Tag Archives: Disability

Mobility update: the outcome of my Guide Dog assessment

Since i last wrote a mobility update, quite a lot has happened. Last time I wrote, I’d had my mobility assessment with the instructor from Guide Dogs and she’d told me she felt I was more than ready for the next part of the assessment, where a GDMI [Guide Dogs Mobility Instructor] would come to my house and talk everything dog related. She advised I’d probably have to do a short handle walk, a walk where I hold the harness and the instructor walks as if they’d dog, and I command as if they are the dog. I felt a bit nervous about this as, 6 years ago when I had my first guide dogs assessment, that was one of the things they picked up on: that I wasn’t particularly vocal with the dog. At the time I was 14 and terrified; I was desperate for a guide dog for all the wrong reasons and absolutely heartbroken and gutted when, predictably, they told me I wasn’t ready yet. But I felt confident after this assessment; the woman had been more positive than I could have hoped she’d be. She said my mobility had come on leaps and bounds since she assessed me a year ago and that I’d finally done what she needed.

Unfortunately, at the next assessment, in mid October, things were very different. The tone of the whole thing was completely the opposite of that which I’d been thrilled about in July. The lady had filled me with so much hope and anticipation, which I hadnt dared to have before considering my previous negative experiences with guide dog assessments. Of course, in hindsight now I can absolutely understand why they made the decisions they did and I respect that; but I was so joyfully hopeful this time. Friends and family had been wholeheartedly encouraging me that this time, at last, I’d get the answer Ive been dreaming of for so long. Due to their unwavering certainty and the positive vibes I’d received after the assessment last time, I was quietly confident too, secretly hoping I’d get exactly what I was wishing for this time. But it didn’t work out that way. When the assessment started, we did a lot of talking; it was the instructor from the last assessment, a new GDMI I’d never met before and myself. Right from the beginning I was nervous; of course, even before they arrived I was nervous but as soon as they were in my lounge, an uncertainty I hadn’t had was with me. Once all the talking was done, during which I’d pretty much told them the full story of my experiences with Seeing Dogs, we went out for a route walk. As soon as the instructor asked, I knew things weren’t going as I’d dreamed; she wanted me to show them the route to the gym, which is my longest route and the one I learnt with John and Zena during our training and which became mine and Zena’s most used route. Slightly panicking, I grabbed my Trekker Breeze, praying they wouldn’t ask me to do it without it, and programmed in the route I needed. Thinking about it now, I might have been able to do the route without the Trekker – I did it so many times with zena – but I didn’t really want to take the risk. Plus, the difference doing the route with Zena and doing it with a cane is staggering.

The route went relatively well on the way there. They didn’t interupt or ask anything additional of me so I was able to concentrate on where I was going, with the additional landmark reminders from the Trekker as backup. They were reassuring and I was so glad I’d taken the risk of grabbing the Trekker. When we reached the gym, we immediately turned back around and headed home. On the return journey, I did do a short handle walk; it was terrifying. It’s so different from actually having a dog on the end of the harness and commanding a GDMI who is currently assessing whether you’re good enough for a dog you know 100% you want and need.

When we got home, they told me the verdict. Of course I wasn’t ready for a guide dog yet. Of course I dint have enough routes. My workload was nowhere near enough for a young lively new guide dog. I didn’t go out anywhere near as much as I needed to myself to enough different places to be ready for a dog. Secretly, I’d been expecting these comments. Although everyone else had been overly positive, a little secret part of my brain had been dreading they’d say all this. What came next was what I hadn’t expected. They had received comment back from Seeing Dogs, from John in fact, discussing my partnership with Zena. John had basically said that he thought I’d given up too soon, that my handling hadn’t been right and that due to my lack of routes Zena had gotten bored and therefore the partnership had crumbled. But according to him, if I’d tried harder or persevered longer, it would have all worked out. What I was experiencing was merely teething issues which every new partnership experiences for the first year after qualification. In a nutshell, it was my fault and I shouldn’t have quit. When I defended myself, trying to explain the severity of the issues I’d faced and the lack of support from the charity I felt I’d experienced, the GDMI said that I could experience any or all of these problems with one of their dogs, that usually many new owners do face these problems at the beginning of the partnership. I tried to counter that I didn’t feel the frequency of the occurrence of the problems were as bad with all new partnerships to what I had with Zena. Ours was pretty much a daily struggle with no high points.

They explained that due to my lack of routes and the comments from John, they had concerns about putting me forward for a Guide Dog. They explained again that I could experience any of the issues or even all of them with a new dog and because I’d given zena back, how would they know that I’d persevere with a new dog? Of course they didn’t actually say it like that but that was the message. Also, I needed to consider whether a dog was for me. They said that they felt I’d been given many opportunities to improve my amount of routes and hadn’t taken them. They said that of course they could appreciate there were two sides to every story where mine and Zena’s partnership was concerned but they couldn’t pretend that John’s report hadn’t given them worries.

So they left me with two options to think over. They said that if I felt after all this that actually a guide dog wasn’t for me right now I could close my application and reapply at a time when I did feel a dog would suit my lifestyle. Or, if I wanted, the instructor would put me forward for a My Guide application again and I could spend time working on my routes to create a large enough workload for a guide dog. The instructor said that if I chose My Guide then she’d contact the leader of Southampton’s My Guide service immediately so that I could be put forward for a new application. As before, she complimented my much improved long cane skills, saying how much more confidence I seemed to have whilst using it than she had seen the previous year. The GDMI added that I’d done a really good job correcting my own orientation errors along the route and that she felt it was a really good route. We did a lot of talking about how many routes I have. I explained how since the instructor had assessed me the previous year, I’d learnt a lot of new routes: the gym route (30 minutes there, 30 minutes back), the library route (a really recent learn, 20 minutes there and the same return), the routes on the bus both into Woolston our local small shopping street and into our main city centre, the route from Woolston on foot to my doctor’s surgery and pharmacy, and the locations of several shops both in Woolston and the city centre. Over the last year, I’ve personally felt I’ve made massive leaps and bounds in my mobility independence. I had a guide dog and despite the fact that she wasn’t a Guide Dogs dog and wasn’t the best working dog, she meant that I did my level best to leave the house daily more than just to put the rubbish out. This, for me, is huge! The addition of all the new routes is even more amazing progress. In 2016, it took me several months to learn the route to the local shop which is 5 minutes away from my house. But since then I’ve learnt routes that are lengthy, or lengthy in my book. Nowadays, I regularly meet up with my friend Josh, catching the bus into the city centre and going for lunch with him. That’s usually once weekly. And then most Tuesdays I take the bus into Woolston to have coffee and do a little shopping with my grandparents. Before Zena gave me that confidence, I’d never have dared.

This was all explained to the instructor and GDMI and although they seemed pleased that I’d made that progress, it was clear it still wasn’t enough. When discussing the My Guide option, we sketched out what I could accomplish with a volunteer’s help. We wrote out a list of routes I had in mind to try out and the lengths of each of them. Once we’d established this, the instructor and GDMI agreed that all of these combined would most definitely create a large enough workload for a guide dog but it was up to me whether I felt it was worthwhile putting that effort in, whether I thought creating that kind of work for myself was necessary right now and whether a guide dog would benefit my life. As they left, the instructor said to mull things over for a little while and let her know when I’d made my final decision.

To say I was crushed was an understatement. After all the hard work I’d put in learning new routes and still trying my best even after giving Zena back, I’d hoped I’d get a better answer than that. Right there and then, I couldn’t really think or feel anything, except shock that it hadn’t gone better and at what John had told them. As promised, as soon as the women had left, I ran upstairs and rang my sister Imi. In all of this guide dog mess, I have always had three solid figures in my life who I could rely on for sound advice and honesty. Of course my parents and wider family have been supportive too but the three main people, without whom I wouldn’t have pulled through all this, are Imi, my wonderful fella Kieran and my ex cricket captain and all round blindy hero Tiny. Of course, being Guide Dog owners themselves, Imi and Tiny have a whole host of knowledge and experience about Guide Dogs to fall back on when helping me out. As for Kieran, well, he’s my rock and always there for me no matter what, even when I’m wrong. The support of these three people in my life is utterly priceless to me and I can’t reiterate often enough how I wouldn’t have gotten through the worst times along this journey so far without them. Hence why Imi was my first port of call. To be fair, all she got when she answered the phone was a sudden gabbled statement of “I haven’t got enough routes and I’m not ready” before I burst into uncontrollable sobs. I say this not to be dramatic but because it was true. Poor Godwin probably thought things were a lot worse than they were because I don’t think shes ever heard me cry like that. Haltingly, I managed to tell her the full account of the morning’s events. The parts we focused on were the open option for My Guide and what John had told Guide Dogs in his report about me. Imi couldn’t believe how horrid he’d been; she saw mine and Zena’s partnership with her own eyes when we visited her in April so knows first hand how bad things. We’re. In fact, it was she who alerted me to some of the issues I hadn’t realised we were having. Eventually, we summarised that I needed to think what I wanted but that the My Guide offer was a fair one and definitely one I should take if I wanted to pursue getting a dog. However, I was so messed up about the whole thing that right there and then I wasn’t sure what I wanted. After everything John had told them, my worst fears seemed to be coming true. Maybe I’d been a bad owner. Maybe I shouldn’t have a guide dog. Maybe I didn’t need a guide dog and was again making up reasons why I should have one. The only solid argument I had for this theory was that however bad mine and Zena’s partnership had been, it improved my life dramatically. I was leaving the house with confidence and feeling good about my mobility. Yes, we had mountains of issues and these in the end made me decide that the partnership couldn’t work, but if nothing else, Zena proved how much guide dog mobility can enhance my life. That, above all my other insecurities and worries and uncertainties, makes me positive sure a guide dog is for me. At the end of mine and Imi’s call, I wasn’t feeling much better. But I was trying to take her level-headed logic and calmness on board.

Later, I spoke to Tiny on the phone. He was equally surprised about the outcome of the assessment. Above everyone else, he’d seemed the most certain for me that I’d get the answer I wanted. But as always he is my voice of reason. He knew what I needed to do before I really did. He knew I needed to reapply for My Guide, get all the routes I had in mind under my belt and then go back to the instructor and show what I’d accomplished. With all the routes I had in mind, I’d surely have a big enough workload then. He said that what John had said was unfair. He told me to give everything a lot of thought, at least sleep on it, before I decided what I was going to do. But we both knew what I was going to do. Tiny is always right.

As for Kieran, well, he was my comfort blanket, he said all the things I wanted and needed to hear. Over the following few days, gifts of my favourite sweets arrived in the post: 3 large boxes of Cadbury’s milk tray, a big bag of jelly tots and a box full of packets of love hearts. Although unnecessary, these gifts fulfilled their purpose; they cheered me up. Kieran hasn’t always fully understood my motives for being so persistent about wanting a guide dog. But he understands now;he knows for me a guide dog is my preferred mobility aid and that to me guide dog mobility feels almost natural, an extension of my arm the way his cane feels to him. And so his support is unwavering.

After giving it some thought and taking everyone’s comments on board, I’d made my decision. Like I’d thought that day on the phone with Tiny, I knew I was going for the My Guide option. Guide dog mobility improved my life that much that I felt giving up now wasn’t an option, especially when there was an open door of help to enable me to be ready for a guide dog available. Why would I slam that door? It’s the only available avenue to getting a guide dog left to me. I took the cheater’s way out with Seeing Dogs and look where that left me? Missing a dog that I loved with all my heart but who just wasn’t cut out to be a guide and who I’ve had nothing but abuse about from the charity she came from. I don’t regret having Zena in my life and I never could but the backlash and consequences of that that I’m now facing somethimes make me wonder whether it was worth it. The only positive I really got out of it is proof that guide dog mobility is the right thing for me. The pleasure of having Zena as my companion for 5 months was obviously a massive bonus and she taught me loads of vital dog ownership lessons, mainly to be patient when things aren’t going your way.

With Imi’s help, I sent an email to the instructor stating what I wanted to do. I told her I wanted to reapply for My Guide with the sole aim of learning all those routes we’d outlined in the meeting to then be reassessed for a guide dog. We also asked for clarification on just how many routes I needed to learn to have enough to form a decent workload for a dog. It was agreed that the ones I had in mind plus the additional ones I already knew would be enough. While I’d been thinking all this through and corresponding via email, my dad had already volunteered his services for helping to teach me routes. He already had one in mind: the route from home to a news agents. It takes a good 35-40 minutes to walk there from home but it builds on my existent route to the gym. Over the following few weeks, dad taught me this route as promised and I realised it was a very valuable route to have. Not only was it just an extension of an existing route I know solidly but it is also a convenient little shop to go to and it also passes a big park, perfect for free running. In fact, it’s the very park John and I used during training to free run Zena. I stopped using it because it became too much of a distraction for her whilst working on route to the gym. I felt this was a big accomplishment of mine and dad’s because really I’d learnt the routes to two new places. Although only additions to the existing route, still two new destinations and quickly learnt and memorised.

I was quickly contacted by the leader of My Guide, who did the application there and then over the phone. As soon as she’d completed the online form, she said she already had a volunteer in mind and could she come the following Wednesday so I could meet them and decide whether I thought she could help me. This took place in mid November. The lady’s name was Jenny and she’s helped others learn routes in the past. We discussed what I needed to do and then did a little walk outside. We just walked to the local Co-op and then came back. Jenny and I both said we were happy to work together and she seemed quite optimistic about achieving my route aims, the leader said she’d phone back in a couple of days and check with each of us that we were happy to go ahead and then fill out the appropriate paperwork so we could get started. A week later, she contacted us both by email to say we were a successful match and could start work together. That very evening, Jenny phoned me to arrange our first session. We agreed on the 7th of December at 10am with the plan to start my first new route, the longest of them all: the big walk into Woolston.

So eventually, the result was positive. I was matched with a volunteer swiftly and a plan put in place for me to learn new routes that would build up into a big enough workload for a guide dog. My aim currently is to take 6 months to learn all the routes I need. I’m not the quickest at picking up routes but am hoping 6 months will be long enough for me to be competent and confident with all the routes outlined in mine and Jenny’s action plan. That is the aim. Then, I’d like to be reassessed by Guide Dogs shortly afterward and then put forward for the waiting list. I hope by persevering with this and learning all these new routes that I can prove to Guide Dogs and anyone else that I’m committed to being a guide dog owner and committed to making any future partnerships I’m lucky enough to have the best they possibly can be. If all this hard work doesn’t show that I’m totally serious about owning and working a Guide dog then I don’t know what will.

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A mini break at Godwin Towers

Ever since the last time I visited, I’ve been wanting to see my sister Imi again. It’s a difficult sibling relationship given the fact that I live on the south coast and she lives very up north in Yorkshire. Before I went away to residential college [RNC Hereford] I never expected to be travelling the length of the country to visit a friend. But having a boyfriend who lives in Newcastle and a sister who lives in Yorkshire means this has become a pretty regular event. Travelling to York means a lengthy train journey whereas visiting Kieran in Blyth means a flight. I’m not sure which is preferable, really, except for the fact that travelling to Newcastle via plane takes an hour and twenty whereas a train journey to York takes a good five hours. It’s odd whenever I make that train journey to York because it feels strange to be travelling less miles but taking much longer to get there than it would for Newcastle. But every time I spend those five hours on the train is worthwhile for what awaits me.
This time when travelling to York, I had a companion. The last few times I’ve travelled, I’ve gone alone. But Josh, my favourite train buddy, was with me this time. The plan was to have a whole gang meet up but unfortunately Kieran couldn’t join us. Between them, Imi and Kieran had tried their hardest to make it so that he could join us, but it was decided that it was too difficult and impractical for him to come. I was pretty gutted as I really wanted the four of us to be together again. The last time we were all together as a gang was Christmas and that really seems a long time ago now. Plus, Imi hasn’t seen Kieran since then and Josh and I haven’t seen him since May. Although Christmas is considerably longer ago, three months is a really long time for me; since we got together, we haven’t gone so long without seeing each other. In fact, we’ve neever gone so long since knowing each other. It’s really strange and not particularly nice. Anyone who says a long distance relationship is easy is clearly a liar. There’s nothing easy about it at all; the only thing that makes it bearable for Kieran and I is the promise of seeing each other again and our nightly FaceTime conversations. But this post isn’t about us because sadly Kieran wasn’t there.
On Friday morning, after lots of planning and arranging, Josh answered I met at Southampton Central train station to get the train together up to York to see Imi. Our train was the 9:46 direct service to York. The direct trains are the best. Although having a change is sometimes convenient for refreshments and a toilet stop, direct trains usually mean you get there faster and there’s no faffing about in the middle. As a blind person, changing comes with the risk of sighted assistance not arriving to help transfer you to your connecting train. That in itself is a nerve racking experience so avoiding it is always preferable. Thankfully, on Friday we were able to do just that. Unfortunately, for a couple of hours during the journey, we had to sit separately. Josh had booked our tickets at different times because at first he hadn’t been sure whether he’d be able to stay the extra days like I was. Coincidentally, he was given holiday time from work so had days available to take. Of course,Imi and I were more than happy for him to join us for the whole stay rather than just the weekend.
Hours later, we arrived safely in York. As we were climbing down on to the platform, Imi and Mike appeared to collect us. The train station seemed to be bustling with people so I was very happy when we bundled into Mike’s car, ready to head back to theirs and settle in for our stay. The trip from the station to Mike’s house takes quite a while so we had plenty of time to chat and catch up.
As soon as we were in, we took our bags upstairs to Imi’s room and made the floor space our own. Like I did in April, I was to share Imi’s rather comfy double bed with her while Josh had the single air mattress on the floor. Imi had managed to make a pathway between the double and the air bed, which made it a little easier to get around the room. Once we’d deposited our stuff, we headed back downstairs where Mike had a pot of tea waiting. he’d bought apple juice specially for Josh; somehow, from what Imi had said, he’d inferred that apple juice was the only thing Josh drank. This made for many giggles and quiet jokes as it was all he offered Josh to drink. Not that Josh particularly seemed to mind. However, we were a little worried that the juice would send him crazy. Whilst at college, whenever Josh had apple juice, it always made him quite hyper. Some of the conversations had while he was “under the influence” of apple juice were completely bananas. It did make for a very fun time, though. Add to that excitement that we’d just disembarked from a very long train journey and Josh was seeing Imi again, after an 8 month separation, we really weren’t sure what hysteria to expect from him… Surprisingly, the apple juice had little to no effect on Josh’s behaviour, perhaps because he was already far too excited about his current situation

Around six-thirty, Mike served dinner; quorn spaghetti bolognese. This I’d been looking for ever since the last time I was treated to it, again at Mike’s when I stayed in April. Nobody at home eats any kind of quorn so I’m not privileged to have it all the time. Having it whenever I visit Imi is a real treat and a part of the stay I’m always hoping for. I wasn’t disappointed. The quorn bolognese was delicious! Imi served me a rather large helping and at first, when I noted how much she’d given me, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to eat it all. But I think I’d be able to eat and eat and eat quorn bolognese. It never gets old and not lovely. After serving our meal, Mike had said he was off out and to contact him if we needed him. It was quite humbling that he trusted us with his house and thought we’d all be safe and fine because we were together. Unfortunately, we may have ruined this delusion of his as not ten minutes after he left, as she carried our trays out to the kitchen, Imi dropped a plate and it shattered into fractions. Obviously, none of us have the skills, with our limited vision, to safely clear up jagged fragments of ceramic. At first, Imi asked Mike over the phone where a dustpan and brush would be. Instead, he advised her to just try and clear up some of the larger fragments that were easy to see and he’d do the rest when he came back later. But I was worried that she’d skewer her finger on a smaller piece or something so suggested she just leave it for Mike as none of us knew where a first-aid kit was located. We all agreed this was the most reasonable suggestion and settled in for a night in the lounge. Soon though we realised that not even attempting to clear up the debris, however potentially dangerous it would be to try, meant that we were unable to even go into the kitchen for a drink in fear of stepping on the pieces and doing ourselves harm. This didn’t seem so bad for a while, but then we realised Laila was really hungry and probably needed letting out to do her business.
In the end, Imi did have to ask Mike to come home. It was about 9:30 and we were all really thirsty. It seemed unfair to pull him away from his free time but also cruel not to be able to feed the dog. Thankfully, Mike was quick to come home and didn’t seem too bothered about our smashing of his crockery. He cleared up our mess and Laila was allowed her dinner. Although Mike seemed quite tired, it sounded like he’d had a nice evening out while we’d had fun at home.
The following morning, when we eventually dragged ourselves out of bed, Mike served us breakfast. Once we were ready, we bundled into the car and set off to Imi’s “favourite place on the planet” otherwise known as Burnby Hall. I wasn’t really sure what to expect apart from that we were going to be feeding fish. It was a really hot sunny day and definitely the right time to be outside. Imi bought us pots of fish pellets at the little cafe and then we went on a little walk. As we walked, she described the scenery around us and it really did sound beautiful. We stopped at first on a little platform and sat down on a metal bench. It was lovely to just be there. It gave you the relaxed feeling that there was no hurry to be anywhere else; it kind of took your worries away for a little while. I wasn’t thinking about how many emails awaited me and the voicemail on my phone that begged for my attention. Right there and then we could just be and it was just the three of us, together again at last, the way it all started at college almost four years ago. Later, we bought slices of cake from the little cafe to serve as our lunch. I chose a raspberry sparkly cake. It was delicious but very sweet and I was grateful for the free tap water on offer. We also did a lot of fish feeding there. You can sit right on the edge of the massive pond and through the pellets into the water for the giant fish to catch. If you put your hand in the water, the fish will come up to you and sucker onto your hand with their mouths. Feeding the fish was a lot of fun because every now and then they’d leap out of the water to get the pellets and soak us in water. Also, if you threw a large amount of the pellets into the water, the volume of noise the fish would make as they fought for food was incredible. At one point, Imi asked a man if he’d take a photo of the three of us sitting together on the grass with the pond in front of us. Instead of just doing it there in front of us like we expected, the man took her phone and went around to the other side of the pond and took photos from there. So there’s some really lovely photos of the three of us and Laila sitting together on the bank of the pond with it stretched out in front of us.
When we got back that evening, it was time for our girlie slumber party. We ordered pizzas from a place that Imi swore was better than Dominoes and set up a girlie movie to watch. We decided to start with the second Bridget Jones movie as Josh had only seen the first. You can’t get much more girlie than Bridget. While we watched, we ate our delicious pizza. Imi and I had tuna and sweet corn topped stuffed crust pizzas and Josh had a pepperoni stuffed crust pizza. After the second Bridget Jones movie had finished, we put on the third, Bridget Jones’ Baby. To add to the girlie vibes, Imi painted all of our nails. Originally, she did mine in pink that matched my Doctor Martens but I didn’t like it because it was a Matt paint so asked her to redo them. So they turned blue, coincidentally the same blue as the fleece sweater I wore the following day.

 

On Sunday morning, we had breakfast again before getting ready for our afternoon out. Imi had booked tickets for us to go to a folk festival in Hull at which one of our favourite singers Lucy Spraggan was headlining. There were also going to be two less known performers there one of which Imi liked a lot too. She had invited her friend Maria to join us primarily as our guide. Imi wasnt sure how well she’d be able to navigate the place so had enlisted sighted assistance. It was really lovely to meet Maria as Imi has talked about her loads over the years. The festival itself was great; I wasnt particularly fond of the first artist but loved the second and of course Lucy. It was a very different performance by Lucy than Josh and I experienced in Eastleigh when she performed with her band. We felt that she could have done with her drummer for a few of her songs as it added something extra special to the performance. But she was great nonetheless. The best part of the whole thing was the meet and greet. Not only did she recognise Josh and I, but Imi got to meet her. When Josh and I saw Lucy in Eastleigh, we’d wished Imi could have been there to share in the experience as she was the person to introduce us to Lucy at college and Lucy is her absolute hero. After the meet and greet, we all went to a little pub. I didn’t really fancy a drink so just sat and chatted with the others while they sipped at theirs.
On our way home, we popped into the local shop and Mike bought potatoes and chips to have for our tea. We settled on quorn burgers with oven chips and veggies. Mike did peas and sweetcorn so it made for quite a nice meal. Josh and I weren’t certain on the burgers. They had quite a different taste and the texture was interesting; I’m not sure if I’d particularly choose them as a meal again but they were edible and not like disgusting or anything. After the food, we just chatted for the majority of the evening.
Monday was of course bank holiday Monday so everyone was out in force. Originally, Imi had planned to take us to a beach where we’d be able to walk, as I’d hoped. But on our way Mike decided the traffic was too heavy and there was no way we’d be able to get there. So we had to go to plan b. Imi took us to a place that had a massive field area and then a woodland part. This meant a free run for Laila and pretty much a hike for us. For part of the woodland part, Laila swam in the lake and we had to walk on boards above the lake. As a totally blind person, this was definitely a test of trust.But thankfully I had my well trusted guide Imi to get us safely across. We were walking for quite some time and when we got back to the cafe we were all rather hot. On arrival back at the car, Imi discovered Laila had covered herself in a thick layer of green slime, definitely thanks to the water.
Next, we headed back to Burnby Hall. More fish feeding and cake was required. Kindly, Mike had given Imi money for our meals, which Josh and I were very grateful for. Imi and Josh decided to sample some of the mint airo cake they had on offer while I opted for a caramel slice, which, as I’d predicted, was exactly the same as a millionaire’s shortbread and therefore delicious. Sadly, Josh and Imi didn’t think much of their cake and when they’d had enough, with more fish pellets in hand we headed back to the pond to enjoy more fish feeding. It was a pretty hot day so Imi found us somewhere that was a bit shaded so that we didn’t melt completely. We were all soaked pretty quickly and Laila didn’t seem to want to settle. Plus, as she was covered in slime, Imi was eager to get her home and hosed down so as soon as we’d emptied our pots of food, we headed back to Mike’s car.
At Mike’s, Imi set to work cleaning Laila. She described the consistency of the slime as sticky and like it was growing in the dog’s fur… Overall, completely disgusting. But once Laila was washed in her fruity shampoo and sprayed with her doggy cologne, she smelt and felt lovely. Her fur was all bouncy and fluffy and the scent wafting off her was a perfume I’d be happy to wear! After Laila’s shower, it was our turns. Imi said she desperately needed one after getting soaked both at the pond and whilst washing Laila and also being covered in Laila’s acquired green slime. I wanted one because I needed a hair wash and getting into pjs of an evening is always a nice way to relac and wind down.
We agreed on Jacket potatoes with different fillings for dinner. Josh asked for cheese and beans while Imi and I settled for tuna sweetcorn mayo mix with a sprinkle of cheese. It was delicious. I don’t have jacket potatoes regularly nowadays after having to eat them almost daily at the college bistro simply because the rest of the menu was practically inedible so when offered a jacket potato nowadays I’m often skeptical about it. But Mike did well to remind me just why I love jackets; the tuna sweetcorn mayo mix topping really made it something else. I am and have always been a tuna lover but Mike really pulled it off. The sprinkling of cheese just topped it all off nicely. While we ate, we agreed to watch Angus, Thongs and perfect snogging, which is a film adaptation of every teenage girl’s favourite book series. The Louise Rennison books are every teenage girl’s wildest dreams come to life: a 14 year old girl meets a really fit boy and we see the chase unfold as she tries to grab him for herself. There’s a gang of best girlie friends, older girls who they totally think are slags and sad boring loser parents. Watching it as an adult is a strange and cringe-worthy experience. Reading those books at 14, every girl agrees with the main top girl Georgia. We all associate with her, envy her and basically want to be her. Many of the girls I knew even modelled their lives on the fictional top dog. But watching it now kind of makes you think Georgia is just a whingy complaining bitchy kid who, if she doesn’t get her own way, cries about it and plays nasty games until she does. It doesn’t really give us much hope for our younger selves; I just pray I wasn’t as bad as she’s portrayed.
After Angus, we moved onto Bridesmaids. I hadn’t seen the film in years, probably since we bought it at home on DVD. I remember it having funny moments but overall being terrible. Thankfully, watching it with Josh and Imi kind of revived it in my mind. It had far more funny parts than I gave it credit for and the cop male who the main character is falling in love with is pretty lovely. It was definitely good to watch it again and I’m pleased I can now hold it in higher esteem in my memory.
Sadly, the next day dawning meant the arrival of mine and Josh’s journey back down south. Thankfully, we had a bit more fun before the sad goodbyes came. Mike drove us into York town centre and Imi took us wandering through its streets until we came to the shop I’ve dreamt could exist for years. The Shop That Must Not Be Named is dedicated to Harry Potter merchandise. It really was a dream come true. After we’d queued for about half an hour, we were allowed inside this magical place. And that was where my bank balance decreased rapidly. There was just so much lovely stuff to buy. On the way in the car, Imi had done the sorting test quiz on me to determine which Hogwarts house I belong in; I’m a Hufflepuff just like she is. Some of the stuff I came out with was amazing. one example being the leather purse shaped as an envelope and embroidered with the Hogwarts crest, stiched so it looks like an envelope and printed with the address so that it looks like the original first acceptance letter Harry receives, inviting him to Hogwarts. I also gained a pendant of the symbol of the deathly hallows and it is made to look exactly like the necklace Luna’s father wore at Bill and Fleur’s wedding. Finally, my third favourite purchase is my time turner; it is an exact replica of the one Hermione wore in The Prisoner of Askaban. It spins, turns over and has actual sand in it so functions just like the fictional one did. It is presented in a lovely wooden case so that you can display it if you wish; I feel that the case partially represents the mirror of Erised in The Philosopher’s Stone, making the whole thing even more special. The fact that my bank balance was considerably lowered by my spending spree didn’t matter. The things I’d bought were things I could either use or wear regularly; plus, there’s never not a reason to buy Harry Potter merchandise.
Eventually, when we left my favourite shop in all the world, we headed for Cafe Nero to get a drink. I had my usual salted caramel hot chocolate, Imi had a regular hot chocolate and Josh had a Diet Coke. We all went for the little brownies in packaging at the counter rather than asking for slices from the fridge.
Once we were refreshed in Nero, we headed on to paper Chase and WH Smith’s so that Imi could buy stationary supplies for the forthcoming year at college. Then, we headed into Lush, mostly to inhale the gorgeous aromas that shop offers. Before my Harry Potter binge, I’d intended to buy some tea tree tonal water Imi highly recommended I try. Since my balance was already lowered, though, I felt the indulgence of such a luxury could wait for another time. Imi had other ideas; she bought me a bottle of the tonal water and Josh a wonderful smelling body jelly. I was really surprised she bought us gifts and wished I’d insisted on buying her the colour changing Harry Potter mug she’d liked so much in the shop.
Unfortunately, once our Lush spoiling was over, it was time to get back to the car so that Mike could drive us to the station. At the station, we registered with the assistance desk before going to get ourselves a meal before our journey. Again, Mike generously gave Imi money to pay for our food. I opted for chicken nuggets, not really fancying a burger. Sadly, when we’d finished our food, it was time for Imi and Mike to go. The car only had an hour’s parking and the prices at stations like that are crazy. So we stood beneath the York railway station sign and had one last photo before hugging tightly and turning in opposite directions. It is always difficult saying goodbye not knowing when we’ll see each other again. It feels a lot more reassuring now Imi is safely out of hospital. Saying goodbye there was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. And Miss Godwin, I have to tell you, even if you don’t see it or feel it very often, you’re doing bloody damn amazing, sis. When I think about what was happening three years ago at this very time, I can hardly believe you’re that same girl. I know I tell you all the time and you’re probably sick to your back teeth of hearing it, you are the bravest, strongest, cleverest, most amazing young lady I’ve ever met. Like you said last night, you’re a truly kickass blind woman and I’m so proud to know you, honoured to be your sister. I love visiting you so much and wish we could do it more often. If I was richer… But I promise I will see you soon. I’ll be there so much your dad will tell me to bugger off.
Thank you for such a great weekend, both of you. I’m lucky to have friends like you and it was the best way to spend the last weekend of August, the final bank holiday of the year. And I have to say, Godwin, you were absolutely spot on about those pizzas. A million times better than Dominoes. Lets do it again sometime, Yeah?

Four years

Four years ago today, my parents loaded up the boot of our car with my belongings, spread out the AA map and we headed off on the 150 mile journey to Hereford so that I could start college. I was 16 and excited about a new adventure. I was also terrified about leaving home. It had been planned for quite some time. 18 months earlier, we’d taken our first trip to Hereford to visit the college. It was so that I could decide whether it was an option for my future. After my very first tour of RNC, I had my mind set that there would be nowhere else. I was not going to local college; Hereford was my destination.

Four years on, it seems crazy that it is all memories. I left college over two years ago and have only returned because Kieran was working up there. It is safe to say that when I left two years ago I was more than ready to leave college. I wanted to be as far away from RNC as physically possible. A lot has changed since and hindsight really is a bitch. I would have done a lot of things very differently if I’d known how things would turn out. Thankfully, now I can be totally grateful for everything Ive gained out of going to residential college.

The best thing that happened because I was granted funding to go to RNC is the people I’ve met and the family I’ve gained. Because the three close friends aren’t just friends. Granted, one is now my other half but the other two are family. When we arrived in Hereford that Friday afternoon, we met another set of parents who were bringing their daughter to start her journey at residential college too. If only we’d all known then that she’d become my sister. Imi and Laila took up residence in the room neighbouring mine in our halls of residence and became a permanent resident in my life. I have written a lot about my sister over the years because she truly is an amazing person and I don’t take for granted having her in my life. Similarly, I don’t take for granted the continued presence of my good pal Josh. When we headed off to college with our then friend David, neither of us expected that ours would be the friendship that stood the test of time. David and Josh were going to be mates and do everything at college toget; I was just the third wheel. But after that very first week, that would change forever. Like Imi, Josh is a part of my life that I couldn’t do without and I am mighty pleased ours is the friendship that survived. And then of course there’s Kieran. So much that I could say about the friendship and now relationship we have. At first, he was Josh’s media buddy and just the stupidly clever lad who was in IT class and often set the task of fixing the never ending computer problems. But the more time I spent with him, the more I knew I wanted him in my life as a permanent fixture. When Josh kept inviting him to hang out with us, none of us could have known where it would lead. Kieran was there for the laughter, tears, triumphs and struggles. He supported me even when he knew I was wrong and watched my personality change as I entered into a relationship that became an engagement and changed my life. Regardless of the person I became, he continued to spend time with me and fixed any technical problem that occurred. The fact that we’re together now isnt a surprise to me on the basis of how we acted around each other and the amount of time we spent together. He really has been an irreplaceable friend and now partner. I count my blessings every day that I went to RNC, that mine and Josh’s friendship flourished beyond anything it was at school, that I gained a fantastic sister in Imi and that I now have an incredible fella in Kieran. I couldn’t have ever dreamt to be so lucky, but somehow I was.

Of course, it wasn’t just friends I was blessed with from college. I met many amazing staff members who helped me with so much. I came out of there with two C grade A Levels, an A grade AS Level and a pass at Level 3 BTEC. I was taught invaluable independence skills. Living in halls meant that I had to keep my room tidy, do my own laundry and make my own meals. Of course there was the canteen but nobody really liked eating in there. There were some lovely meals that they cooked but quite a lot of the time it was easier to cook our own food. Independent living skills gave me things I never thought I’d be able to do. I learnt how to make fresh meals. Cooking was something I’d never been able to do independently before.

It is amazing to think that that all started four years ago today. I honestly don’t know where the time has gone and I wish that I’d appreciated the place better when I was there. Granted, some of the things that really irritated me haven’t changed. If I went back now, they’d still frustrate me beyond belief. But I could have never gone to regular local college. Not because that means I’d never have had the friends I do or the independence I developed. But because they really couldn’t cater for someone like me. There was no provision in place for a blind person here. The majority of my local colleges even admitted that they weren’t sure how they would cater for me if I enrolled. Now, I could never take for granted the opportunities RNC gave me, especially because of the family I now have. I’m so glad Southampton gave me those two years of funding, that chance to grow into a completely different person. I wouldn’t have the life I do now if I hadn’t been granted funding. It was, without any shadow of a doubt, the best experience of my life.

So four years have passed since I started. So much has happened since. But today, four years exactly since my college journey began, I just wanted to write this little piece, thinking about how everything has changed since. Nothing would be the way it is for me now without RNC. If someone had told me four years ago that I’d regularly travel by plane and train independently up the country to see my other half and sister, I’d have laughed. Nobody could have predicted how much of an impact college was going to have on my life but god am I glad it did! So here’s to four years since college began. Here’s to the three amazing people I have in my life thanks to that place. Here’s for the qualifications I achieved that hopefully one day will be useful in securing me employment. Here’s to the times we shared, all the things we did. The fun was endless and the experience was priceless.

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.

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.

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.