Having been registered blind for over 30 years it may come as a surprise that I have never had a guide dog. My residual sight was sort of good enough to bluff my way by waving a white stick and very, very occasionally (being a bloke) asking for help. Having never had a dog before and after an eighteen-month stint on the waiting list, my life changed irrevocably when I was introduced to Varley. He’s aged two, three quarters retriever, a quarter Labrador and at 35 kilos, he’s a big dog! After intensive residential training at Guide Dogs, involving many walks around the environs of the Premier Inn in Euston, he finally came home with me.
At first, it’s very much like having a new baby: leaving the house means a checklist of poo bags, food, wet wipes and a portable water bowl. Remember those reigns you’ve seen on a toddler? The harness I use for Varley is similar. I can feel his movement through the handle on my left side, so my right hand is free apart from when the lead needs a tug to reinforce direction or distract him from the quantities of pavement food available to him in London.
Talking of movements, picking up poo gets a lot of questions – and was my biggest concern – but actually it’s pretty straightforward: Varley heads into the gutter, assumes the peeing or pooing position (which are very different). If it’s No.2, I apply the poo bag like a surgeon donning his rubber gloves, target where his rear end was, then swoop and quarter the area to find the deposit – the most difficult bit is actually finding a bin to leave it in. I have often been tempted to hang it on the handlebars of the rental bikes which I often stumble over somewhere on my walk!
The main benefits of having a dog are ironically invisible to me. Varley has an amazing ability to make me avoid obstacles such as lampposts, bollards, poster boards and people (often looking at their mobiles). Apparently, my right shoulder is often within millimeters of hitting something, but Varley seems to know exactly what he’s doing. Luckily, he is very wary of water (apparently, he had a scare involving a duck and a pond when he was a puppy) and this pays dividends when he diligently avoids anything more than a tiny puddle.
I’m asked the questions repeatedly, but of course he doesn’t actually know where he is going or when the crossing light has turned green (he’s a dog remember?). I still need to know how to find my location, where we are on the route and when it’s safe to cross. However, he does have an incredible memory of places we have visited such as coffee shops, the gym and the station. He can find ‘the button’ at crossings, the entrance to office blocks and stops at flights of stairs. He has been on trains, tubes, buses and has joined us in restaurants, pubs, church, the theatre and in meetings. He generally just flops on the floor and lies quietly until summoned back to action. One lesson learned is not to give him his favourite bone during meetings. His slurping can be very disconcerting to colleagues or more importantly to those on stage presenting! I have not taken him abroad yet, but his pet passport is in progress and that’s a whole other Brexit-oriented story for another day.
Of course, Varley isn’t always on duty. At home he is ‘just a dog’. He has times during the day when he chases cats, squirrels or birds, demands aggressive tug-of-war games with various slobber-covered cuddly toys, collapses in a heap in the office or kitchen before miraculously becomes very animated around feeding time. The rest of the family love him as much as I do. They too have to follow rules when they walk him to reinforce stopping at curbs etc. but we can’t remember life before him.
Bizarrely, my favorite thing is ‘seeing’ or more realistically, hearing him when he’s free-running off the lead in the park. He’s a big dog and sounds more like a horse when galloping at full tilt. He generally wears a bell on his collar, so I have an idea of where he is and avoid another major collision like the one we had on one on his first runs in the local park!
Luckily for me he is very good natured and extremely friendly – needy even. This is good as I am bombarded with requests to stroke him whenever we are out. He has also attracted considerable attention at every industry event I’ve attended with him but he’s shown significant disinterest in the content as he just sprawls on the floor looking bored. Telecoms is clearly no substitute for a new toy and a warm fire.
All of this is a massive credit to Guide Dogs as an organisation. Huge thanks go to Dave his puppy walker for the first year, and Mel his boarder who had him for the six months of his training before he was handed to me, and especially to Barry the trainer (the dog whisperer) who put us through our paces together.
The experience has been a steep learning curve for me on all levels. The best bit, apart from the confidence I have walking down the street, is that he offers an instant distraction from work, current affairs and the disappointments of being a Derby County fan!
So, feel free to say hello to him whenever our paths cross. But please don’t, as one person did, begin to pet him while we are still walking. Once he is static or preferably sitting, he is game for as much friendly interaction as you can offer. In fact, he will probably just roll over and demand you to tickle his tummy!