Presidents Message - October 2016

Posted: 1st November 2016, 2:10pm

As some members may already be aware, I am a visually impaired person who has been working in partnership with a guide dog for over 25 years. During this time I have been blessed with four outstanding talented and remarkably good natured guide dogs, namely Zach, Rolo, Isaac and most recently Ned.

Sadly Ned recently retired in July and famously threw a farewell party which drew around 150 guests from the local business community to celebrate his working life and to wish him well in retirement. Indeed, during his six years working in St Albans, Ned certainly grew a loyal and ever expanding fan club who swooned over his good Labrador looks, marvelled at his incredible professionalism and also allowed themselves a smile when Ned, realising that I was about to give yet another speech, crumpled to the floor and settled in for a long slumber.

During my time working with guide dogs I have been extremely fortunate in that I have only gone one period of five months without a dog during that time and this was due to the untimely death of my first dog Zach owing to a heart attack suffered whilst in the harness working. My second prolonged period without a dog however is happening to me right now and I have to tell you that it has given me a timely reminder as to quite how much I have relied on these wonderful and highly trained animals to assist me through my very busy life over the years.

Since Ned’s retirement, I have been asked many questions, generally from a critical stand point, with people expressing surprise that a ready-made and raring to go guide dog was not immediately available to me the day after Ned’s retirement. Furthermore, people have asked me why Ned had to retire at all. In answer to the second of these questions, I only think it fair to point out to people that at 10.25 dog years which equates to a human age of around 72, Ned really did deserve to retire following a long and relatively stressful career and this is in keeping with the generic policy of retiring guide dogs at the age of 10.

In answering the first question, I think it is important to examine quite what goes in to creating the modern day marvel that is today’s working guide dog to get a sense of the complexities and uncertainties which can arise during the process. Firstly, the guide Dogs for the Blind Association is a charity which relies on the goodwill of others to deliver the services they provide to the likes of me and several thousand other guide dog owners.

Secondly, the dogs themselves go through an incredibly well managed but nevertheless transient pathway prior to qualifying as professional working dogs which will include moving from their mother, to a puppy walker, to a border, to an obedience trainer, to a handler and finally to a guide dog owner such as myself with often several additional steps during this process.

Thirdly, the task they are asked to do is becoming ever more complicated with shared vehicle/pedestrian surfaces, street furniture, traffic and human beings wandering head down with eyes glued to mobile phones all contributing to a more challenging environment in which the dogs must work. The key point here is that these superbly trained animals are not machines and they will experience success and failure and good days and bad days in exactly the same way as we all do. Indeed, it is a minor miracle that notwithstanding the complexities of modern life, so many of these dogs do make it through to join the professional ranks and make a huge difference to the everyday lives of people such as myself.

Whilst many visually impaired people choose not to work with a guide dog perhaps preferring to use a white cane or other methods to get around, the day cannot come soon enough for me to experience the incredible feeling once again of working in partnership with my guide dog. However, I do think that a period without a dog has been a timely reminder to me of quite how much I get from the partnership and I am sure this will be very useful when the opportunity arises shortly to work with yet another of these truly remarkable creatures.

David Clarke

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