.
Saturday 29 April

It was time for Hampshire Visually Impaired Cricket Club’s season to begin. Our first match was against Metro Devils at their home pitch at Highgate Woods in London. This meant a long day of cricket as well as a mini bus trip and a lot of behaving for Zena. I was nervous about taking her, not sure how she’d act whilst out in a big field being told to lay down and be good. For her, big fields symbolise free runs and off-duty time. Although she’d certainly be off-duty for the entirety of the day, she still had to behave herself. In addition, I’ve never taken her on a mini bus before. The closest thing we’ve done to that is going on one of the city busses once a week and she’s allowed a lot more space to lie down on those. After packing a rucksack that included everything we’d need for the day, it was time to put Zena to the test.

I was amazed, to be honest. When we first boarded the bus, she was a bit tricky about lying down exactly where she wanted to. But eventually she settled happily on the carpeted floor of the bus at my feet. When one of my teammates, who has a Labrador Guide Dog, tried to board himself, Zena made quite a racket, growling and barking at him. I felt quite embarrassed, actually; I didn’t want Zena to give people the wrong impression right from the beginning. Thankfully, she soon shut up and the majority of the bus journey was peaceful. Each time we stopped, though, she seemed to think it was time to disembark and stood up ready to get off. It took us over two hours to reach London, so there was a lot of ups and downs throughout the journey.

The first thing Zena did when we set foot on the grass was do a poo. I was embarrassed yet again. Thankfully, one of the ladies with us kindly offered to pick it up for me, so I was saved. Not that I was happy about letting someone else clear up my dog’s mess. But she is the wife of the man who had brought his Labrador Guide Dog along and I knew she understood, which was a little reassuring if nothing else. We set up base on the field near the cricket pitch and I sat on the grass, getting Zena to sit and lay by me. I wanted to let her off lead so that she could run free on the mass of space available to her but there was no way it was safe. There were other dogs about and a lot of blind people. The last thing anyone needed was Zena racing about all over the place. Plus, I couldn’t be sure if she’d come back straight away when I called her, even if I relied on the whistle to bring her to me.

During my time on the cricket pitch, I left Zena with the ladies — one wife, one mother and one driver/helper — who had kindly offered to watch her. This worried me as Zena seems to like pulling quite strongly on the lead and sticking her nose into anything she can. I just wanted her to behave for the ladies because it was nice of them to mind her for me. At one point during the game, one of the ladies took Zena for a brisk walk around the field. I was pleased about this because I think Zena must have been very bored just being told to lie down all the time. As the lady headed off with her, I called warning that Zena is quite strong on the lead and, when spotting something she wants to approach, adamant to reach it. The lady shrugged off my worries, saying she had plenty of experience with her husband’s Guide Dog. But when she returned, Zena quite firmly leading the way, I was pretty glad I’d at least warned her.

She was great on the journey home, too. The ladies told me, and then Mum later on, that she’d been a `little angel`. That made me feel very proud. I’d been totally unsure how Zena would behave so that fact that she was getting that much credit was lovely. To know that she behaves herself with other people is reassuring, especially as I enjoy attending the cricket matches.
Sunday 30 April

Josh had booked tickets for the comedy show a while ago and originally the theatre had said that I couldn’t bring Zena as the seats we’d booked weren’t suitable. But when Josh asked again, they said it wouldn’t be a problem. They said that I could either try and lay her at my feet or, if that didn’t work, the staff would look after her in their office. I was hopeful that the first option would be the one that worked. Leaving Zena with strangers wasn’t a comfortable idea for me. Although they assured me they have plenty of experiences with guide dogs, I didn’t like the idea of her being with them and me not knowing what was happening for the whole show. Having her led at my feet during the show was definitely preferable. My parents had offered to drive Zena and I to the theatre to meet Josh but I’d agreed to meet Josh at the bus-stop in town. This meant that Zena and I could walk up to our bus-stop, get on the bus that would take us into town and then off the bus the other end where, hopefully, Josh would be there to meet us. Although it wasn’t a particularly long route for Zena, it was a little bit of work with a bus ride thrown in. She has to behave herself appropriately whilst on the bus so it was all good practice for her. Of course, as nobody was coming with us, it meant I was taking myself out to meet a friend for an evening out. I’ve never been able to do that before. Thinking about it, I know I very easily could have done just that with my cane probably several years ago. However, I’ve never really had the confidence to try it. But having a dog gives me the confidence. We walked to the bus-stop no problem and waited a little while for our bus. When it came, we boarded and the driver kindly offered to get out of his cab and take me to a seat. He also knew straight away that the audio announcements were turned on and working as they should be. Zena was really good on the bus, sitting by my feet. Usually, she likes to lay down on the bus floor but it usually means that she is stretching out into the aisle, getting in people’s way. It makes me feel awkward as I have to keep apologising to people and moving Zena out of the way.

There was also another first in this journey. For quite some time, I’ve been noticing that Zena pulls quite a lot on the lead. So her trainer and I agreed that I could try a Halti head collar. It fits around her nose and fastens behind her ears, with a clip that attaches to her collar and a ring to attach her lead to. It gives me so much more control over her and completely stops her from pulling. When I first put it on her that afternoon before going out, she absolutely hated it. She used her paws with all her strength to try and prize it off her face. But the clip behind her head kept it in place and soon she got used to the fact that it was a part of her equipment, just like the lead and harness are. Once off the bus at the other end, we walked just across the pavement to lean against a wall and wait for Josh. Usually, when Zena sees someone she knows, she frantically pulls towards them to get their attention. But the Halti completely restricts her from doing this. She couldn’t even move towards Josh to give her animated hello the way she usually does. It doesn’t hurt her in the slightest, just restricts her from doing the things that usually tare my arm off. When I’m being sighted guided by a friend or member of the family, Zena usually strains to get ahead or to the side or to anything that takes her attention. But when walking with Josh, she was by my side like she’s supposed to be. This was partially because Josh walks quite fast but a little to do with the fact that the Halti doesn’t allow her to pull ahead.

At the theatre, we took Zena in and she easily fit at my feet, even when fully stretched out. The couple next to us seemed to be keen dog lovers so were thrilled to have a guide dog beside them. I expected Zena to make noise during the show, whether that be her squeaky yawn or a bark at a sudden loud sound. But she was silent throughout the entire thing. Afterwards, we were able to meet the comedian we’d just been watching and she was thoroughly surprised that there had been a dog in her show. I was thrilled; that meant Zena had behaved perfectly. Waiting for my parents at the theatre entrance, I couldn’t help but marvel at how well the weekend had gone. Both the cricket and the comedy show had been a complete success, even with my furry companion by my side. That’s the wrong kind of sentence people hope to hear when you’re talking about your assistance dog. Usually, people talk about how amazing their dogs are, how they’ve changed their lives so dramatically in a matter of weeks. I don’t feel quite that way. She has changed my life in so many ways it’s unbelievable. But not in the miraculous way of I can go anywhere I feel like going to because of her. Route learning is still the hardest thing I have to do and for that reason Zena’s trainer is coming out to see us again to help us learn more routes to add to the few options we currently have. Whilst visiting my sister a couple of weeks ago, she commented that Zena doesn’t go directly to curbs and that it worried her because it’s one of the little things they should just do automatically. Zena’s trainer says that it may be because Zena doesn’t realise she has to work correctly in new places even though she’s wearing her harness. He said that the more routes we have under our belt, the more likely it will be that Zena will work appropriately in new places. Lately, she also seems very distracted in her work. If there is another dog passing, I can guarantee that Zena will pull in its direction, usually barking as well. Also, instead of dodging people standing on the pavement ahead, she will actively head to say hello to them. These two things alone are things that I really don’t want her to be doing, which is another reason why her trainer is coming out to help us. As well as physically coming to visit us, he is also giving me regular advice via telephone. To be honest, some of it completely boggles my mind but I’m trying to put all the suggestions he is giving into action. Usually, when he’s explaining something I could try, it doesn’t make much sense to me but when I put it into practice, it seems to materialise the way he’s explained.

“I’m a sad sandwich with grumpy bread”

After almost two months of waiting, last week it was finally time for Kieran and I to see each other again.  Since we became a couple in January last year, Kieran and I haven’t not seen each other for longer than a few weeks.  However, this time, for various reasons, we were unable to visit each other any sooner than now.  I’ve been trying to solidify my partnership with Zena, which has been a lot harder than I anticipated, and Kieran has been job hunting.  When he left in February, there was a possibility that he’d be starting an apprenticeship at his mother’s work place sometime in March.  That didn’t come off so quickly; instead, he is going back and next week starting some work experience which we’ve all got our fingers crossed will lead into a full-time apprenticeship.  I’m really hopeful that this experience could lead into something permanent for Kieran.  He’s worked really hard for all his qualifications and the job he had last year.  It would be really lovely if another job was on the cards for him.  But at last it was time for us to see each other again.

 

Last Wednesday, Kieran boarded a plane that flew him down to Southampton Airport where Mum was planning to meet him.  But Kieran’s plane was too quick for Mum.  He landed a lot earlier than schedule predicted and Mum had to rush to get to the airport.  Thankfully, she was soon with him and they were on their way home.  By the time Kieran arrived home, it was already about twenty past ten so naturally there wasn’t much else to do with the evening other than make sure Zena had done her business, thank Mum for picking Kieran up and head on up to bed.

 

Thursday was a pretty relaxed day.  We had no plans to do anything and no rush to get up and go anywhere.  Zena seemed quite content with the lie-in, too.  Usually, we’re up promptly at seven in the morning and out walking before midday.  But Zena didn’t seem bothered with the little holiday she was getting so far.  Eventually, we dragged ourselves out of bed and went to have showers, going downstairs to have breakfast afterwards.  Mum had bought us some sausages the night before so that we could get the George Foreman out and have sausage sandwiches.  I put three each on the grill and Kieran set the timer.  When it came round to it, though, I really didn’t fancy sausages so made myself a bowl of sugar puffs.  Kieran didn’t bother to butter bread for his sausages and just ate all six as they were.  We had cups of tea with our breakfast.  We spent the majority of the day lounging upstairs, watching bits and pieces on telly.  When Mum was on her way home, I decided to ask if she’d get us kebab.  Kieran offered to pay and we said she could join us.  But as she was paying and didn’t have much money, she only bought what Kieran and I ordered.  So when she got in with it, Kieran gave her the money we’d have spent on the kebab so that she could get some more milk and herself something to eat.  So while we sat and munched our way through our kebabs, Mum and Tamsin headed out to get what was needed.  Once Mum and Tamsin came back and we’d finished our food, we headed upstairs and continued our lounging on the bed.

 

Friday was a little more productive.  We started it in the usual way, with a lie-in, showers and breakfast of Weetabix and cups of tea.  Then, while Kieran started to watch Master Chef, I took Zena out to work her up to the Co-op and back.  It is only a quick twenty-minute route but it was something.  I didn’t feel like doing the hour-long walk to the local gym because I wanted to spend my time with Kieran.  Zena didn’t seem bothered, anyway.  Once we were home, Kieran joined me downstairs and I groomed Zena.  Her fur gets quite messy all by itself so regular grooming is necessary.  After I’d finished that, we headed back upstairs and watched some more telly.

 

As planned, when Mum and Dad came in later on, Kieran and I were ready to be taken out to Pizza Hut in Hedge End for our first date night in a while.  Unfortunately, Mum and Dad were caught up in traffic so we didn’t go out as early as we’d hoped to.  But eventually we were there.  We were hoping to be served by our favourite waitress, who we’re certain is called Clare, but she didn’t seem to be there.  We were served by a different lady instead; as soon as she came to us, we ordered our drinks, a beer for Kieran and a refillable coke for me.  The beer offer Kieran usually partakes in was still on, two for six pounds, so he decided on that again.  Once the drinks arrived, we ordered the starters we’d decided on, cheese and bacon garlic bread for me and hot ribs for Kieran.  He’d been considering between popcorn shrimp and the ribs but settled on the ribs, telling me he’d definitely have the shrimp next time.  I’d meant to only have cheesy garlic bread but when the waitress asked for our starters, I couldn’t resist adding the bacon.  Thankfully, the waitress gave us some of the hand wipes they have on offer with our starters.  The food was tasty; Kieran really enjoyed his ribs and my garlic bread was lovely.  It did leave a really strong garlic taste in my mouth and I wasn’t sure it was quite right.  We’d ordered our main with the starters, a sharing Texas meat meltdown pizza with stuffed crust.  To begin with, Kieran hadn’t wanted stuffed crust but by the time we actually got to Pizza Hut and were eating, he was hungry enough for it.  We also ordered a portion of fries because they’ve been nice each time we’ve had them before and it was date night so we were going all out on our meal.  Once we’d finished our starters, the waitress cleared away our plates and cutlery before bringing out our steaming hot pizza.  The pizza was delicious, as always.  But our fries were not brought out with the pizza.  So Kieran and I decided to wait it out and see whether the waitress brought them out a few minutes later.  However, she didn’t; when she came over to ask if everything was all right with our meal, there was no mention of fries.  So Kieran asked for them.  The waitress rushed to reassure us they’d be over as quickly as possible.  They hadn’t even been put in with the order so we were given freshly cooked fries not so long later.  They were boiling hot and a little hard to eat at first.  My garlic bread had made me fuller than I’d thought it would and I wasn’t able to eat nearly as much pizza as Kieran managed.  I wanted to leave room for a pudding because Pizza Hut isn’t Pizza Hut without a cookie dough pudding.  So once we’d eaten as much pizza as we could fit in, I ordered a salted caramel cookie dough pudding and Kieran settled on a third beer.  The cookie dough was piping hot and delicious, still my favourite part of a Pizza Hut meal.  The starter and main courses were nice but the cookie dough was perfect.  Kieran seemed to enjoy his beer, too.

 

On Saturday morning, Kieran and I showered and had Weetabix breakfast as usual.  The family were out as Tamsin was at karate.  We’d planned to go for a second date meal sometime in the afternoon to the Handmade Burger Company in West Quay.  Kieran had tried it in Newcastle with his sister and loved it so I’d agreed that we could have it for a date so that I could try it.  I was a little dubious about it, though, as burgers aren’t my most favourite thing.  But I’d looked at the online menu and decided there would be something I’d like.  Annoyingly, Mum and Dad seemed to have a million and one other things they wanted to do with their Saturday so we didn’t actually end up getting to the restaurant until gone four o’clock.  We spent this time feeling very hungry and watching a mixture of telly including Master Chef, Judge Judy and The Chase.  On arrival at the restaurant, Kieran asked for the Braille menu but the waiter helping us didn’t seem at all sure whether they had one.  Kieran knew from his previous experiences that each restaurant has a Braille menu on offer so insisted that they find it for us.  Of course, Kieran was right and was presented with a Braille menu not long later.  The waitress apologised, saying it probably wasn’t the most up-to-date version of the menu but that it was all they had.  As it was Braille and had been given to us, we weren’t at all bothered.  I decided on a Hawaiian burger — a chicken breast with pineapple, cheddar cheese, smoked bacon, mango salsa, mayo, lettuce, tomato and red onion — minus the mayo, lettuce, tomato and red onion and Kieran had a double cheese and bacon burger — two beef patties, cheddar cheese, smoked bacon, smoky BBQ relish, mayo, lettuce, tomato and red onion — which sounded like quite a mountain of a burger to me.  I had mine with peri seasoned fries while Kieran went for Denver fries, which are chips topped with cheese, BBQ sauce and pulled pork; his chips definitely required cutlery.  Kieran went for a beer and I had a peanut butter milkshake.  Both drinks were huge and my milkshake was wonderful.  Kieran very much enjoyed his beer too.  Our food arrived not long later and we tucked in.  To begin with, I really enjoyed the burger.  I had to eat it in sections, starting with the top bun and then the chicken, bacon, cheese and mango salsa portion.  The mango salsa was nice, but a little too tangy for me so I scraped it off.  Then, the burger was quite nice.  I can quite understand why some people decide to have their burger minus the bun because I’d have easily done without it.  Kieran ate his in stages, too, but enjoyed every piece of his, managing to eat it all.  He loved his fries, too, but I wasn’t convinced by mine.  I’d thought the peri seasoning would be like the peri salted chips at Nando’s but they were nothing alike.  The Nando’s salt is fine like regular salt but the seasoning on these were flakes.  Overall, I don’t think I’d go back there, especially as the bill was so high, because I didn’t really enjoy the food that much; I think I’d eat it again minus the bun and with different chips but I think I’d just rather go somewhere else where I enjoy the food more.  If Kieran really wanted to go back, though, I’d go with him.  Even if I didn’t like the food that much, the milkshake really was delicious.

 

When we got home, we were both very full of food so we curled up on my bed and watched Gogglebox and The Last Leg, which we had recorded from the previous night.  Both were very funny and afterwards we decided to continue the comedy with a Jimmy Carr DVD in preparation for the live show we were going to see the following evening.  Kieran chose Comedian and it was a very funny DVD.

 

Sunday was a pretty relaxed day.  We had our Weetabix breakfast before returning upstairs and watching more Judge Judy.  We didn’t have much to do with the day because we were waiting for the evening.  At four thirty, we put the football on as Liverpool were playing Crystal Palace and it was something to watch.  Not long after it started, Josh arrived.  Originally, he’d agreed to come over and meet Kieran and I so that he could take us on the bus to the theatre for the Jimmy Carr show.  He’d asked if he could hang out at mine for a bit so that he and Kieran could catch up.  In the end, though, Mum had said she’d drive us to the theatre and also cook us all a meal before we went.  She’d offered spaghetti bolognese but I said chicken nuggets and chips would do as I didn’t really fancy a big meal like that.  Both lads agreed to the easy food, too.  We chatted — well, mostly the boys chatted and I tried to take in everything they were saying — until dinner was ready.  Then, we all sat downstairs and ate our food.  Josh had said he wanted to leave at about six thirty so that we could get there in time.  So once we’d finished our food and six thirty came around, we all headed out and piled into the car so that Mum could drive us to the theatre.  At the theatre, we formed the train — Josh leading me, me leading Kieran — and headed inside, telling Mum to be there about ten o’clock to pick us up.  As soon as we were in the main entrance, a member of staff came across and asked if we’d like to go and take our seats so we followed her in.  The show started around seven thirty and was brilliant.  We were all laughing the whole way through and thankfully there was generally quite a good crowd so the atmosphere in the room was great.  I’m glad that I can add Jimmy to the ever growing list of comedians that I’ve seen live.  Going to the comedy shows with Kieran and Josh is great fun and I hope we can continue to do it long after our last scheduled show in May.

 

On our way home, Kieran and I realised we felt quite hungry and I wished I’d accepted Mum’s offer of spaghetti bolognese as it would have probably filled us up a lot more.  We decided to have some snacks when we got in; Mum had given Kieran a cream egg Easter egg and he took some prawn cocktail crisps from the crisp box in the kitchen as nobody else eats them and I had some Pringles and little Millionaire’s shortbread bites.  We decided to watch Hebburn, which is still hilarious no matter how many times I’ve seen it, whilst sitting up in bed sharing our snacks.  Although it was totally junk food, it certainly filled a gap and we felt a lot better afterwards.  We watched the first episode of Hebburn and part of the second one but they kept buffering on the wifi so we decided to quit waiting for it to work.

 

Monday was a mostly lazy day.  We watched more of Hebburn after downloading it on to my Ipad, eliminating the annoying buffering.  Whilst watching Hebburn, we snacked on Pringles, sweets and more prawn cocktail crisps for Kieran.  Also, I groomed Zena because her fur was all messy again.  In the evening, Mum cooked us a really nice meal.  We’ve recently been going to a newly opened local butcher’s shop and trying different things from there.  I had some garlic pork and Kieran had some Chinese chicken.  We had it with mashed potatoes, carrots and sweet corn.  Mum had offered us gravy but from previous experience I didn’t think it went well with the meat.  My pork was nice but we seemed to have gotten a fatty batch of it because there was more fat than meat in what I was eating.  Kieran really enjoyed his chicken, saying that the skin had gone nice and crispy and the seasoning from the skin had nicely soaked through into the chicken itself.  It was definitely good to have a meal that wasn’t junk food.

 

After our meal, Kieran retreated upstairs to watch the football.  Newcastle were playing Preston and if they won, they’d instantly be promoted to the Premier League; so it was an important game for Kieran to see.  Meanwhile, I sat downstairs with Mum and Tamsin to catch up on East Enders.  Two hours later, Kieran came skipping into the living room; Newcastle had won and were promoted.  It’ll make matches next season more exciting when Liverpool and Newcastle play each other.

 

Tuesday was another lazy day.  Kieran had Weetabix and I had sugar puffs for breakfast.  I’d meant to have Weetabix but it tasted funny when I made it so I changed my mind.  While I dried my hair and during breakfast we listened to Ed Sheeran’s new album, which both Kieran and I love a lot.  We’ve not listened to it together until then, though, and it was nice to do so.  Afterwards, we put the rest of Hebburn on and finished it completely.  While we were watching it, Zena ran around the back garden, thoroughly enjoying the sunshine.

 

Upstairs, Kieran helped me to choose and order Mum’s birthday flowers.  She’s celebrating a big birthday next Thursday and I find the Moonpig website an absolute nightmare to try and navigate so Kieran lending a hand was a big help.  He also offered to pay half the price of the flowers so that they could be from both of us.  So when it came to writing a message in the little card you get, Kieran signed it from both of us.  Afterwards, we watched more Master Chef before getting ourselves some snacks.  Mum had cooked us a quiche to have for lunch so we had that with Pringles and another Easter egg which we shared.  Once Master Chef was finished, we put more of The Chase on.

 

That evening, Kieran treated us all to Chinese.  He chose chicken in black bean sauce and a tray of curry chips.  I chose chicken with cashew nuts and a special fried rice.  Mum asked for a mushroom chow mein and Tamsin wanted some chicken balls.  Kieran added prawn crackers and that made quite a full basket of food.  Kieran and I said that we’d share the tray of curry chips and special fried rice between us and anyone else who fancied them could have some too.  The Chinese was really lovely.  I had the chicken I’d chosen, some of the rice and some of the chips.  Kieran said his chicken was lovely and agreed with me about the rice and the chips.  Tamsin seemed to thoroughly enjoy her chicken balls and sweet and sour sauce too.  While we ate, Kieran listened to the Southampton versus Chelsea game and we had East Enders on the telly.

 

Sadly, today soon arrived.  We had to get up at the same time as Mum and Tamsin because Kieran’s flight was at ten past eleven.  So as soon as I realised people were awake this morning, I grumpily dragged myself out of bed.  Leaving days are always the worst, no matter how many of them we go through.  The idea of Kieran leaving is where the title of this post comes from; I said that I was grumpy and sad and grumpy which made Kieran say that I was a sad sandwich with grumpy bread.  It seemed a pretty good idea for a title for this.  Once I was up and getting dressed, Kieran reluctantly dragged himself out of bed and headed for the shower.  When we were both ready, we headed downstairs and I fed Zena before going to have my own breakfast.  We simplified it this morning, Kieran having toast and me having my usual sugar puffs.  Mum said that she’d take Tamsin to school and Dad to work before coming back to pick us up so that we could take Kieran to the airport.  We took this opportunity and used it to watch some more The Chase.  Kieran already had everything packed and there was nothing else to do.  At nine thirty, I took Zena out to do her business and we got ready for Mum to come back.  When she did, we all bundled into the car and headed for the airport.  Everything happened super speedy at the airport.  They printed off Kieran’s boarding pass and sent us to the assistance desk.  There, they said they’d take Kieran straight through security and to boarding.  So we hugged goodbye and headed in different directions.  Zena thought we were going with Kieran and tried to follow.  She seemed a little disheartened when I tugged her in the opposite direction.

 

It has been so lovely having Kieran to stay.  The additional bonuses of the date nights, takeaways, seeing Josh and the comedy show of course make it extra special.  But the most special part of the whole thing was spending time with my best friend after such a long time apart.  I guess two months isn’t really anything but it feels a lot when you’re almost three hundred miles apart in physical distance.  Talking each night doesn’t really come close to actually being together.  I’m looking forward to May a lot.  Kieran is coming down to stay for two weeks, encompassing our John Richardson comedy show and my birthday.  It’s going to be fun to see another comedian and to have Kieran here to celebrate my birthday with me.  So only three weeks to go and my love will be here again.

“You just needed to grow a pair”

I’m just back from an amazing weekend spent in Yorkshire with my sister Imi and her dad.  I really want to write about it as it was such a great time so I want to be able to reread this and remember how great it was in the future.  Plus, it was my first independent train trip successfully completed with Zena rather than a cane.  Even more importantly, it was my first time away anywhere with Zena by myself, without the help of parents and support of her trainer; although, if I’d have needed him, I knew John was only a text message away.  I hadn’t partaken in a sleepover with Zena before or taken her anywhere to stay overnight.  Even though this opportunity was taken so that I could spend good quality time with my sister, it was also a chance to test my ownership abilities and to see what Zena is like living away from home out of a backpack.

 

Before our trip, of course, I had to pack the right amount of belongings into a bag for Zena and I.  I needed enough food for Zena and clothing for myself to cover our two night stay in Yorkshire.  Despite the fact that I’d been thinking it through in my head since the day I booked the tickets, when it came to packing a bag and including all the essentials Zena would need, my brain turned to mush.  Quickly, I text Imi and asked for her experience in packing for a guide dog.  She’s been owner and mummy to Noodle for almost five years now and has worldly experience in looking after her.  As one of the best behaved and most lovingly looked after Guide Dogs I know, I knew I could count on Noodle’s teachings to Imi as an owner to be useful for me in this situation.  Obviously, I was over-thinking the whole thing; when I rattled off what I intended to bring for Zena to Imi, she reassuringly said that I seemed to have everything covered.  As it turned out, as usual I was being over cautious and packed far too much.  To be honest, though, I’m glad I over-packed our bag rather than not taking enough.  Carefully, on Wednesday morning I sat measuring out bags of food for each of Zena’s meals.  I needed five separate bags of the right amount of food for each mealtime that we’d be away for.  The previous weekend, Mum and I had gone into Tesco and bought freezer bags, the kind with the zip-lock top to keep the contents securely sealed.  Although Imi had just said `sandwich bags`, I had decided I needed those with a zip that would prevent any kind of spillage.  Train journeys are fretful at the best of times so I didn’t want to mount the additional issue of food spilt everywhere on top of everything else I already had to think about.  Although I’ve travelled many trips independently on train before, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Zena by my side rather than a cane in my hand.  I was hoping that I’d feel even more in control of the situation than I had previously.  I was worried about seating arrangements as the travel assistance people had promised that I’d be given an extra seat so that Zena could use the leg space to lie in; I was worried that the train would be so full that someone would need the seat and I’d have to make her stand in the aisle or something.  I don’t know what my rights are, as an assistance dog owner, to insist that I keep the seat for my Seeing Dog rather than allow a paying passenger to sit down.

 

Despite all my worrying, Thursday morning dawned and the day of our trip had arrived.  Zena made my morning that little bit more stressful by refusing to do a poo in her pen at her scheduled time.  As I had to go with Mum in the car so that Dad could take me to catch my train, I didn’t have loads of time to encourage Zena to go.  She probably picked up on the fact that I was pretty nervous and the tension in the atmosphere was probably what caused her to refuse.  But I had other things to worry about.  We needed to be on time for everything.  However, the fact that we were about to embark on a five-hour direct train journey up North and she hadn’t been to toilet did worry me a lot.  The idea of her being so desperate that she went on the train flashed in my head.  I had no idea what I’d do if that happened.  I guess I’d just have to act really incapable and hope that a member of the train crew came to my aid.  Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary.  On our way to the train station, we stopped off at a Tesco so that I could buy supplies for the journey in case I got hungry or thirsty.  I ended up coming out of the shop after purchasing two packets of star bursts, a packet of Jaffacakes, some BBQ Pringles, some Thornton’s chocolate brownies and a bottle of Doctor Pepper.  Why I thought I needed that much sugary rubbish I have no idea but it all sounded good to me at 9am on Thursday morning.  Once we’d dropped Mum off at work, Dad drove us to the train station where we went in, requested assistance and were told to wait in their waiting room.  Right on time, the assistance person came to help me board the train.  At first, they offered me two seats where there was hardly any leg room so I politely pointed out that there was no way my dog, who was definitely giving me the `are you mad, mum?` stare, was going to fit into that tiny gap.  So he helped me along the carriage to a table seat, which of course had masses of room for Zena, who seemed much more optimistic about this arrangement.  As the train pulled out of the station and I dug around for a star burst to settle myself in, I realised that I’d already made my first travel error; I’d left my unopened bottle of Doctor Pepper in the car.  Disappointed, I text my parents to ask them to put it in the fridge so that I could have it went I came home.  Not long after I’d got comfortable and had started to listen to music, the train manager tapped me on the shoulder to inform me that actually I was sitting in someone’s reserved seats and as the table seats are quite popular, he imagined that they’d be booked for the majority of the journey.  As I was travelling for three quarters of the entire train journey, he suggested that he move me to somewhere where I’d be less likely in someone else’s way.  I was a little put out by the tone he used, like I was in the way, but I can understand what he meant and he was trying to be kind about it.  He found Zena and I two seats that had more leg room than the original one the assistance man offered us.  Eager to be settled again, I just accepted, hoping it would be comfortable enough for my nonplused dog.  As it turned out, it was a much better seat choice for us both.  Zena was comfortable and I spent the journey munching on star bursts and listening to my Spotify playlists.

 

On arrival in York, I was more than happy to exit the train.  After a quick toilet stop, I was with Imi’s dad, Mike, and we were heading for the car.  Imi and I had agreed that Zena would go in the boot while she sat in the front with Noodle in the foot well until they’d been acquainted.  As they were going to be spending all their time together over the next couple of days, we needed Zena and Noodle to get along like a house on fire.  It took us a little while to get to where we needed to pick Imi up from her therapy session.  She had warned me the night before, whilst checking that I was good with a quorn diet during my stay, that she may be worn out afterwards.  I was good with that because, firstly, she couldn’t help it, and secondly, I knew I’d be pretty shattered after the train trip anyway.  It took us a little while to get to the train station.  I was quite surprised because Zena settled down without fuss in the boot of Mike’s car and didn’t make a single sound until she spotted Imi and Noodle heading in our direction.  Quickly, Imi clambered in the front while Mike loaded her luggage — and I say luggage because there was loads of it! — on to the backseat beside me.  We chatted about all sorts on the way home, mostly my journey and Imi’s session.  When we arrived at Mike’s, Imi set up the plan for she and I to head inside with Noodle and Zena while Mike carried our bags inside.  Although this was the best idea any of us had, I was still a little dubious about how Zena would react.  Usually, whenever she sees any kind of dog out and about, she frantically pulls in their direction.  Stumbling our way to the front door, I was glad when I was in the safety of the living room.  Once Mike had bought our bags in, he set about making us our first cup of tea of the weekend, the first of thousands, I think.  Once we’d settled in and finished our first cup, Imi showed me upstairs to the bathroom so that I could shower and change.  We’d decided to get clean and comfy before we settled down in the lounge before dinner.  While I showered, Imi took the two dogs out into the back garden.  She wanted to start collecting photos of our stay; we always have loads of photos when we get together but many more were required seeing as Zena was with us.  Many many cute pictures of the two dogs were necessary.  After I was done in the bathroom, we swapped places; Imi jumped in the shower while I was left on babysitting duty of the two girls.  During my turn in the shower, Imi had given them both a meaty treat from the bag of Pedigree Tasty Bites she had.  Zena had never had these before but it was quite clear she was already in love with them.  Both dogs edged further and further towards the bed, trying to stretch their necks towards the bag that was way out of their reach.  Thankfully, Imi was soon back from her shower the we were able to escape from the room with the tempting doggy treats.  We went downstairs, where we were treated to even more tea.  Zena seemed to decide that she wanted tea too, so I had to use my lead to attach her to the chair so that she wouldn’t dip her nose into it.

 

Eventually, we agreed on quorn sausages with sweet potato chips and veggies for tea, of course accompanied by copious amounts of tea.  After we’d eaten a rather nice dinner, we fed the dogs theirs.  I was a little worried about whether they’d actually eat their own food or find each other’s irresistible.  Thankfully, with Imi and I stood between the two of them as a kind of human barrier, we managed to make sure that they ate their own food.  It also seemed that Zena was intent on making sure that there was no food or water left for Noodle.  After she’d emptied her own bowl and Noodle had wandered away from hers, Zena darted in and licked the bowl clean.  I think Noodle had made sure she hadn’t left any remainders for the taking, but Zena couldn’t miss anything.  Then, she darted in front of Noodle to take her fill from the water dish, which meant that she emptied it and then waited for more.  That was when Imi and Mike discovered the disaster that is Zena’s beard; she splashed water all over the kitchen floor.  Thankfully, Mike didn’t seem too fazed by Zena’s mess and we were all soon comfortable in the lounge again.  Eventually, we settled on watching Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, one of our all-time favourite films from our younger teenage years and a major bonding point from college.  While we watched, I took charge of Imi’s BrailleNote Touch, HumanWare’s new note taker for the blind.  It is supposed to be the massive upgrade to the BrailleNote Apex that I’ve loved for years.  However, it doesn’t seem to be the machine I’ve been dreaming of for years.  It is a combination of the Apex and an Android tablet, supposedly having the force and power of Android behind it.  Unfortunately, it’s so full of bugs and problems that it’s pretty frustrating to try and use.  I much prefer my Apex to it and even though I haven’t spent a long time trying to learn how to use the Touch, I know I wouldn’t love it like my Apex until it has had a lot of updates and fixes.  Imi had asked me to update it, but I had to wait for the battery to be charged to at least 20 percent before I could perform the update.  As the battery had been completely flat when I’d tried to turn the device on and seemed to be charging at snail’s pace, I was in for a long wait.  One positive to that, of course, meant that I could enjoy the film and conversation with Imi and Mike, which was highly entertaining, so much so that the film took doubly long to watch than the run time says it should.

 

At bedtime, Imi let the two dogs out into the back garden and we hoped they’d do what they needed to before we headed upstairs.  Once upstairs, we decided on Come Fly With Me on Imi’s Ipad to send us off to sleep.  No sooner had she pressed play on the first episode than had Imi fallen sound asleep.

 

The following morning, we got up, dressed and then headed downstairs.  Once Imi had let the girls out to do their business, Mike offered us breakfast of tea and croissants.  After we’d eaten, I checked on the Touch.  It had fully charged overnight so I updated the voices and fixed the incorrect time before putting it to sleep.  At around eleven thirty, we decided to head out.  Our only plan for our time had been to take Zena and Noodle for a free run.  Imi packed a rucksack of bits and pieces we may need and I took my little shoulder bag.  On our way out, we posed with the dogs both in harness for Mike to take some photos to add to our album.  Then, we were off.  For the first part of the route, both dogs worked, Zena walking behind Noodle and actually working quite well.  I’d expected her to be an absolute nightmare as working so close to another dog and human would surely be overwhelming for her.  As I’ve said, she’s usually pretty erratic around other dogs and as Imi was becoming ever more familiar to her, I thought she’d act how she usually does when I want her to work around any other member of the family.  But she was almost perfect.  I say almost because she was absolutely useless at finding curbs.  But we made it safely to the little convenience store where Imi bought us snacks and drinks to take with us on our little adventure.

 

Our `little` adventure turned into an almost 8 mile walk through some really gorgeous scenery.  I don’t need to have seen our surroundings to know it was beautiful.  As soon as we were away from the road, I put Zena’s play collar, bells and all, on and we let the two girls free.  They ran off eagerly, happy to be allowed to be dogs.  Zena doesn’t get many free runs at home, so this deluxe free run with a brand new friend was an extra special treat for her.  It was pretty special for me too.  I love spending time with Imi but spending it walking through lovely open spaces in the country chatting about whatever came to mind was amazing.  I love long rambling walks with no hurry to go anywhere in particular.  Zena seemed to love it, too.  She and Noodle ran and frolicked with abandon, checking every now and then that they were still with us.  Imi snapped countless pictures of them to add to our album and some pictures of the two of us as well.  About five kilometres in, Imi found a patch of ground for us to sit on.  She laid her coat of it and we sat to eat some of our snacks and take a lot of much needed liquid in.  For snacks we had crisps, chocolate brownies and star bursts; I had a Doctor Pepper and Imi had a Ribena.  As we headed off again, we encountered a couple with a horse called Rodney.  He wasn’t a very happy horse.  Imi and I backed away with the dogs on leads and stood facing in the opposite direction to Rodney and his humans while they tried to maneuver him passed us.  Neither Imi nor I like horses much so this was a bit of a nerve racking experience, especially as Rodney didn’t seem keen on moving on.  Once he was gone, we hurried the dogs on in the opposite direction and we were soon far away from him.  The rest of the walk was thankfully Rodney free and by the time we were working the dogs back to Mike’s house, we were all tired out.  Once indoors, after discarding our muddy shoes on the front doorstep, we let the dogs drink as much water as they wanted.  Then, we settled in the living room for what we hoped would be a long relaxing rest of the day.  Both dogs all but threw themselves down on to the carpeted floor and pretty much refused to move for the rest of the day.  After a quick check, I discovered that I’d walked over 18 thousand steps, my brand new record for one day on Fitbit.  No wonder the dogs were snoozing.  While we rested our aching feet, we watched a film on Netflix called Tallulah.  It’s a Netflix original about a teenage girl who lives out of a van with her boyfriend.  When she stumbles into a hotel and is asked by a neglectful alcoholic mother to look after her toddler, she stays.  It seems as if she is only staying so that she can take some money and any valuables in sight, but when the mother comes back and passes out almost instantly, Tallulah gets out of there as quickly as she can, taking baby Madison with her.  The rest of the film is all about how Tallulah pretends that Madison is her daughter and the daughter of her ex boyfriend.  She goes to his mother’s house and lives there temporarily, soaking up the atmosphere of food and care.  But eventually the secret is out and Tallulah tries to run away with Madison.  But Madison has a fever and Tallulah takes to a hospital, hoping for treatment.  There, the police arrive and arrest her and the baby is handed back to her real mother.  The film ending is a bit of an anticlimax as the last thing we see of Tallulah is her being arrested and the last thing we know about Madison is that she is back with her mother.  I wanted a better ending than that!

 

That evening, we decided to have quorn bolognese for dinner.  During our walk, Imi had asked, hypothetically speaking, if I had a gun to my head what would I choose, takeaway pizza or homemade quorn bolognese? As we’d planned to have Burger King the following afternoon at the train station before my trip home, I thought the bolognese option was the better.  As much as I love a good pizza, with Imi is the only place I get quorn bolognese and I absolutely love it; there was no way I was passing on that golden opportunity.  Obligingly, Mike made us the most delicious quorn bolognese, which we both devoured hungrily.  After our lovely long walk, we were both ravenous.  The bolognese certainly fixed that.  For the rest of the evening, we chatted about all sorts whilst watching Friday Night Dinner.  Whilst watching, I sat and sorted out Imi’s Kindle Fire.  Almost two years ago, we both decided we’d quite like one and after I’d bought one for myself and liked it, I asked Kieran, Cameron and Josh if they wanted to club together with me as an extra special birthday gift for Imi’s eighteenth.  They agreed and we bought the yellow Kindle Fire.  Her reaction on her birthday was priceless; in fact, she hit me rather hard, but it was a happy response despite the ferocity.  Unfortunately, at the time when we bought the Kindle Fires, the Voice View speech software wasn’t at its best.  It has since been improved and is a lot better than before.  However, this put Imi off and she didn’t fall in love with the little yellow machine the way we’d predicted.  Before Christmas, I sold my yellow friend because I wasn’t using it enough and Imi had found a different Kindle that looked a lot better.  It was just a reading device without all the extras that the Fire offers and a lot thinner and lighter than the Fire.  So we both took the plunge and bought one.  I liked it but didn’t like how you had to connect a bluetooth device every time you wanted to use it because it didn’t feature its own speaker.  I should have known before I bought it that that drawback would frustrate me beyond belief.  Checking that Imi still had her yellow friend, I sold the newer Kindle and asked if I could buy her Fire from her.  She was more than eager to get rid of it and insisted I didn’t pay her for it.  So during Friday Night Dinner, I sat and erased it from her Amazon account, adding mine to it and setting it up as new.  I updated it so that the Voice View software was a lot better.

 

Saturday was a bit of a lazy day.  When we got up, I jumped in the shower before going downstairs to join Imi and Mike.  Mike made us tea and toast for breakfast and we sat watching more Friday Night Dinner from where we’d left off the previous evening.  During this, I downloaded as many books as I could onto the Kindle, hoping that they’d keep me entertained during my train journey home.  When it came to getting ready for our trip to the train station, Zena decided that her stomach needed emptying.  She was sick all over Imi’s bedroom floor.  Quickly, we called Mike to come and help us and I took Zena downstairs to let her have a drink and go into the garden.  She did this before following me back upstairs and promptly emptying everything else she’d just taken in on to the floor.  Mike was great, coming in and cleaning it to the best of his ability seeing as we were on a tight schedule to get to the station.

 

On the way, Zena was again sick in the car.  I felt awful because Mike had been so hospitable and lovely to me during my stay, insisting that I should come back and stay again.  Thankfully, after listening to some Ed Sheeran and The Script on the way, we were soon at the station.  After nipping to the loos, we headed to the assistance desk and I requested the assistance I’d booked.  We had quite a while before my train was due so we headed to Burger King where Mike kindly bought us dinner.  I had a chicken nugget meal and Imi had a fish burger meal.  The food was lovely and soothed my irritation at Zena’s outburst.  Even after everything, she was still scavenging for food off of the station floor.  Sadly, it was soon time to go back to the assistance desk.  A lady came to help me and said that I needed to get on the train early because it was already in and she had to send it off.  So I hugged Mike and Imi goodbye, sad to be going already.  It was such a great weekend and so nice to spend loads of time with Imi.  It was lovely for Zena to spend time with Noodle, too.  Since I’ve had her, she hasn’t had an opportunity to spend time with another dog, let alone another trained dog.  They worked well together when we wanted them to and played happily together for the rest of the time.  Zena certainly loves her cousin.  I hope we can go back soon and they can come down south in the summer.

 

To Mike: thank you for having me to stay.  Thank you for dealing with all the bodily fluids we threw your way, not literally thank goodness.  Thank you for the yummy food and the countless cups of tea.  Sorry for all my teasing.  Thanks for cleaning my muddy shoes.  Thank you for ferrying me to and from the train station and for giving me the opportunity to spend time with your daughter.

 

To Imi: thank you so much for having me to stay.  Thanks for all the advice for Zena and for supporting me with her throwing up everywhere even though I know it was hard for you to cope with.  Thank you for the snacks on our walk on Friday and for taking me along such a lovely walk.  I love spending time with you any time we can and can’t wait for next time.  Thank you for the Kindle, the `little yellow bastard` is enjoying Southampton.  You will always remain to be one of the most incredibly brave, kind, caring, clever, wonderful people I’ve ever met.  I’m so lucky that you’re my sister.  Sisters for life, always.  I’m sorry if I ask too many questions and probe where I shouldn’t.  Never be shy to tell me to shut up and get lost, I won’t be offended.  Love you lots and lots.