Any week now with fingers crossed and a following wind we will be welcoming my sister’s third guide dog. We all know them, weaving effortlessly through life with their owners. Listening out for the traffic, avoiding the potholes – yes, well, only one of those last two are true! The dogs do not decide when it is safe to cross the road – they cannot judge distance and speed.
My sister who has been deaf since birth was registered blind back in the 70s. This didn’t mean she had no sight, only so little it impeded her life. Hers is a degenerative eye condition which leaves increasing tunnel vision. For 13 years she managed commute into London, negotiating rush hour, managing her social sphere with the aid of a ‘long cane’ We have all noticed those canes, warning us ‘others’ a blind person comes. Yes but so much more. Handled well the cane tells the user the depth of a step, the presence of an obstacle ahead, tells of the width of a space and, like the Red Sea, the cane parts the crowds who would normally shoulder aside and complain. I used to say I’d hire my sister out at Christmas shopping time:)
What the canes cannot do is give quick information about bicycle wheels (please don’t leave them sprawled flat on the pavement), they cannot cope with supermarket trolleys left just anywhere. The cane tip slides under and between the wheels and body. The main thing they cannot do is encourage anyone to talk to you!
As her sight deteriorated and the tunnel in front of her grew smaller, more confined. As she lost the surrounding world my sister became increasingly enveloped in space of silence, compounded by her blindness. At bus stops, in train compartments, she sat in silence unaware of company around her, unable to make the vital eye contact which signals I’m friendly and wouldn’t mind passing the time of day with you. Unable to communicate with blurred pale ovals that were, or were they? people’s faces.
By the time she reached her 50s she was withdrawing. No longer enjoying the outside world, no longer wishing to walk for the sheer joy of walking. Independence vanishing faster than we could hang onto for her. With no job to dictate leaving the house every day a future of isolation loomed.
Then came a dog. Just a dog. A yellow lab.
The rule that had prevented a deaf/blind person from having a guide dog had changed. They could now benefit from a dog as long as the ‘human’ could hear the traffic – remember guide dogs do not decide when to cross a road! My sister now qualified and with nervousness and some trepidation she began the process of becoming a guide dog owner.
It is hard graft. Make no mistake, it is hard!
The hardest? Trusting your life to a stranger. It takes time for the bond of trust to build between dog and person and during those few months until it happens the owner must, must, throw all self survival instincts to the wind and rely on this new dog to guide them to safe returns. That is hard – I’m not sure I could; think about it, striding out along the pavement (little nervous steps not allowed!) the dog will tell you if there is a manhole cover misplaced – will stop you falling down the open trap when beer barrels are being off loaded, will stop you walking into ladders and cycles - the dog will – but it is essential the owner believes this; any dog owner knows that if you display any doubt or fear and the dog picks it up immediatly.
Of course you have a trainer close behind for weeks to be sure, because one cannot do this easily, survival is part of us.
The benefits of this dog’s arrival are amazing. When the stress of training is over, when the fear of that first unaccompanied walk is banished. When the two suddenly find the necessary bond. When. Well!
People talk to dogs:) it’s true. Sit at a bus stop with a dog and before you know someone is saying hello to the ‘beautiful’ dog who has made eye contact, who then responds with delighted tail wags. From there it is so easy to ask the owner how old? how clever? how long? Names are exchanged and conversations are struck up, silence vanishes as a sun dried mist. No one at the bus stop? well then your dog is a loyal companion, you are never alone again.
Walk out with confidence and say puf to those unthinkingly left trolleys, those unthinking chasing children, puf to the cycles and pieces of luggage left all around. Listen to greetings from passers by from shopkeepers. The sun is out.
My sister began to travel again, on holiday to various locations around the country with a fellow guide dog owner, take spontaneous trips to the coast to another town by trains, buses and coaches. Met friends for coffee, took over the family shopping and smiled again.
But dogs age faster than us and there comes a time when the dog no longer wags its tale as enthusiastically at the thought of putting on the harness. Comes a day when it thinks maybe being an ordinary dog all day every day would actually be more fun.
It is still hard because the working life of a dog is 6-8 years then they are retired and a new one comes. How easily can that bond, that friendship be transferred to a different personality (they all have different personalities) It is hard. If the family is prepared to take on the retired dog than it stays otherwise there is long, long list of those who want a retired guide dog. So the process of learning to work with the new dog begins again.
The dog we await at the moment will be my sisters third. Over the last 20 years her remaining sight has gone. Light and dark are all now. Her hearing of course has also grown worse but with digital hearing aides she can still hear the rumble of traffic (we dread the thought of silent cars). Now the training will be hard again not only because she is aging now herself but because this dog will have to contribute everything, my sister can no longer watch the skyline for clues to where she might be, can no longer see the shape of a person to ask for directions. The trust must overwhelm, the bond must be stronger than rock.
She has help. In the village where we have come to live out our days they all know and care for her, look out for her. She will still have her independence for another few years. She is about to step into her 7 decade and the chance of this being her last dog is real. But as Scarlet would declare we’ll think about that tomorrow.
I am a cat person by instinct and I watch in awe at the marvel of this working relationship.
Man’s best friend multiplied a thousand fold
A guide dog is a wondrous thing.