Tag Archives: Seeing Dogs

Mobility Update: My Guide Session 17

After the biggest break we’ve ever had, today Jenny and I met up for our 17th session. Since we last saw each other, Jenny has had an operation and recovered and I’ve celebrated my 21st birthday, more about that in my next blog post. But today, it was time for more route learning out in the summer weather… well, summer-ish. Yesterday, it was beautifully warm, almost hot, and I was surprised everyone wasn’t in their shorts immediately, as that’s usually what happens when the temperature rises by the slightest in degrees. Even I had mine on last week! Sadly, today wasn’t so glorious. In fact, I was slightly worried around an hour before Jenny arrived that for the first time since we’ve started to work together, that the session might be rained off. Around 8am this morning the rain was absolutely hammering down and I was a bit uncertain about our chances. But as Jenny correctly predicted from the weather forecast, the rain had stopped and the weather much improved by the time she knocked on my door at 9:30.

Since the last time I wrote a mobility update, my Victor Reader Trek has been returned to me from HumanWare. This time, they didn’t’t do anything to it to try and fix it. The technical staff tried to replicate the problem I was facing with the routes but claimed they coudln’t see that issue themselves. When the unit came back to me, it had routes recorded on it that I hadn’t created but I’ve since done a test recording to see if the problem is still occurring and for me nothing has changed. Unless I’m continuously using it the wrong way, I can’t understand why the problem didn’t happen for the technical staff. They did advise that there is a software update hopefully being released soon. They suggested that I should make sure it gets installed when it’s available and said that hopefully that would fix the issue. If it doesn’t, they’re happy to have the unit back and do more testing. To be honest, I’m quite frustrated with the whole thing. The Trek was over £500 and although the book reading function with the added Bluetooth connection feature is great, the only thing that’s new on that side of the machine is the Bluetooth. As for the Trek side, I still feel that the Trekker Breeze I had, which was the updated version with fully working GPS and up-to-date maps, was much better. The quality of recordings for landmarks on the Trek are much clearer but no more accurate, at least I feel anyway. I’ll keep the unit but simply because I’ve sold my trusty Trekker Breeze and Victor Reader Stream (the book reading predecessor of the reading side of the Trek) in order to be able to afford the Trek. Also, I do really like the Bluetooth functionality of the Trek, even if that is a bit temperamental sometimes. If I get a chance, I’ll write more in depth about the Victor Reader Trek in a separate post; I’m not very technically minded and product reviews are more Kieran’s (my fella) sort of thing but I will give it a go. Anyway, for the purpose of this post, my Victor Reader Trek was back and unfixed. Also, I had new Aftershokz headphones to try with it. Before now, I’ve had both the Blues2 and the Blues2S made by Aftershokz but after visiting a friend and seeing his very nice new Aftershokz, i decided I’d sell both pairs of mine to fund a new pair like his. His were, I think, the Aftershokz Treks air. They’re very lightweight, don’t press at all on your cheekbones and have smaller pads that rest on your cheeks, making them much more comfortable. I bought the Aftershokz Treks Titanium, thinking that they could be the same. I’m only guessing that my friend’s are the Treks Air simply because the Treks Titanium, which arrived yesterday on one day delivery thanks to Amazon Prime, are different to the ones I saw. They were £50 cheaper than the Air asking price and already quite pricy in themselves. Forking out the additional money to buy the other pair didn’t seem worthwhile considering the price of the Titanium. I wouldn’t have been able to afford that extra money anyway; the Treks Titanium are much nicer than the Blues2 and Blues2S though so I’ve got an upgrade either way. The headband is more flexible and fits nicer when being worn and they are much lighter so more comfortable. I can see, though, why people might stretch that extra for the Treks Air…

Anyway, enough of new gadgets for now; on to route learning! The walk into Wollstonecraft, which was where I’d decided to go to today, went really well. After having 5 weeks away from route practice, I’d been really worried that things wouldn’t fall back into place with the progress I’d made where we left them. I thought practising this route might be a bit sluggish and frustrating today, but it was anything besides. We had a great walk, only having to check things with Jenny a few times. Even when I checked, my guesses of what to do next were always right. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have hoped for the route to go so well. Jenny seemed really pleased, too, and it was nice to have her confidence in me as support. It was really nice weather to walk in, too. Not too warm but not too cold with none of the wet stuff and little breeze. It was perfect weather for walking along the shore.

When we reached Woolston, Jenny exclaimed that Coffee Mac’s, our usual stop for refreshments, was closed. So we went across the road to Dad’s shop and asked him about it. Sadly, the friendly and helpful man who usually serves us in there has been poorly for a while and so the shop has been closed. Instead, we decided to go to Piggy’s Coffee Shop & Restaurant. It was quite cramped in there, with the tables grouped quite closely together, an we were sat in front of a few quite loud men for a while. However, the refreshments we enjoyed in Piggy’s made up for the crowded environment. Jenny read the menu to me first and then we ordered, she an Americano with hot milk on the side and a fresh fruit scone and me a salted caramel milkshake and a savoury croissant with honey roast ham and cheese. Ive never had a savoury croissant before but it was absolutely delicious and as for the milkshake, well, it was mouthwatering. Jenny commented that her scone and coffee were lovely too. I love milkshakes and as it is just a coffee shop I thought they might be branded milkshakes. But it was freshly made and in a lovely glass. Jenny said it looked like pottery. The price was of course higher than I usually spend when we go to Coffee Mac’s but the croissant was a bigger meal than a slice of banana cake. I do hope that Coffee Mac’s is open again soon, though, because their banana cake is the best banana cake I’ve ever had in a coffee shop. However, Piggy’s milkshakes are definitely a firm rivalry for banana cake. I think Piggy’s will definitely have to be reserved for special occasions or celebrations otherwise I’ll be spending far too much money and consuming far too many calories!

After our rather tasty break, we headed back out, stopping briefly to tell Dad how successful our gamble on Piggy’s had been, before heading back the way we’d come earlier. Again, on the way home, whenever I checked with Jenny about a direction or next move in the route, I guessed right. I felt I made quite good decisions when choosing when to cross roads. There were several awkward cars during the walk but Jenny said that some of them were legitimately parked in bays but hanging over the pavement. There were others that were blatantly parked on the pavement, though, and I really do hope that pavement parking fines come in soon so that people are charged for being an inconvenience and then discouraged from becoming a repeat offender by the price it’ll cost them if they do.

I was really pleased with how well the route went today. I really hadn’t expected things to be so positive after such a long time since our last practice. But it almost feels like the route is becoming instinctive, that’s how much I’m remembering it. When a route becomes instinctive, I truly know I’ve learnt it. Obviously, I always need to keep going over routes to keep them that well memorised but I always feel like its an achievement when a new route starts becoming instinctive for the first time. If it’s still feeling that way after a few more attempts, I might even consider trying to complete the route solo, without Jenny’s supervision. Right now, I think that’s me being over-optimistic after such a good day because Ive found that whenever I try to be independent with my mobility these days I get too nervous. This is a real shame as when I had Zena, dog permitting, I could go out whenever I felt like it without feeling nervous. Of course, with Zena there was always uncertainty about how she was going to perform in harness but I always felt confident in my own problem solving skills and my own independence. I miss that so much. But I’m going to try and make it better with a long cane. The more I think about doing it, the more nervous I get about it and if I overthink things, when I’m out by myself with my cane I get panicky and that’s when mistakes happen, even on the most well-known routes I have. I don’t know where the fear has come from and I know it’s irrational but when I’m out on my own I can’t get rid of it. Now I’ve finished uni for the year (more about that in a future post soon too) I’m hoping to spend a bit more time on my independence. When we got back to my front gate, I spoke to Jenny about more sessions, just saying that if she has any extra available slots during the week and fancies doing extra walks I’d be more than up for it with all this free time I’ve got now. I also spoke to her about the possibility of filming some of our walks for evidence for when I reapply to Guide Dogs to prove that I really have made leaps of progress and would have a fit workload for a dog. Ive recently bought a GoPro hero 2018 camera — its the company’s budget hero camera with as many functions as their top price ones — and I’d like to make good use of it. It came with a whole bundle of accessories, including a chest mount and a belt clip mount, both of which I thought might be good for filming my My Guide sessions. Ive also considered the possibility that having the camera strapped to me might decrease my fear when being mobile independently as I’d have that security of knowing if something happened, I’d have it recorded. it’s an avenue I want to try anyway. i also bought the GoPro becuase my friend Jemma, with the Guide Dog German Shepherd called Ollie, asked me to look after her dog a couple of weeks ago. it went really really well and I’m hoping to replicate the event again soon, possibly for a longer amount of time too. If Jemma was happy for me to, I’d like to record myself looking after and interacting with Ollie so that when I reapply to Guide Dogs in the future I have proof to show them I’ve been trying to improve in the areas they’ve criticised/commented on as my weaknesses. Jemma has also suggested that I might be able to practice some obedience work with Ollie and join them on free runs and I’m hoping to have all of this as recorded evidence for Guide Dogs. I want to prove that I’m doing all I can to be worthy of their approval and suitable to go on their eating list. My employment officer, and also Imi, are going to try and help me find suitable volunteering opportunities with dogs to start work on while I have so much free time. With the good progress I’m clearly making with my routes, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to make more progress in the other areas Guide Dogs need. I don’t want to rush things, but at the same time I don’t want to take forever to be ready to reapply again. I want a Guide Dog. That fact has never and will never change. But clearly I haven’t suitably proved that to my local guide dogs team yet. Hopefully, with all this effort I’m putting in, my dedication to being a guide dog owner will show. Plus, any volunteering I get to do is good for my CV and I enjoy Jemma’s company so it’s all positive. Jenny and I have arranged our next session for the same time next week where we’re going to practice the school route. I’m going to try and use the Trek to record the route again but I’m not holding out much hope for it. Perhaps, the software update will be out by then and might have fixed the problem I’m having. If that happens, I will truly enjoy having a Victor Reader Trek. But until then…

PS: if there are typing errors in this post, for which I’m sure there must be many, it’ll be because of my other new gadget investment. Ive upgraded my iPad Pro to one with more memory but the main reason I bought it was because the person who sold it to me was selling it with the Smart Keyboard case made by apple, which I’ve wanted to buy for a long while. Ive had a Logitech Smart Keyboard case, bought for me by Kieran, for my old iPad Pro and like it a lot. But I’ve always wanted to try out the apple version so here I am, typing on it. It’s really nice to use and I like it a lot. It slims down the iPad a lot too, which makes it feel much nicer. However, I think I made much less typing errors with the Logitech one. I still intend to use it too so may use it for longer blogs where I need more accuracy.

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Mobility Update: The outcome of my Guide Dogs Further Assessment, and My Guide session 14

Originally, I was just going to write my usual My Guide update, describing how things went with the walk and talking about banana cake as usual. But I’ve finally decided that now is the right time to blog about my Further Assessment with Guide Dogs, the outcome and what had happened since as before now I only said that things didn’t quite go as I’d have hoped. The usual My Guide update will be below.

The assessment day itself was as I expected in the way that we did all the things I expected to and I felt nervous and wobbly the whole way through. It started with an informal greeting and explanation of how the day was going to pan out. Each member of staff introduced themselves and then we went around our little circle and introduced ourselves. The first thing I noticed was that another applicant had bought a family member with them when I’d been advised I shouldn’t really bring anyone. But I wasn’t bothered. I hoped it maybe made me look a bit independent not having my parents sat either side of me like I was 5 years old… Even if I did have to get my dad to take the day off work and drive me there. After the introductions were over, we were split up to do things individually. The first thing I got to do was obedience, having the dog on my left-hand side and trying to get it to walk nicely to heel, praising it every time it put a paw right by treating it with the kibble in the treat bag I’d been provided with and had strapped around my waist. When I had Zena I loved all the accessories that came with being a dog owner and if I ever have another dog I’ll definitely be getting one of the dog treat bags I borrowed during the Further Assessment. When I had Zena, the treat bags I tried out were quite fiddly, all with drawstring closures, but this one had a magnetic closure to the treat compartment which meant every time — and there were loads of times! — I needed to grab a treat quickly and give it to the dog as a reward for whatever good behaviour it had presented, I was able to grab it easily and fuss-free.

I felt a bit wobbly during the obedience section of the day. I’d felt nervous since the moment I’d been told I’d been put forward for Further Assessment but actually being there with the instructors and the dogs was a whole other story. The fear of getting a no, being told I was unsuitable, being told I’d never have a Guide Dog was so high it was unbelievable. But I tried my best. I tried following their instructions, commanding and rewarding the dogs in the way they told me too. It just didn’t feel like I was getting anything right.

After I finished the obedience section, I went out with the instructors to do a long cane walk. To begin with, I’d been terrified at this prospect as it was out walking with my cane in an area that was totally brand new to me. I thought maybe they’d expect me to start picking up some of the block route and I knew that just wouldn’t happen. But that part went quite well; they directed me where to go and I just walked. I was asked to cross a road safely which I did no worries. After that the real nerves came in; it was short handle walk with the instructor time. It just so happens that this is my least favourite thing to do with Guide Dogs to do. It just feels so forced and fake and definitely like they’re judging your every move. I know that’s a daft thing to say as the whole day is an assessment day but that section of it particularly feels like a test. And it wasn’t a test I passed, that’s for sure, and I knew that there and then. During the harness walk, one of the instructors started asking questions about Zena. This made me more nervous. It felt as if I was expected to know things I didn’t, be confident when working a dog in a harness and I wasn’t, mainly because the way Seeing Dogs did things and the way Guide Dogs do things are polar opposites. Perhaps back in the olden days were similar. I’m sure Seeing Dogs’ trainer does things how he remembers from when he trained with Guide Dogs in the 80s but their methods have changed a lot lately, especially with the positive reinforcement training coming into play fully. Literally every time a dog does something right it’s the most enthusiastic praise you can muster and a treat at the ready. The biggest fuss has to be made out of the smallest good behaviour on the dog’s part just to reinforce its training. After I hurriedly tried to explain the differences Seeing Dogs has that I know of from Guide Dogs, I tried to focus on making my commands and vocal tone the best I could during the remainder of the short handle walk. But it just didn’t feel good. I felt like I was expected to get everything right. Whether this was a pressure they put on you to get the best out of you or something that was totally in my head I don’t know. But of course I should’ve been at my best. This getting a dog has been a goal of mine for years and years. But I just couldn’t get the right tone and pitch of voice they wanted. I tried and tried and I thought it improved a bit. But after the short handle walk, I just felt like I’d completely screwed my chances up. Add to that the bad feelings during the obedience session and I really thought my chances were up.

Then, it was lunchtime. Nobody really talked to anyone. The applicants were dotted around the room and the instructors were all together. I didn’t really mind. I wasn’t feeling confident about things right then and thought if anyone tried to chat to me I’d probably melt into a blubbering wreck for no apparent reason. Lunch didn’t last long though and we were soon back to the necessary tasks. My next thing to do was a proper working dog walk, the bit I’d been looking forward to ever since deciding to never put Zena in harness again. First, I walked with the dog I’d done obedience with. She was a tiny and very energetic little black Labrador and I thought our walk together went well. Not perfect, far from it, but much improved from the short handle walk earlier. I didn’t get the vocal bits right most of the time, I knew that, but I tried to keep improving on it during the walk and every now and then one of the instructors would praise me for a good bit of vocal praising. After that, I went out with a different dog, this one a big Labrador/retriever cross who I was told had just had his matching visit and would be on class very soon. This walk was a lot harder. This dog needed much more encouragement even to move let alone do the right things. The instructors explained that was his nervousness around new handlers. To be fair, mix that with my nervousness and it probably wasn’t destined to be the perfect walk. But it went ok for some parts. I kept trying to improve on my vocal praise and kept trying to take what the instructors were saying on board about my handling of the dog.

Once the harness walks were done, it was my turn to have a go at grooming and play time. This time, I worked with another little black Labrador, actually the cousin of the one I’d done obedience and my first harness walk with. I groomed her with a bristle brush, a comb and a zoom groom, something I was very happy to see as it had been a piece of equipment I’d used with Zena. I thought grooming time went quite well. I checked that I was doing the right things with the instructor that was with me and I seemed to be doing things right and the dog seemed quite happy with my grooming. Afterwards, we had a little playtime but she didn’t seem all that interested. Because it looked quite nice outside, the instructor suggested we all go out and sit on the benches. We did a bit more obedience whilst outside, practising the “wait” command with the dogs. Mine seemed a master at it and didn’t move once. She was very interested in the other person and dog that were out there with us though.

When we went back inside, that was the end of the day. The dogs were taken away to be put in the vans, we were thanked for coming and told we’d probably hear the outcome by the end of the following week as case reviews took a little while to be put in place. Dad turned up ten minutes later to take me away and I was glad the day was over, although feeling quite a bit more optimistic than I had in the morning. Although things hadn’t been perfect, I thought I’d done a good job and tried really hard to show that I could definitely make progress in the future should they decide I was ready to be put on the waiting list. I updated all my family and friends with positive news, telling them I hadn’t been perfect but I thought it might just have been enough.

Of course, I now know it was far from it. A day later, on Wednesday the 14th, I got a call in the afternoon from one of the staff members who had been at the assessment day to tell me that actually the case reviews had been completed that morning and much quicker than they’d expected and that she had my outcome for me. That being that the team had decided I was completely unsuitable for a Guide Dog due to the fact that my vocal praise and interaction with the dogs had been very poor and that actually my work in harness hadn’t been that great either. My problem solving abilities whilst working the dogs just hadn’t been good enough. To say I was crushed was an understatement. At first, I just couldn’t speak. I asked the instructor if there was no way they could reconsider, if there was anything I could do and if this was their final decision. No, no, yes, came the response. I was told that I did have the right to appeal if I was unhappy with the decision but that that was the only decision left available to me. When I hung up the phone, my dad, who hadn’t been with me during the call but who had answered the phone when it rang, was hovering hopefully in the background to hear the verdict; and couldnt believe his ears when I told him what they’d said.

The prospect of explaining the situation to everyone I know that has been following my progress with Guide Dogs over the years seemed daunting. How did I tell them I wasn’t good enough? How did I tell them how I felt about this? How did I explain that my mind was absolutely scrambled with the whole situation? My first call was to my Mum, who had been pre-warned by my dad that the news wasn’t good but who was absolutely dumbfounded when I explained things fully. My next messages were almost simultaneously to my two Guide Dog gurus, the two people I go to with every Guide Dog query or thought or feeling: Imi and Tiny. Both responded swiftly. Tiny by ringing me even though he was at work and Imi by picking up on the first ring. Both were shocked and didn’t seem to quite believe what I was telling them. Both apologised endlessly. Both tried to reassure me. Both tried to suggest how we could move forward from this point. But nothing was sinking in for me. I was just listening to their voices knowing they’d be my voices of reason throughout everything to come. They always are. All I knew was that I couldn’t let go of this yet. I had to fight it until I had no fight left, got the answer I wanted or an alternative to work on. Being unsuitable for a Guide Dog just wasn’t sitting well with me. If I was on assessment day, surely there was something I could do to rectify that? Surely this couldn’t be my only answer?

By the end of the day, I was certain I was going to appeal. I’d wobbled a bit, worrying maybe Guide Dogs were right, maybe the Seeing Dogs trainer had been right too. Maybe I was kidding myself. But Imi and Tiny didn’t think so. Without saying so they seemed to be silently agreeing with my mind that I should appeal the decision.

So appeal it I did. Over the next couple of weeks, with Imi and Tiny editing my original copy, we composed a letter that everyone seemed mostly happy with. In the end, the draft I sent to the Guide Dogs complaints team in Reading was the draft I was happy with. Just to be safe, I sent a copy via email and by post to the addresses provided. But I didn’t even need to send the printed copy in the end. To add to this, both Imi and my friend Jemma wrote supporting letters to assist mine in getting my point across fully. I really appreciated these and the words both wrote meant a lot to me. I felt that they both supported my letter well and got across the points I was trying to say from other perspectives. I sent the letters on the Tuesday evening before I caught the train up to see my brother and his family and got an almost immediate automatic response. A day later, I got an email telling me the complaint was being passed on to the southampton team and I could hope to hear from them soon. The necessary time they had to respond in before I could make any further comments was 15 working days. I didn’t expect them to take that long as I thought it would be quite unprofessional but I didn’t expect the response quite as swiftly as I got it. Only a day later, on the Thursday, I came down from having a shower to discover I had a voicemail from the Southampton Mobility Team’s service delivery manager asking if a meeting at my house with herself and their senior practitioner, actually the member of staff who had rang me to tell me the decision, on Monday 9th April at 2:30 would be ok? They wanted to come and discuss the decision they’d made and the response I’d made to it in my letter. I didn’t reply immediately. It was about to be the bank holiday and I was up visiting my brother. I wanted that time to be hassle free time not worrying about Guide Dogs or uni or anything else. So when I got home from his, I rang Guide Dogs and told them that her offer of a meeting suited me just fine. As soon as I’d got the call, I’d spoken to both Imi and Tiny, of course, and asked Tiny if he could do me the massive favour of being in attendance for the meeting. I didn’t fancy doing it on my own and didn’t think my parents were the right people to be there, not because they don’t have my best interests in mind, they do, but just because I think for them they are too emotionally attached and can’t see beyond the fact that Guide Dogs aren’t giving me what I desire. It wouldn’t matter to them if Guide Dogs’ reasons for not giving me a dog were totally justified; to them no reason is good enough and I appreciate their loyalty. But I knew Tiny would see things clearly. He’d fight my battles with me unless he thought I was wrong and then, subtly, he’d let me know I was fighting a losing battle. Amazingly, Tiny agreed; he checked with his wife and then confirmed not long after I asked him that they’d be there. His only advice was that I gave Guide Dogs fair warning that he was going to be in attendance so that they didn’t get defensive about it on arrival. I just emailed the team an amendment to my phone call to let them know and the response that arrived the same day was positive.

The appeal first stage meeting took place last Monday as scheduled. In my appeal process leaflet that I got with my assessment outcome letter, it explained all about the process of the appeal and what to expect. The first stage is, once the notification of appeal has been received, your local team will be informed and contact you to arrange an informal meeting to try and resolve the situation. This has to be with the service delivery manager of your team so that, if you don’t feel things have been resolved, the second stage can come into play. This is asking your team to have the case reviewed by a service delivery manager of another team. If that team don’t give you the outcome you want and you still feel you have grounds to continue, you can progress to the third stage of the appeal. The leaflet doesn’t describe what happens in the third stage but warns that the decision here is final. Tiny and his wife arrived three quarters of an hour before the southampton team so that we could discuss how we were going to angle the meeting. I just asked Tiny that he speak up if I don’t seem to be finding my voice or any time he felt he needed to. So that’s what he did. I recorded the whole meeting for my own listening afterwards and instead of taking notes. I did this at my mobility assessment in July and found it very helpful. The meeting was very intense. There were lots of questions asked, points made and helpful interjections from Tiny. I think, had he not been there, I would have completely fallen apart without Tiny’s input. He was great and I cannot stress how much I appreciated him coming and voicing his own opinions and thoughts to support me.

However, Guide Dogs are unmoving with their decision. To them, I’m still not suitable and my interaction with the dogs and the way I handle them in harness just isn’t what they’re looking for in a prospective Guide Dog owner. I didn’t expect them to change their mind. But it was good, in hindsight, to hear them explain fully where I’d gone wrong and why they’d made their decision. One thing that did change, however, was the finality of the decision. From the letter I received and the way the appeal process leaflet is worded, it made it seem that if they said no now and my appeal wasn’t successful, that meant I’d never be suitable for a dog, that this decision really was final. That’s not the case. Apparently, I can reapply in the future and I would be completely reassessed and my suitably be reconsidered for a dog. That, if nothing else, was reassuring to hear on Monday. After the meeting, I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic about much. To be fair, I wasn’t feeling anything much at all, just absolute gratitude to Tiny and his wife for coming and relief that the meeting was over. But I was soon thinking things through, possibly not quite with a clear head at first but at least starting to make sense of things. During the meeting, it was made quite clear that I have two main areas I need to improve on before they would reconsider me for a dog: the way I interact with the dogs in all aspects of having one and the way I handle a dog in harness. The staff implied, though, that if I mastered the way I interact with the dogs, the way I handle them would probably improve on its own. Interaction is key, and the way I do it even more so. The only suggestions the staff gave me of ways to improve how I interact with dogs was to volunteer at a rescue centre. I am going to attempt to do this. Ive emailed my employment adviser to ask if she could help me find positions working with dogs. I’m also hoping to spend as much time as I can with friends and their Guide Dogs so that I can take note of how they are with their dogs and maybe even join in with things like grooming, free runs and play time. If anyone reading this has any other suggestions on how I can improve the way I interact with dogs please please let me know. Although Southampton think I’m unsuitable at the moment, I want to change their minds. I know I’m not going to change their minds overnight and it’s going to take a lot of work on my part to get to the point where my interaction with dogs is what they’re looking for but I’m willing to try. It doesn’t matter how many times they tell me not now for whatever reason, that won’t dampen my intense want for a Guide Dog. I’m still certain it would be the right mobility aid for me. I just need to make myself the right kind of applicant for a dog. I didn’t expect it to be this difficult but I’m not giving up. However long it takes to get that yes, it’ll be worth it. I’m not expecting it to be easy or any time soon. But I am intending it to happen sometime. Perhaps I need to be volunteering for someone or in actual work before I apply again. Maybe that will help, having a real routine of leaving the house in place. Perhaps having all my routes completed with My Guide will also help. All I know is that I’m at a point in my mindset where I’m at peace with their decision. I have Imi to thank for much of that for listening to my ramblings and guiding me in the right direction with my thoughts. I’m not totally happy with the decision. A bit of me still feels maybe a lot of the things they’re commenting on would be things I could progress with during training should I be matched with a dog. But perhaps I’m wrong. I’m sure when I eventually get to a point of being accepted and matched I’ll fully understand what they’re trying to tell me. From the Further Assessment day, most of me understands why they’ve said what they have about the handling and interaction. I was very uncertain with my commands and the way I used the lead and harness and I knew on the day that my vocal interaction wasn’t great. Maybe the improvements were true. They just weren’t quite improved enough for the team.

So there’s my plan. Continue trying my best to be the right kind of applicant. Carry on working on my routes with Jenny until I’m at a point where I know them fully. I want to have all my routes under my belt before I consider reapplying. In the meantime, I will find a way to spend as much time with as many dogs as I possibly can to work on my interaction skills. Also, I will persevere trying to find volunteering and employment positions in hope that these will open up more opportunities for needing a Guide Dog. I intend to email the southampton team at the end of next week when I have an appropriate draft written outlining my plans, asking for any help they can offer and telling them that I’m still as determined as I’ve ever been that one day I will be a Guide Dog owner. Their service delivery manager seemed like a very reasonable person and I feel that with her in charge there’s a possibility that the team are viewing me differently to how I presumed. I thought that they’d taken on board the negative comments given to them by Seeing Dogs’ trainer and this was probably counting against me. But they’ve reassured me that that wasn’t the case and the service delivery manager gave Tiny her word that any future dealings with me wouldn’t have any mention of Seeing Dogs in them. So I’m hopeful. Secretly terrified nothing I do will ever be enough to be suitable, but a little hopeful that if I really work my socks off with my routes, finding some kind of out-of-the-house routine and working on my interaction skills I’ll one day have done enough to be the kind of applicant they’re looking for. I can only try my best like I have been all this time and hopefully one day it will pay off the way I thought learning my routes and putting so much effort into that would. I’m determined that next time I apply, when Ive done everything I think I need to and am at a point where I think they’ll say yes, they really will say yes and I’ll be successful. But for now it’s just working on getting to that point. So without further ramble, here’s the account of Thursday’s My Guide session.

After a little break, on Thursday I was back to route learning, back to walking the pretty much hour-long walk into Woolston with Jenny. We’ve missed two weeks of My Guide because we’ve both been busy. The first Thursday we missed was because I was up in Stoke-On-Trent visiting my brother and his lovely little family and meeting my new niece for the very first time. Then, Jenny was away visiting her family the following Thursday so it was agreed that we’d just miss those weeks out. But yesterday we were back to it and, as a little added bonus, the weather had perked up for us too.

The outward journey into Woolston went quite well. I’d been a bit worried that I wouldn’t remember much of the route after having such a big break but my memory proved me wrong. Just after my last My Guide post, my Victor Reader Trek was returned to me with a new battery free of charge as according to HumanWare that had been the reason for its malfunction. However, not long into the journey yesterday — literally just after I’d walked out of my front door and powered on the unit — I discovered that HumanWare had been mistaken as not only was it not fixed, it was worse! I sent it away because when in orientation mode, the unit would suddenly and without warning stop working and become unresponsive to any button press, even the hard reset that’s supposed to revive it. But yesterday not only was it doing that, it was also telling me I didn’t have any maps installed and so it couldn’t access my location or any route instructions. It could still use my landmarks and some of these were still quite accurate for the 20 minutes that the Trek worked. Safe to say it’s definitely not fixed. Once I realised it wasn’t helping, I decided to do the route unaided. The Trek was annoying rather than helping me so I thought it was best that I just ignore it altogether. This is a good mind testing opportunity for me, seeing if I can remember where to go without the prompts from the Trek or assistance from Jenny. Mostly, I seemed to do quite well, especially considering I haven’t practised that route in a while.

As usual, we stopped in Coffee Mac’s for a little break. I decided I didn’t fancy apple juice so instead had a glass of milk. They didn’t have my favourite banana cake again so I decided to go for a slice of their homemade coffee and walnut cake. It was very different to my banana cake with butter icing filling and topping. Jenny had her usual Americano with hot milk on the side and treated herself to a toasted tea cake. I think we both agreed it was a very nice snack.

The walk home was just as successful, I felt, even if the weather wasn’t quite as nice. I seemed to remember which direction to go in and where crossings were. The only thing I’m not very good at without the Trek’s prompting is which street I’m on, have just left or am approaching. But I think this will come with more practice.

When we arrived back at my house, I was feeling quite tired. I thought this was probably due to the fact that we’d had a couple of weeks off and I hadn’t done that route for a while as even before our little break the last session was spent testing out the route to my sister’s school. That’s our plan for next week; now Jenny knows exactly where the school is and as long as my Trek is back in time, we should be able to record the new route and I should start retaining some of it, especially as Dad and I have walked it a few times.

Once we’d scheduled in our next two sessions and Jenny left, i went upstairs and phoned HumanWare. I wanted the malfunctioning Trek situation sorted asap, especially as it’s only recently supposed to have been fixed and I still haven’t really had it all that long. The person I spoke to on the phone was more than helpful and seemed quite surprised I was still having problems with the unit. His reaction seemed similar to mine and he agreed almost immediately that HumanWare would send a courier for the unit. I expected him to tell me they’d look at it and fix the issue but he said as the unit had already been in for repair once before not that long ago, they’d just issue me a brand new unit. To be honest, I think this is the best course of action as even if the missing maps are an easy issue to solve, the fact that they’ve already tried to fix the other orientation problems and failed suggests that the unit itself is faulty. They collected the unit yesterday and I’m hoping to have a replacement before my next My Guide session next Thursday. Although, there would be nothing wrong with trying to do the route unassisted by technology. But we’ll just have to wait and see. All I know is that I’m going to work hard on learning these routes and so having Jenny’s support and help is still vital for me.

PS: I just want to add a huge thank you to everyone who has supported me in any way during my Guide Dog journey, from when I was 14 right through having Zena last year, letting her go and then reapplying to Guide Dogs last year. Your support has been priceless to me and I can’t say thank you enough. From anyone who has read these rambling posts to those who have listened to me blabber on and on about having a Guide Dog, I appreciate you all. Special thanks to Imi and Tiny, of course. Without you both, I wouldn’t be anywhere with this situation. Tiny, your support always humbles me and I always appreciate any advice or opinion you have, even if I don’t agree immediately. Also, you coming to my meeting and offering your never ending support means the world to me, even more so as it was your wife’s birthday. I will appreciate it indefinitely and hope I’ll forever have your support with my Guide Dog journey and anything else I trouble you with. Imi, will what do I say? You’re my twin, my sister, my saving grace, usually my voice of reason. My world wouldn’t be the same without you and I’m so thankful we met almost 5 years ago. I hope I’ll always have you to advise me on any decisions I’m making. I hope you’ll always be able to make me see when I’m going wrong. I hope you’ll continue to put up with my incessant running commentary of my brain’s digest, mostly about Guide Dogs haha. I don’t know where I’d be if you didn’t. But you are always more than welcome to tell me to shut up; I won’t blame you. Thank you for everything you do for me, you truly are my soul sister for life and I’m here for you always, no matter what.

New year’s eve 2017

So today is new year’s eve, meaning tomorrow is a brand new year. At midnight, we’ll enter 2018. For many, tonight will be about partying. I know a lot of people who usually drink a lot of alcohol and have a lot of fun in pubs and clubs with friends and family. Usually, I spend the evening all cosy at home with at least my Mum and sister Tamsin, sometimes accompanied by my Dad too. The last couple of years, its only been Mum, Tamsin and me, not really fussed about staying up til midnight but doing it anyway, watching rubbish TV until about ten to midnight when Mum changes the channel and we watch the count down to new year. I can’t remember a year when I haven’t watched the last ten minutes of the year flutter by on TV. Then, when Big Ben chimes in London and the fireworks start, I’ll wish whoever I’m nearest a happy new year. Some years, Mum and I have gone to stand out on our front porch to watch the fireworks nearby going off. Most years, they’re still going an hour later. This new yer’s, though, I’m not going to spend the last ten minutes of the year sat with my Mum, waiting for Big Ben’s bongs. I’ll be home, but Mum, Dad and my not so little any more sister won’t. Recently, Mum returned to her younger days role of barmaid at our local social club. She was a barmaid in 1995 when she met my dad and I don’t think I realised, until lately, just how much she enjoyed the job. Originally, she said she was only taking it to earn a bit extra money to pay for Christmas, so that it didn’t have to use up all the money from her monthly wages. But it’s a week after Christmas now and there’s no signs of her stopping working. Of course, if she enjoys it that much then I’m more than happy for her. Why wouldn’t I be? It gets her out of the house doing something she once enjoyed very much and socialising with people she maybe wouldn’t meet otherwise; and as an added bonus, shes earning money for it. But it means that on top of her 9:30am to 6:00pm job at Salon Supplies, shes now working several nights a week, usually from 6pm to 11:30pm or later. Mostly, shes working weekends. It means shes a lot more tiered than she was and we’re seeing her less than we were. But it seems to be working. The ship’s still floating, just about. But tonight, the club is hosting a new year’s party, which Mum, who has already been given the role of top bar staff, is running. So that means shes not here. Dad and Tamsin aren’t, either, because they’re going to the party. Many people know my hatred of all things related to alcohol and loud noise so the club tonight would be my worst kind of nightmare. I wish the fact that my family were all going to be there was enough to convince me to endure it. But I just can’t. I’m pretty gutted though, mostly that I won’t be spending it with my Mum, who I can only remember not spending new year’s with once in all my twenty years. There may have been more when I was little but the only year I remember was in 2014 when I reluctantly decided to spend it with my then fiancé and his mum. Even though we had a nice time, I felt weird about not being with my Mum. I guess it’s a bit daft really. I’m sure they’ll all have a nice time here and I probably will too. My pal Josh is coming over to stay and Mum’s bought us a whole buffet load of food to munch through. Josh has agreed we can watch the Big Ben fireworks and even my sister Imi has said she should be available for FaceTime at some point. So it should be a nice night and its nice that I’ll have someone to spend it with. Otherwise, I’d have been on my own and probably gone to bed early. New year’s isn’t a big deal or anything. I don’t want a huge party and loads of alcohol. I just like spending it with those who mean the most. Of course, one year that meant I thought I wanted to spend it with the person I then thought I was going to marry. Obviously, now things are different. If I could, I’d have all my favourite people in the world in one room. Although I can’t have my family tonight, Im lucky to have Josh, who has been my friend 10 years next year.

Mostly, 2017 has been a great year for me. Ive been able to spend as much time as I possibly can with Kieran, I was given the chance to experience what having a guide dog is like and I’ve been to loads of great places. In June, I fulfilled a lifelong ambition of taking Mum to see one of her favourite bands live. The Take That concert is definitely one of my favourite nights of 2017. I expected them to be good and for Mum to enjoy it, but I didn’t anticipate quite how much. They were brilliant and Mum had a great time. We drove up to London together and spent a whole afternoon moseying around the O2. It’s huge! I wish I’d known how much it contained before we travelled. We were able to have Nando’s and spend the whole afternoon browsing everything else the O2 had on offer. After we were through security, we were taken straight to the front of the queue and let in quickly. Due to my haste to just get Mum some tickets for Take That, I hadn’t secured us very good seats, in fact they were the last row! But Mum didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered. She seemed to love the whole night. She was singing and dancing to every song. When I booked the tickets, I’d hoped it would be good and she’d enjoy herself, but I couldn’t have imagined how much. We got band merchandise and they sang all the best songs. What more could I have asked for? Even more than that, I had a rare opportunity to just spend some time with my Mum. Having a little sister and Dad means that is a real rarity but I do enjoy it when it happens.

Another opportunity for a just us day came 4 months later when we headed to London again, this time to see my all-time favourite band live. In 2011, whilst sitting in a Land Rover on its way to Salisbury with four people who mean a lot to me despite how little we talk these days, I was fully introduced to Train and to what will always be my favourite album of theirs, Save Me San Francisco. Ever since, I’ve collected every album of theirs I can find and loved them. So when I booked the tickets, I couldn’t have been more excited. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for Mum, who had only agreed to come because I needed someone to drive me and someone to be there with me. But even she still says they were amazing and she thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Once again I’d underestimated how much there would be to do once we reached London. This time, we were destined for the Hammersmith Apollo, a place I’d seen many comedian play on Tv. The Apollo was surrounded by loads, including two shopping centres. So Mum and I spent a few hours browsing everything before we had to queue to get inside. Once again, we were rushed straight to the front of the queue and got in a lot faster than others. I was even able to buy Train merchandise, something I hadn’t found before then. I got a T shirt with the tour dates on and a zip-up hoodie with them printed on too. Even I couldn’t have hoped Train to be quite as amazing as they were. Making my night perfect, they sang my all-time favourite song of theirs, Parachute. Mum managed to record loads of great videos, which I now forever have to replay one of my best nights of the year.

Of course it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t mention Zena a bit when talking about my 2017. She shaped the whole first half of my year. In January, I was excitedly anticipating her arrival and in February I was training and qualifying with her. March, April, May and June were spent trying to keep our partnership afloat and finally admitting it wasn’t working out. July was spent wishing she wasn’t gone and wondering if I’d done the right thing. By august, I was back in contact with Guide Dogs, asking to be assessed for one of their dogs. And I’ve spent the last few months working as hard as I can to learn new routes so that I’ll be enough for one of their dogs. It is true, I’ve become obsessed with being a Guide Dog owner, but now I think it is all for the right reasons. Zena gave me that. Although she never should have been a guide and I’m now thrilled shes retired as a pet, she showed me I was right all along: guide dog mobility is my favourite and best way to be independent. I’m now doing things I wouldn’t have dared to before zena and so although the whole having her is a bittersweet part of the year, overall I’m glad it happened. I got the opportunity to be mummy to a beautiful doggy for 5 months and in return she taught me the best ways to look after, groom, feed, walk and love a dog. When I evemtually get another guide dog, I know i’ll be able to put everything, good and bad, that she taught me into being a much better owner and dog mummy. I just hope that, wherever she is now, her new family are looking after her with the best care and loving her like I did. Because although we had a lot more bad than good, I love that girlie more than I can put into words. I know, though, that when I eventually get matched with a Guide Dog, it’ll be a much better partnership than Zena and I could ever have achieved. That, more than anything, is why I’m glad I didn’t persevere with Seeing Dogs and am persevering learning new routes with my lovely My Guide volunteer. The end result will be what I want and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

Ive also managed to see my sister Imi twice this year and both times we had great fun. Josh and I have been meeting up weekly since early this year. We’ve also added more comedians to my seen live list: Shappi Khorsandi, Jon Richardson and Jimmy Carr were all incredible. Josh and I also went to see Lucy Spraggan live and saw her a second time with Imi up north. Ive continued to play cricket for Hampshire VICC and even got awarded “man of the match” for one of the games I played. Kieran and I have been lucky to see each other as much as we have due to my qualification with Zena and his gaining employment. That’s our dedication to each other. In 9 days time, we’ll have been a couple for two years. We’ve had the best times and I’m hoping 2018 provides many more.

Already, it is looking like 2018 is going to be a year full of great things. We are already booked to see Shappi Khorsandi and Kevin Bridges again. Josh and I will also be adding John Bishop to our seen comedians list. In June, the four of us (Josh, Imi, Kieran and I) are going to have what promises to be one of the best nights of our lives seeing Ed Sheeran live in Newcastle. I’m hoping perhaps 2018 may be the year I finally go to Anfield to see Liverpool play.

But the biggest thing that is going to happen to my family is scheduled for the 2nd of February. My big brother, Grant, who moved away almost 13 years ago has now found a lovely lady to settle down with. Along with her two gorgeous children, Grant and his girlfriend now have a lovely little house and in February, four is going to become five. I’m going to be an auntie to a niece, who I can assure you I will spoil. Grant and I haven’t really been close for years and I wanted to rectify this. So in September, after a lot of talking, I went up to stay with the little family for a weekend. That was then I wholeheartedly new how excited I was about being an auntie. Because not only will I gain a baby niece in February, my brother’s first born and my dad’s first grandchild, but I have a new honorary niece and nephew. Grant’s girlfriend’s children are adorable and I’m blessed that she’s adopted me as their auntie Paige. I couldn’t have hoped for more. So in 2018 I intend to be spending a lot of time in Stoke-On-Trent with my nieces and nephew.

Lastly, my progress with my studies has been constant this year. I haven’t had any wobbles about changing course or quitting. Ive completed K118, my second Level 1 health and social care module just how I planned to and moved onto Level 2 with K217 and K240, achieving good scores in the first assignments for both. In 2018, I hope to continue steadily with both until I finish and pass them before moving onto Level 3 in october and starting my final two modules of OU study. By this point in two years, I hope to be sitting here with a good level degree and employment. But who knows?

So 2018 looks like it’s going to be a good year. I hope all of my family and friends remain healthy and hope 2018 brings good things for everyone, too. I’m hopeful, if I work hard on my routes, that I’ll get on the Guide Dogs waiting list sometime next year too. I’m not over ambitious, I don’t expect to have a new dog by this time next year. But you never know. I hope that I get to spend lots of time with all those who mean the most. And maybe, this time next year, Mum won’t be working and we can bring 2019 in together. Maybe.

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.

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.

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.