Extra-ordinary lives: in the company of guide dogs

It takes a special kind of dog to resist Sainsbury’s barbecued chicken. The meat sits in the centre of the room and around it trot five dogs who just aren’t interested – their minds are on higher things.

We’re in the basement of Glasgow’s Tron Church where Guide Dogs Scotland train their up-and-coming pups and Marco, Dexter, Wallace, Domino and Oscar are being led around the chicken in an ever-narrowing circle.

They’re just puppies yet they look noble: heads aloft, wet noses in the air, purposeful paws padding round and round.

Fiona Fraser, puppy walking supervisor, is leading the training. She says when the pups become guide dogs it’ll be thanks to the vital ability to tune out distractions, be it dogs, children, squeaky balls…or a hunk of supermarket chicken.

guidechickenThey’ll have learned to pay attention to their owner and no-one else. “You have to make yourself more exciting than a Greggs sausage roll,” she explains.

Later, the dogs are lined up against the wall like children at a school dance, and are made to sit and watch while their owners leave the room. Heads tilt and ears twitch. Will they wait? Can they stand it?

Dexter makes a lunge for the door. The rest follow and, as Fiona describes it, “a rammy” breaks out with paws flailing and tails thumping. So they are puppies still, under their careful training and little blue coats.

Generations of keen pups go through training, but so do the blind people waiting to receive them. It must be ensured that they can issue the correct commands, and also that those with some residual sight – vision which can alter depending on weather conditions and light – don’t inadvertently overrule the dog.

There has to be a perfect balance of trust between guide dog and owner and so a rather unusual training method has been devised by Guide Dogs Scotland, where a blind person attaches a harness to a human mobility instructor who then acts as the “dog” and assesses their commands and reactions.

Laura, 35, is partially sighted and can’t help laughing as she recalls her own two weeks of training. She walked her “dog”, an instructor called Jaegar, around Blantyre town centre, remembering to say “Good girl!” whenever Jaegar stopped at the kerb.

“People were staring,” she laughs, “and going: “that lassie is walking that wummin!””

Laura tells me these stories in Hamilton’s Café Lungo where she strolled in with her guide dog, Autumn, took a seat and ordered a Diet Coke. Simple, but these easy pleasures would have been a challenge before she was matched with her dog.

Laura was born with Leber Congenital Amaurosis which meant her eyesight would fade as she got older. “I went to a mainstream school,” she says. “I rode a bike and did everything normal as a kid. It wasn’t till I was about 25 that my eyesight started to deteriorate, and I was registered blind in 2006. Even then, I managed to continue working.”

She was a kitchen assistant with ambitions to become a chef, but her worsening eyesight made that impossible. Instead, she began a college course to help visually impaired people use computers and went on to take a degree in IT, but then her eyesight declined further.

“My sensitivity to light got worse and I lost the confidence to go out by myself. I’d feel anxious even going to the shop and I went into a kind of depression.”

She wasn’t able to look for work. She stopped going out. Her life contracted to a tight circle of home and family.

Everything changed at Christmas when she watched the programme Text Santa, which showcases various charities, and Guide Dogs were featured.  She says, “I watched the stories about how much a guide dog had changed their lives and I thought I’m not gonna sit in the house the rest of my life!”

She reached out to Guide Dogs Scotland and was soon matched with Autumn, a gentle blonde Labrador who lies at her feet whilst we talk in the café, a place warm with chatter and the scent of cakes, and a place she would have found difficult to access until Autumn came into her life.

But Laura and Autumn don’t restrict themselves to Cokes at the café. Laura’s restored confidence means she now does voluntary work for Guide Dogs, and she and Autumn parade around town, going to Asda, the hairdressers, making visits to friends – even going to the gym where Autumn has her own exercise bike.

A little toy bike, surely? “No, a real bike though she doesn’t go on it. There are no wee doggy cycle shorts. It’s just so I can attach her to it and so she’s got her own space beside me. She loves it! She just lies there and enjoys the music.”

There’s currently a campaign called #AccessAllAreas, raising awareness of how guide dogs are still refused entry to some shops, restaurants and taxis – even though such refusal is illegal.

Autumn, warmly welcomed at gym classes, would be a fine ambassador for the campaign, as would Hugo, a hefty black Labrador with a greying snout who “pulls, pulls, pulls” his owner, Chris, towards their local swimming pool in East Kilbride, as he knows he’ll find a lavish welcome there.

Despite being 81 and partially sighted, Chris is boyishly energetic. He talks at local schools, goes leafleting for his political party, is on the board of his housing committee and also fundraises for Guide Dogs Scotland. His legendary chatter means anyone stopping to put a coin in his tin may find themselves emptying their pockets and signing up as a Puppy Walker. “My only complaint is that I don’t have enough to do,” he grins.

For all of this twinkling energy he thanks Hugo. Spend one afternoon in Chris’s company and you’d be willing to bet that he’s always been so spirited, but he’ll tell you that isn’t so.

When his eyesight began to deteriorate he was forced to surrender the good things in life. No more enjoyable drives. An end to his beloved golf. He stopped going out and inevitably gained weight. Diabetes followed. But then came Guide Dogs.

“Hugo changed everything,” he says, almost evangelical in praising the dog who restored his future to him and he insists, very plainly, saved his life.

Guide dogs will only be given to a blind person who is active, or who plans to be active, as the dog will forget his training if he is not regularly exercised. Therefore, Chris was compelled to go back outside, rejoining the world he’d retreated from, but this time he had Hugo’s leash in his hand.

Being a demanding dog, Hugo wasn’t shy in taking his exercise so Chris found himself walking regularly. His excess weight quickly disappeared and the diabetes receded with it. Dapper in his sky-blue jumper and suit jacket, he says he has more friends and activities now than at any point in his life.

But with Hugo’s black coat starting to turn grey, what will Chris do when his dog is obliged to retire? Will he part with him and take on a new guide dog? “There’s no way I’m letting him go,” says Chris. “I’ll keep him as a pet. I’ve had dogs all my days but I’ve never had one like Hugo.”

As Chris explains, he and his dog are inseparable: “Where I go, Hugo.”

Our time is up. We leave the café. Autumn and Hugo stand patiently in the street as their owners shake hands with me. I ask if I can snap a few pictures, then I get directions to the station and I’m off.

My head is down and I’m cursing myself all along the road for not being able to tell Laura and Chris how much I admire them.

To apply to become a Puppy Walker or Boarder visit www.guidedogs.org.uk

Email glasgow@guidedogs.org.uk or phone 0118 983 8123

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