If you had asked me just over 12 years ago how much an animal would change
my life, it would have been hard for me to answer.
Up to the age of 26, I worked on construction sites around my home in Ireland
and held down what I considered then to be an okay job. I could drive wherever
I wanted to go, whenever I wanted. I had a good relationship with my girlfriend.
I also loved sports, especially cycling and football. I never considered that
one day one of these hobbies might be my downfall, but that's the way life is;
you just never know.
One evening while playing a game of football, I received a knock in the eye
from the ball. I quickly picked up an infection which spread through my eye
and eventually into my other eye. I received medical treatment both locally
and in some of the major hospitals in our country, but all to no avail. I can
remember my girlfriend at the time leading me into the surgeon's clinic one
afternoon and him telling us the news that I had damaged, torn retinas and that
the prognosis wasn't good for curing. I think now that what he was telling me
then was that I was blind and that I should be prepared to get used to that
It's been so long now and I have almost forgotten the events that took place
for me after that day. Suffice it is to say that I lost much in my life that
I now realized was important to me, but that I'd perhaps took for granted back
then. I no longer could work; I couldn't drive. People who had been around me,
for one reason or another, didn't seem to be there for me anymore. I also lost
special relationships that I have never seemed to be able to replace, even to
One day while in the hospital recovering from yet another operation, I found
myself talking to an older man who was in the next room. He, too, had lost his
sight some years before through that awful condition of diabetes. I found myself
opening up to him about my pitiful condition; saying that I resented being blind,
especially as it left me dependent on others to lead me around as if I was a
child, just learning to walk. It was during this conversation that he told me
of his life and how he coped. He brought into the conversation the story of
his dog, Kathy. She was a black Lab, he said, and since getting her some years
before, she had given him great independence again. I have to say that I found
that hard to believe and told him so, such was my frustration with life.
I am sure that he had weighed me up and thought to himself, "can I really
be honest with this man?" And now I am glad he was. He put forward to me
a scenario as follows: "If for some reason you happen to break your leg,
then you require crutches to help you walk till eventually your leg becomes
strong enough again to do it on its own; likewise, you can choose to believe
that if you get a guide dog, think of it like that crutch and use it till you
hope your sight will one day return and you are independent again". I never
forgot those words and have used them, since, when talking to other people in
the same position as I once was.
When I came home from the hospital and recovered enough to begin to think seriously
about obtaining a guide dog, I often wondered if it was for me or if I would
be let down by the results that I was hoping for in the dog.
I had completed an application by late 1991 that year and after Christmas was
paid a visit by the guide dog representative who himself was a guide dog trainer.
I had no idea that there was so much involved in getting one of these animals.
I thought it was just a matter of applying for one and going to get my dog.
How misinformed I was!
I think the interview that day must have lasted all of three hours. It had
all the basic questions, ranging from age, health, condition and what had happened
to my sight. And then I was asked questions like what my interests were, how
much walking I would be doing, if I was fit, if I would suit a large dog and
so on. My personal details pretty much all were taken into consideration. Of
course, it was important to be an animal lover and I can honestly say that I
was. My mother had always brought us up as children to love and care about animals.
One more thing was critical here and that was that I, within myself, was sufficiently
ready, mentally and emotionally, to allow a dog to take control of my life.
They wanted to make sure I realized I shouldn't expect this dog to be the "be-all
and end-all" of my problems. In other words, did I understand that the
dog would only be a source of added, yet still limited mobility and that this
would be a team effort. There would be no place in a guide class for the person
who wanted something to give him a "quick fix" as a guide dog doesn't
fit that kind of thinking. A guide dog can only offer what he can to his owner
in terms of a better quality of life.
To continue my story; the worst part of the interview was when the guide dog
instructor said to me that we would go outside onto the pavement and do a practical
test. The purpose of this test was to both give me an idea of the harnesshow
it would feeland to see how to know from the feel of the harness as to
what my dog might be doing...if he was showing interest in his work or perhaps
was being distracted by sniffing along the road or distracted by something like
a cat. Secondly, it would give me an idea of walking speed and how comfortable
I would be at certain speeds.
Thirdly, the instructor himself wanted an idea of what I was capable of in
terms of checking, controlling and handling a guide dog.
He (the trainer) had to decide how good or bad my communication would be with
a dog in order that potential difficulties could be identified and corrected.
I have to say that it was more than a little embarrassing when we walked past
two older ladies talking and I could hear them commenting to each other about
what exactly we were up to.
Well, anyway, I made it through that part of the test and when we returned
to the house, I was asked what kind of dog I might like. I always had a liking
for German Shepherds and gave this as my choice.
It was May of 1992 when I was notified that my new dog was ready for me and
that my class would commence the following month. I still had reservations at
the back of my mind about going for the dog, as I still wasn't totally happy
that he or she would fill my needs. But then I was being naive to think that
anything, except my sight returned in full, would give me back what I had lost.
I had to remember the story of the dog being like a crutch.
Eventually the day came to travel to Cork, in the south of the country, which
is where the guide dogs are located in Ireland and that in itself was a journey
which was long and tiring. See this link for more information on Irish Guide
Dogs for the Blind: http://www.guidedogs.ie
I remember the centre back then; it was quite basic due to shortage of funds
and so an old farm building served as a centre where students spent the next
four weeks eating, sleeping and, most importantly, training with their new partners.
After introductions on the day I arrived, we had a talk about safety and other
rules and regulations in the centre and then had an evening meal till it was
time to go to bed. I slept little that night as I was excited to meet my new
dog. All I knew was that it was a female.
Morning came and after a good breakfast we were told to return to our bedrooms
and wait there, as our dogs would be brought to each of us in our rooms. This,
I was told, was to facilitate a more relaxed environment for both dog and new
owner to get acquainted. I think it was a good idea; because, if all the dogs
had been introduced in the same room to each of their new masters, it would
be chaotic with the excitement.
Finally, I met my dog and what a beauty she was. She wasn't exactly the "German
Shepherd" that I wished for, but she was a cross between Labrador and German
Shepherd. Her mother was a Lab. She followed her mother's colour and had a beautiful
glossy coat, almost like black velvet. Her name was Kittler, named after the
last woman executed in Ireland, Alice Kittler, branded a witch by her accusers.
I subsequently shortened the name to "Kitty," as it sounded more pleasing
On the first day of having our dogs, the routine was that we learned how to
work indoors and so we began using the techniques that the guide dog trainers
had programmed, such as indicating a step for us like the first step of the
stairs when our dogs would place the front paws on the step. This would give
us warning that it was time to lift our feet and step up. Going through doors
was taught. The dogs are trained to stop at a door and allow us to determine
where the door handle is and which way it opens. Then as we step through the
door first, our dogs are trained to follow. Next we are shown how to groom and
care for the dogs, as they are used to their comforts and being kept clean is
so important. It is also claimed by the schools that it helps create a good
bonding between guide dog owner and dog. But there is also the hygiene element
to consider here, in that we are allowed to take our dogs into hospitals, restaurants
and anywhere else where food is being served or cleanliness is important.
Other forms of discipline were also given, especially in the area of not allowing
our dogs to show aggression or allow them to be unfriendly toward the general
public. We are considered "Ambassadors" for the organization and our
dogs should be sociably acceptable out there in the world around us.
The following day, we, the students, were taken into the public arena and from
there on it gets tough. We must have walked miles in our first days and even
in rain there is no break, as time is precious and every day counts. It had
been so long since I had had a really good, fast walk. I remember that I was
puffing and wheezing like a couch potato who never did a minute's exercise,
but eventually that came right and I soon learned to work at the dog's pace
and she at mine.
I think one might ask here, "how do the dogs know where you are going
and how are they trained to understand routes, etc." Well, I will try to
explain it like this: if you have a dog and begin to walk with it every day
from an early age, on particular routes adopting a "straight line"
procedure, the dog soon feels that this is the correct way to behave while out
walking. The dogs are taken on routes that are like blocks of pavements and
taught to turn left or right using various techniques, which the guide dog trainers
instill in them. After months of this kind of training they are so accustomed
to it that they know it by themselves. Pretty soon afterwards, it is necessary
to then teach the new students to adopt these procedures with their respective
dogs. I guess it's a painstaking process of instilling into the minds of the
dogs a very rigid routine of rules.
We, as students while in the centre, are also instructed in keeping up this
practice when we return home, so that the dogs don't learn any bad habits which,
unfortunately, some do and, if not corrected in time, could be a danger to the
owner. Other things, such as feeding rules, not allowing the dogs to come around
the table while there is food on it and not allowing them to take snacks from
anyone, are all very important to the dogs' well-being and good working routines.
It is acceptable to give our dogs a reward if they are very good and do a good
job and we are encouraged to do this.
Times when I feel a reward is useful and possibly necessary are when I visit
places like supermarkets, the bank or post office and ATMs. The last of these
is a real test, because it is hard for the dog to understand that you simply
want to walk up to a position in front of the wall outside some building, *smiles*,
so giving him a reward kind of stops him from "asking questions" about
this all the time.
after having eight wonderful years with my beautiful dog, Kitty, November 2001
brought our relationship to an end. After a long illness, which pretty much
crippled her, and seeing her every day go down hill more and more, I found it
necessary to consult my vet and ask his advice. He felt that he and I had done
all we could for her and, sadly, the kindest thing to do now was to put her
to sleep. I had her with me that day in his office and felt that if I took her
home to decide, then it would just go on for longer and so I made my decision
there and then.
No one will ever realize what that kind of trauma means to a guide dog owner.
The relationship I had had with Kitty was one of much happiness and progress
in my life. She gave me the ability to be mobile, to get back in touch with
the world and meet new friends. Kitty helped me go places where I had never
been able to go before while being blind. And in many ways, she helped me develop
my skills by the sheer fact that, with her help, I could again attend classes
I made the decision that morning and the vet gave her a simple jab, which in
a few moments put her off to sleep in my arms. I never felt her shiver or anything,
so it must have been peaceful.
If I were to describe her personality (and all these dogs do have their own
unique personalities), I would have to say she lived for her work and I was
her number one concern. She used to do so much for me while in her health. However,
I can remember a few occasions when I came back to my hotel room after a meal
with friends and she was there feeling all guilty, I could tell. She had actually
found where I had my wallet hidden and torn up all the money and other contents
in it as a form of protest. Another occasion was when I was once having a conversation
on the phone with a friend and the line seemed to be going bad by the second.
Of course, I blamed the quality on a faulty line, but soon found out the truth.
She had busied herself eating through the cable as we talked, probably because
I had reprimanded her earlier that evening. Such was her intelligence and motivation
for what she did. And I can remember how much, in her last days, that she no
longer felt a sense of worth, feeling she was unable to perform her duty to
me. I almost think she was asking to be put to sleep. Now she has pride of place
in my garden just outside my office window where I can picture it every day.
is my new guide dog and the period of time that ran between Kitty's passing
and his arrival made me keenly aware of what I had lost. I had to learn to use
the long cane, as there were no suitable dogs available for me in the centre
at that time. It is important that owner and dog be matched properly, both in
physical size and mental ability, so that it will give a good working relationship.
The long-cane months between November 2001 and May 2002 were horrible for me.
I felt my disability more and more. I could no longer easily just get up and
go. I was certainly glad of the day when I got the call to say that my new dog
Shaque is two years of age and weighs in at 115 poundsquite a handful.
He has progressed greatly in these past months and has a different personality
from Kitty, but he is a magnificent working animal and I am proud of him.
Guide dogs offer you their lives! They love their work and being with someone
who cares and loves them. They give you their all. Truly, they are "man's
I wrote this article, firstly, because Dian asked me to write something about
what it's like to be a guide dog owner and what is involved in the process of
getting such a dog. But also, I wrote this as a tribute to my first dog, Kitty.
She will never be forgotten!