I had a delightful reminder of my teenage years this weekend with an encounter with a guide dog and his handler, Andy.
I grew up seeing guide dogs training on the streets of Leamington Spa where I lived as a teenager. And I was privileged to know one well. Mumfy was my mother’s friend’s dog.
My mother’s friend, Phyllis, had had guide dogs most of her life. Blind from the age of three, she had not let her blindness be a disability, living a very full life and now retired she was often out and about with her guide dog.
Talking with Phyllis I realised that her picture of our town, Leamington Spa, was defined by the regular routes she walked. She could not take ‘short cuts’ from her learned routes, as these were invisible to her. This revelation inspired a teenage project – building a tactile map of the town which I gave to the Guide Dogs Association to help orientate the many blind people who visited to be trained with their dogs.
This weekend, nearly 40 years on, I was reminded of that project by meeting someone who’d used my map when he had first started working for the Guide Dogs for the Blind in his 20s. Andy, accompanied by his outreach dog, Delphi, had a stall in the exhibition area at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Liverpool.
And here it was that I had an opportunity to briefly feel a little of the trust that blind people daily place in their dogs as they are guided safely through the invisible, or near-invisible world around them.
With my blindfold on, Andy was great at helping me understand how blind people experience the world differently. I became very aware of my feet – my only sure contact with the world around me, though the buzz of chatter told me I was not alone. Walking, guided by Andy, what worried me most? My concern was walking into something. For others it might be tripping, or being left, abandoned. I remembered how, when guiding Phyllis on the few occasions when she didn’t have her dog, she liked to be left with something by her – a wall, chair or other firm object.
And then I was guided by Delphi, the demonstration dog. Andy gave him responsibility for me by taking him round behind me and into his working position on my left. I held the handle of his harness gently and off we went, among the crowds in the exhibition.
He judged the space needed for both of us, as a driver knows the space needed for his vehicle when driving. When the way was not clear, he stopped, waiting for an opportunity to continue on. My concentration was entirely on the harness handle in my hand, holding it gently, feeling the changing pressure to know when I could safely move on or should stop. It was actually quite an effort to also listen to Andy who was always nearby.
If I were to lose my sight, I can understand how having such a wonderfully trained dog could open up the world. The handle in one’s hand, and a flank gently by one’s leg gave such a wider connection with the world than that just through the soles of one’s feet.
Leading me was second nature to Delphi and I wish now that I’d asked more about how he was trained; trained to judge those distances, to assess for danger and take evasive action, to be patient and so responsible for his human.
A great experience. Thank you Andy and Delphi.