25 Nov 2011

His Guiding Eyes

His Guiding Eyes
In appreciation of my guide dog

‘Hi, I’m Jonathon,' says a voice as I hold out my hand, surprised he does not take my lead to shake hands. I feel somewhat embarrassed.
'Sorry, I can’t see very well.'
'Me neither,' he giggles making accidental contact with my floating hand.
He takes up the harness of his guide dog and says, 'forward Sam, find
the way.' Turning his head towards me, he adds, ‘my office is this way.'

This was my first experience of the blind leading the blind, a moment of
heart-felt connection with a person of ‘my kind’. When I had made an
appointment to see the disability officer, I had no idea that the social
worker himself was blind. Our conversation flows easily and mutual
admiration is kindled as we exchange stories, both embarrassing ones
and sensitive reflections. I am pleasantly surprised by Jonathon’s
honesty as he relates his blindness story and his reasons for choosing to
work with a guide dog. He speaks with such genuine confidence and a
realistic acceptance of his limitations, that I realise it might be just the
right time for me to seek help for my own independent mobility needs:
that very day, I call the Guide Dog Centre.

Only ten days after the application had been approved, one of the
trainers call me,
‘We have a dog we think is perfect for you. When can you start
Chaotic thoughts scramble into a bubbling mess - excitement, doubt,
fear…knowing that my life was about to dramatically change! Am I
really ready for all this? Can I cope with another mouth to feed? If she is
a true Labrador, she’ll eat me out of house and home. I reassure
negative thoughts: this is not a baby, it’s a highly skilled dog trained to
be my eyes. Amazingly, Jonathon had successfully applied for his second
guide dog and would be in the same training group. Over the next 4
weeks I learn a great deal from Jonathon: his candid advice is practical
and very matter of fact. 'Just remember, treat your dog like your own
kid, say what you mean and mean what you say. Pure and simple.’

It was exciting to think that with one more sleep, I was about to meet
the newest member of our family. What is her name? What colour is she?
What type of personality does she have? With belongings in place, in
our accommodation room at the training centre, I wander up to the
lounge area, guided by the handrail while my three year old son skips
along by my side. Four other clients sit around chatting with the trainers
and staff. My son runs around the room energetically like a wild flying
object making himself very much at home. He is the only child staying
here, the other clients kindly accept his exuberant presence.

Peter and Jung conduct a casual introduction session where we all finally
learn about our new guide dogs individually. Even though we are not
meeting our companions until tomorrow, we are given their leads to
fondle, fresh with the new smell of leather, while the trainers reveal to
each one of us the mystery of our four legged companion. Up until now,
none of us had any idea whether we had a female or male, a black
Labrador, blonde or golden, and our new canine friends already have
Names. Peter addresses the group,

'Who wants to go first?' Jonathon pipes up instantly, the rest of us are
not so confident. Jonathon‘s new dog is a black Labrador called ‘Riley’.
He is thrilled with both the dog’s name and the fact that the loose
strands of black fur will blend with dark work suits. Next is Pearl, a
vision-impaired client from Perth, who is given her first guide dog, Marie,
a blonde Labrador with a kind nature. An older gentleman, Mike, is next
to be paired up with fifteen month old black lab ‘Ollie'. Two of us left:
Judith learns that her four-legged blonde companion is called 'Orina'. I
wait with bated breath. Peter looks at me,
'Maribel, your dog is a golden male Labrador. He’s quite a lad, his name
is Nev.'
'Nev? What sort of a name is that?'
'You’ll get used to it The name actually suits him.’
Hmm, I am not impressed.

The next day – is our first blind date! The trainers ask the new clients to
wait in our bedrooms where one by one, our guide dogs will be brought
to our rooms from the kennels. Peter’s last minute advice is to have
some doggy-treats in my pocket and goes off to get this Nev character. I
sit nervously crossed-legged on the floor waiting for my new companion
to arrive. Outside the door, I hear Peter’s soft voice, calming the dog
who, judging by the sound of claws slipping on terracotta tiles, must be
as excited as I am. The door slowly opens.
'Steady, Nev.' Peter commands firmly, 's-t-e-a-d-y.'
I hear the brittle rattle of the leash as Peter pulls gently on Nev’s
choker chain to contain the dog’s exuberance. Nev comes prancing
towards me, putting his head right up into my face as if he knows I can’t
see him.
'He’s very excited,' Peter says as he hands me the leash, 'just sit quietly
with him for a few minutes and when you are ready, come and join us in
the lounge room.' Peter glides quietly out of the door and the dog and I
are alone.
'Hello, Nev.’ I hand him a dog biscuit from my pocket and unclip his
leash, expecting the obedient animal to sit calmly by my side on the
floor. Instead, he bounces wildly, free from the constraint of the lead, to
frantically circle the room in search of more doggy-treats. I am stunned.
Here before me is a monster shark in search of FOOD – what about me?
Hello? I grab his collar as he skates past, quickly attaching his leash to
re-establish control. 'SIT, NEV!'
Looking surprised, he sits down by my side still sniffing the air. I run my
fingers through his warm fur, feeling his well defined forehead, hard and
wide, his velvety triangular ears and long whiskered nose: surprised to
feel just how long it extends with small veins popping out on its smooth
surface. Nev sits with his paws stretched out in front and I glide
my hands down his slender legs to complete his image in my
mind’s eye. Nev now licks my hand apologetically, and we begin
to make friends. Was he really going to be my guiding eyes?

The first week of training was fraught with many emotional ups and
downs: from being high as a kite when a command was remembered
correctly to then feeling totally hopeless at forgetting the procedure and
collapsing into a pool of tears. Failure – success – success – failure. We
had to learn how to use our tone, how to correct a mistake, how to
praise, how to walk together and how to trust the guide dog! The
newness of it all was physically exhausting and emotionally
overwhelming. But the patient support from our trainers, encouraged us
through our moments of vulnerability and self doubt. The reality of
having a dog by my side twenty four hours a day brought on post-dog
blues as I struggled to cope with the newness of it all: a three year old
child on my right, a fifteen month old puppy on my left, both so full of
mischief and inquisitiveness, and me, the clown, in the middle.

A guide dog is the pilot and his handler, the navigator. What was truly
remarkable was that Nev really understood the commands ‘find right’ or
‘find left’, at which he would flick a quick glance up at me and then turn
immediately in the direction I had just requested. Once the harness
went over his head, his personality dramatically changed: before the
harness, a lively scatterbrain, after the harness: a focussed and
dedicated pilot.

After a couple of weeks of training in the comfortable confines of the
centre, the big day came when we had to climb aboard the minibus and
try out our newly acquired skills in public. Five obedient dogs, five
anxious handlers and two confident trainers all set off for a secret
destination to carry out our first ‘real’ walk. Jonathon repeats his simple
mantra, 'just say what you mean and mean what you say, you’ll be fine.'
Suddenly, the bus stops and the trainers brief us on what to expect next.
I feel like someone waiting in the back of a sky divers’ plane about to be
pushed into the vast unknown. The sliding door opens,
I sit back into the hard vinyl seat, relieved, touching Nev’s warm back
for reassurance. He lovingly looks up at me as I rub his velvety soft ears,
like holding onto a comforting teddy bear.
'Maribel and Nev?' comes the next call. On hearing his name, Nev
springs to his feet, leading me towards the bus door and prances down
the two metal steps. Once on the footpath, I organise my guide dog into
the correct starting position, Nev fidgets as I untangle the leash from
around his legs, my fingers fumbling to take proper hold of harness
and leash.
‘When you’re ready?' Peter smiles.
Nev and I do a couple more nervous circles.
'Sometime today would be good.'
I flick a sideways glare and nod. This is it, the test of all our training
time. Our task is to walk with my guide dog through the local shops to
the end of the street without colliding with any objects on the way. Peter
will follow at a distance in case we get into any difficulties. I have to
trust Nev completely. Let’s hope no one has dropped any trails of food
along the way…

'Forward Nev, find the way.'
My canine guide prances slightly in front, his body swerves gently to the
left and I follow his lead. We cruise past inquisitive people sitting at the
tables of a café and feel the heat from staring eyes on my back as we
strut by. Keeping our combined focus, Nev and I proudly continue our
journey with grace and skill. I am deeply moved by Nev’s genuine
concern and ability to guide us successfully around varying obstacles:
rubbish bins, advertising signs, benches, bicycles, toddlers, potholes
and other potential dangers. As we reach the end of the street to our
destination, I burst into tears. Peter sprints to my side,
'What’s wrong Maribel?'
'I’m so proud of Nev. I can’t believe he just did all that for me.'
Peter removes his hand from my shoulder, ‘Oh, good grief, that’s his
Hugging my guide dog, my face in his warm fur, I whisper,
‘My dear Nevie, we did it.’



Lyndel said...

Brilliant image, wonderful story. Thanks Maribel. Looking forward to next post.

Carol Middleton said...

Great to see you 'out there'! Will read more of it over weekend. Carol x