A miracle in the form of a wet nose and waggy tail

Are you training him?”

“When do you have to give him back?”

“How long does it take to train one of those?”

These are the most common openers to conversation. My responses are usually very polite and patient, delivered with a smile and happy willingness to explain. “No, he came fully trained. We're a qualified partnership”,  “I don't have to give him back, he is my guide dog”, “He was fully trained at 21 months when I got him”....

Then the penny drops: “Oh! You're partially sighted!”, “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend. You don't look blind”.....Conversation usually then turns back to the subject of the dog: Oakley, my amazing black labrador Guide Dog. Oh...and I'm not offended at all. I much prefer open honest enquiry to whispering and speculation. When appropriate I am more than happy to answer the above questions and any others. Mind you, I am still trying to work out how one would 'look blind'!

I am told that gongoozlers often gaze open-mouthed when they see me coming with a windlass in my right hand and Oakley, on harness, to my left. Of course, I am blissfully unaware of such expressions because I can't see them. I am registered 'Blind/Severely Visually Impaired' with approximately 2% of a normal Field of Vision. I was born with no functional vision in my left eye. My right eye decided to follow the trend in 2011. (For a rough idea of my visual world, cut a 0.5cm length from a standard drinking straw, place it between the bases of your middle and ring fingers, closing your fingers around it, cover both eyes and view the world through just the section of straw.)

I have undergone a most comprehensive barrage of medical tests including blood works, neurological scrutiny, wires, probes and detectors, lumbar punctures, MRI scans, heart scans and monitors.....the list goes on, and all is good. I remain a bit of a medical mystery in that the cause of my vision loss is undiagnosed. The only clue is Optic Nerve Atrophy. This is by no means a precise term. All it means is that my optic nerves have withered. Cause unknown, therefore future prognosis unknown, except to assume that the deterioration will probably continue to totality.

In September 2011, when I was handed the Certificate of Visual Impairment, it was devastating news. Over the course of the following few months I have to admit that I became increasingly down-in-the-dumps, withdrawn and disinclined to go out. I concluded that, because crossing roads had become very hazardous and frightening, and as I became increasingly bruised and battered from bumping into street obstacles, it was easier and safer to stay in and manage without, than to try to get to the local shop for even so much as a pint of milk. Arguably though, much more upsetting was the thought that this spelled the end of our dream to eventually move aboard a narrow boat.

We became smitten with the boating life when we hired a boat and cruised the Black Country Ring in October 2008. That was when the blizzards hit the Midlands and we loved every bit of it! At that time, the idea of living afloat was literally an impossible dream. We had so many commitments, responsibilities and issues to deal with, but we had been clinging to and building upon our dream of eventually making the move. This news seemed like a massive blow. How could I possibly live on the waterways if I couldn't see?

Then came a miracle in the form of a wet nose and waggy tail. Having got through the rigorous assessment process after applying for a guide dog, I was told by Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (GDBA) to expect to wait two to three years before being matched with a dog. I actually got 'the call' after just two months! Ironically, my matching visit (when the dog is brought to check compatibility) was just a couple of days before we were due to go to Scotland on a narrow boat holiday to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. That matching visit was a very emotional afternoon: Taking that first walk with a dog on harness, and realising that I had not even so much as brushed against any obstacles, because the dog had so expertly taken me around them, was simply overwhelming! After this walk and a couple of hours of chatting and getting to know Oakley, the Guide Dog Mobility Instructor (GDMI) asked me “Well, what do you think? Do you like him?”. Like him? I was head over heels in love and admiration!

With spirits significantly lifted, we went off for our wonderful two weeks on the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh, arriving home on Saturday evening. Then, first thing on Monday morning, I had to set off to begin training to become a Guide Dog Owner. This included nine days residential intensive instruction, followed by more local work from home before the final assessment walk and the wonderful words; “Tracey, you and Oakley are now a qualified Working Guide Dog Partnership”. That was 8 November 2012.

Since then, life has changed beyond dreams. Oakley and I continued to learn to work together in and around Worthing, West Sussex. This strengthened our bond and boosted my confidence no end. Learning to put such implicit trust in an animal is an incredibly humbling and astonishing process. He became not only my guide, but also my soulmate, my comedian, my shadow, my fitness coach (we worked up to walking around 6-8 miles a day), my lifeline and, on several occasions, my lifesaver.

During this time, many of our circumstances changed and, in time, a string of miracles all added up to the dream coming true. In early 2014 we sold the house, cleared the mortgage and debts, and we now live aboard NB Sola Gratia. Indeed, we are pioneering – Oakley is in fact the first and, as yet, only continuously cruising Guide Dog on the Inland Waterways!

Leading up to this, we had joined the Boaters Christian Fellowship. This brought us many blessings including several generous and trusting offers of boating times. We borrowed and/or moved a number of friends' boats, which gave us the opportunity to test our sanity in thinking that the life would, after all, be possible with limited sight. And, with Oakley, it most certainly is! We are absolutely loving it, he has proved beyond all doubt that he is very capable of adapting, and we have no regrets whatsoever.

GDBA have been fantastic. Although having one of their dogs living a nomadic floating lifestyle is outside of their experience, they have been very supportive and helpful. I had to sign an 'addendum' to my contract with them and they have adapted their thinking and systems to encompass our situation.

Oakley and I have continued to develop our partnership and adapt our working practices to life on the waterways. The towpath is often far from ideal territory for a Visually Impaired Person (although it is pleasing and encouraging to discover newly refurbished surfaces in some areas. Thank you CRT!). Oaks, like all Guide Dogs, is trained to work on harness on my left hand, walking beside and slightly ahead of me. In some places the towpath is too narrow (usually due to overgrown vegetation and/or crumbling banks) so we have developed a technique whereby I lie the harness handle on his back, give him the command “Go ahead”, and he then leads me via a long lead. Ideally, it would be great to have an adapted, telescopic harness handle for such circumstances but, for now at least, this works for us. Of course, normal working practices come back into play when we walk into the towns and villages along the way and Oakley slips seamlessly between the environments.

Working the towpaths is quite different from street guiding: For a start, there is seldom any route choice! Deviation from the 'Straight on' command would result in either a prickly reception in the hedgerows or the inevitable big splash! His job is primarily to simply keep me on the straight(ish) and narrow. However, he has learned extremely well to navigate me around obstacles such as crumbling sections of bank, tree roots, mooring pins, bollards and rings, and even puddles!

Another question that I am often asked is “Does he work the locks for you?” My response is generally “Haha! If only!” What actually happens at locks is he guides me to the lockside and follows the command “Find the bollard”. I then simply loop his lead around the bollard and he sits patiently waiting for me to work the lock. I, at least for now, have enough remaining vision to find my way (cautiously) around the lock mechanisms. Of course, like any labrador, Oakley enjoys any fuss and attention he can glean from passers-by while he is waiting! A greeting sniff and wag from any friendly dog always helps to pass the time too!

One particularly remarkable feat of this dog's instinct had me in tears: We were coming down the Braunston flight of locks. It had been raining quite heavily and the towpath was awash in many places. Oakley was doing a superb job of guiding me around the puddles wherever possible. On one particular stretch, where the puddles joined together to form an elongated lake down the path, he gallantly waded through the lake and pushed me to the right where I could walk on the dry bricked edge. All of a sudden he stopped in his tracks and stepped across in front of me. I became aware that he was nuzzling at the floor and then looking at me. What he had done was astonishing: He had noticed that the bricks at this point were broken up and, rather than pull me into the puddle, he had alerted me to the hazard and made sure that I safely stepped over it. This was a truly exceptional act on his part. It is not part of his training. This was pure instinctive care and attention. Quite amazing! He certainly earned himself a treat that day! (Shortly after this, the towpath was renovated by CRT.)

When we first moved aboard the boat, we invested in a boat handling course. This proved to be a wise move as the instructor taught Tim (my Hubby) to singlehand. This means that, if ever my sight does deteriorate to the point where I really can't be of any use on the locks etc, then Tim is more than capable of doing it. I shall just have to make myself useful in other ways! But, for now, we are managing very well. Oakley clearly loves the life. Indeed he has not only adapted to it, he has positively embraced it. He loves his work and he certainly thoroughly enjoys all the relaxation and fun that he has in his off duty time, which is abundant. When he is off duty, he is a regular (slightly delinquent) labrador – with rules, but when I harness him up, he switches into work mode. Without him, this life would be almost impossible. With him, it is absolutely amazing.

On July the 4th, Tracey and Oakley set off on their sponsored walk from Bath to Reading, with Tim following alongside them in NB Sola Gratia. Their aim is to raise £5,500 for Guide Dogs. To support this inspirational partnership, sign up to do your own Water Walk for Oakley and fundraise for us: we challenge you to raise just £35, enough to support a partnership like Tracey and Oakley’s for a whole week.

"Learning to put such implicit trust in an animal is an incredibly humbling and astonishing process. He became not only my guide, but also my soulmate, my comedian, my shadow, my fitness coach (we worked up to walking around 6-8 miles a day), my lifeline and, on several occasions, my lifesaver"

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