As many of you know, I am waiting for a guide dog.
I’ve been on the waiting list for about 14 months. If you want to read about my experience applying for a guide dog check out the blog I wrote last year. Recently I had a check in with the London team and I wanted to update you on how it went.
I was lucky to be offered a last minute space at a dog walking session. One of the best things about being on the waiting list for a guide dog is all the extra support you get. I’ve participated in a few additional workshops which have helped me skill up and connect with other visually impaired people. These are amazing opportunities to really feel like part of a wider community and prepare for the future as a guide dog owner.
So I was really excited to go to the office, catch up with the team and meet some other soon to be guide dog owners. One of the trainers met me across the street from the office, there are currently a lot of roadworks in the area and I needed a bit of help navigating! We arrived safely and I was introduced to the rest of the group. I was so happy to realise that Lizzie & Lucia were in the room! I’ve connected with both Lizzie and Lucia over Twitter so it was great to meet in real life. So after a coffee and a chin wag, we went through the plan for the afternoon. We would be doing two dog walks, but first we had to familiarise ourselves with the footwork and commands.
During my Further Assessment session in January 2018 I spent two days working with different dogs. Although I remembered the basics, a lot of the more complicated foot positions and commands were a bit rusty! So I went out with one of the trainers, and we practiced with an empty dog harness. There is one move I really struggle with. It’s called a ‘back right’. This footwork is used when you need to turn left, but you are stood facing a road. If you turned immediately left the dog could accidently pull you into the road, so you basically have to do an about face via your right and face the direction you want to go, which is left. Sounds complicated, it is!
Here is a great video of Nathan & Guide Dog Abbey doing a back right and then turning to a crossing!
I had to practice it several times, and got the giggles a bit, I just couldn’t puzzle my way round it. However, eventually the trainers decided I was safe enough to let near a real dog! The first dog was Kula. She was a lovely sweet small black Labrador retriever cross. We said a quick hello and started on our walk. The trainer had an extra lead clipped on to the harness, so that we would be safe.
Kula was a lovely dog, but she absolutely wasn’t right for me!
She was very sensitive, a bit shy and too slow. I had to slow my walking pace right down so that she could actually lead me. There was no tension on the harness handle so it was really difficult to tell where she wanted me to go. Also she started to get really distracted halfway through the walk. I have to admit I got a bit frustrated. I tried my best to praise her when she did well, but eventually every time I said anything poor Kula just panicked. She started sniffing and wouldn’t work, this was a sign she was finding it stressful so we stopped.
On returning to the office everyone chatted about how their walks had gone. It was a mixed bag, some successful and some less so! However, now the team had more information to go on so they could pick the next dog.
The next dog that I was introduced to was Oakie!
Oakie was also a black Labrador retriever cross, with flappy ears and a confident strut. Oakie was further along in his training and honestly I felt a lot safer with him. Oakie was pawsome! He was the right speed, and easily steered me around street furniture and confused tourists. Oakie would deliver me straight to the curb, and plonk his bum down every time. He even found a pedestrian crossing and took to me to it really well! I loved Oakie, he had a bit more sass and felt like he had the kind of attitude I need in my future dog.
The walk felt far too short, although we’d been out for half an hour, and I had to say goodbye to my new furry pals. Afterwards we all discussed the positives and negatives of the experience. Lucia hadn’t walked with any dogs before, and found it really helpful to get an understanding of what it would be like to change from a cane to a dog.
During the debrief the one of the team sat with me and went over my regular journeys. I’ve had a few changes in the last 6 months with work, volunteering and my social life, so it was good to double check the work load my future dog will have. I then reflected on Kula and how difficult it had been because she was too slow.
Then the trainer said “Kula walks at the speed you were walking a year ago”.
This was amazing to hear, well not for Kula, but it confirms that my cane is helping me walk quicker! This is a huge personal achievement, and I felt so proud. When we told my Mobility and Orientation Specialist, who taught me how to use my cane, he had a little tear in his eye!
I’m officially a moderate speed. I’m still like a snail compared to most people, but the team confirmed that this is the average speed of a guide dog. Yes, guide dogs come in different speeds. This is the pace that most people walk in busy environments, so it’s the perfect speed for my central London commute.
Realistically I’ll be waiting another year for my dog.
There is such high demand on the waiting list. Also I have a complicated list of requirements, including escalator training which not all the dogs get. After the experience walking with Kula and Oakie, it really confirmed for me how important the right match is. Kula is a lovely dog, but she wouldn’t work well with me! I need a confident, busy and sassy dog like Oakie. I’m happy to wait for the right furry friend because my life will be in those four paws.
I said goodbye to the dog team, and spent some time with my Mobility Specialist, the tearful one. I wanted to get some top tips on using my hearing more effectively. Being able to rely entirely on my hearing when I’m crossing roads is really important for the days when my vision isn’t useful, or it’s sunny or I’m in pain so I need to close my eyes. We had a fun time walking around central London, with me wearing a blindfold, stood on pavements shouting when I heard cars. At some points I was hearing bikes 15 metres away!
I even managed to cross a road totally independently wearing a blindfold using only my hearing and my cane skills.
Compared to the Amy two years ago who was shuffling about like a penguin, tripping over every curb, it feels like an amazing accomplishment. My cane really has given me back my confidence, my independence, made me safer and happier.
Just think what I’ll be able to achieve with a Guide Dog… watch this space over the next 12 months.
P.S Congratulations to Lizzie who was paired with Ziggy one of the dogs she walked with at the session! Can’t wait to hear all about their adventures together.