Hello once again.

Today, as our Guide Dogs Week blog roles ever onward I thought I’d try to lay out some of the milestone events of my partnership with Commando.  Some of those special or pivotal moments which have had a significant impact over the years.  Naturally, in keeping with our current theme, this post is also brought to you by the number 9 and so today we’ll look at 9 such milestones.

First contact…

For a great deal of time I agonised over whether or not to apply for a guide dog.  I knew that I hated using the cane, and that there was every chance that these feelings could serve to hold me back.  I had attended a guide dog demonstration, and heard a number of wonderful things about what a guide dog could do.  I had also spoken to new friends at the charity where I was volunteering as an I.C.T Tutor, and they too had recommended guide dog ownership without hesitation.  I had also found and read some blogs on the Guide Dogs website, and I think perhaps these finally tipped the scales, and are certainly one of the reasons why I was so keen to write this blog, in the hopes of perhaps helping others who were considering guide dog ownership.  So, eventually, I clicked the apply link on the website, entered some details and waited…

I had not been expecting such a quick response, but later that day my phone rang.  I answered it and found myself speaking to someone from the Newcastle Mobility Team.  We had a long conversation in which she explained how things would proceed from this point onwards.  She also said that I would have to demonstrate cane skills, as we are required to be able to use a long cane, and keep those skills sharp should we ever need them.  The fact that I was able to say that I had recently learned to use the cane and that my skills with it were, despite of my dislike of the thing, fairly good is perhaps the only time the cane has ever been truly useful, in that it saved me a little time in the application process.  At the end of the conversation I was asked if, now knowing what I knew, would I like to begin the process.  My answer was an unequivocal “yes please”.

It was a day like any other, until it wasn’t…

Once I had taken the decision to apply for a guide dog, gone through all of the assessments and been placed on the waiting list, there was nothing to do but wait.  I had no idea when the call would come saying that a potential match had been found for me, but I knew from others that the Newcastle Mobility team had a long waiting list and so I could be waiting for some time.

One Tuesday, whilst I was still serving as a Volunteer I.C.t Tutor at a local charity helping people with sight loss, I was told when I got home, that someone from Guide dogs had been trying to contact me!  Of more surprise was my Mums admission that she had actually forgotten that I was out, and so had gone roaming the house trying to find me when the call came in.  At the time I didn’t really think much of the fact that someone had been trying to reach me, as I had received calls from the office in the past.  But not long after, the phone rang again, and it was someone from Guide Dogs, asking to speak to me.  As I picked up the receiver I had no idea just what impact this call was going to have on my life…

The person on the other end of the phone was, although I didn’t know it then, to be my first Guide Dogs Mobility Instructor (GDMI).  She informed me that she was calling from the Edinburgh Mobility Team and that she had a dog there who could be a potential match for me, and asked if I would be interested in meeting said dog and embarking on 2 weeks of training in Edinburgh!!  To say I was surprised dear readers would be a major understatement.  I’m not sure any phone call before or since has had me quite so stunned.  So much so that all I could say in response was something along the lines of “can I take some time to think about it?”  I can only assume that I am not the first would be guide dog owner to react this way, and was told that I could of course have some time, and that I’d be contacted again the following day for a decision.

Of course, the moment I put the phone down the spell was broken, my mind was able to snap out of its surprised state forming the thought of something along the lines of ‘time to think about it… Are you mad…  Do you realize how lucky you are to have been offered this chance, far earlier than you ever expected to get it, and do you have any idea how long you could be waiting if you don’t take it?’…

So, the next morning came around, the telephone rang, and I moved through the house almost at a run to get to it, hoping that I wasn’t going to hit a door in the process, but not much caring either way at that point.  As hoped it was a call from Guide Dogs, and almost the first words out of my mouth were “yes I’d like to meet this dog”.  At that point I was given some information about the dog in question, who of course would become the dog of this blog.  I learned his name, his breed, and the fact that he had been named under the Name A Puppy Scheme as a result of large scale sponsorship efforts by the Travis Trek initiative.  We arranged to meet on the Coming Friday, and I had nothing else to do but start counting down the hours and hoping that the match would be successful.

“Hi, nice to meet you.  My name’s Commando.  I’m about to change your life…

So, Friday of that week rolled around.  My GDMI arrived and we proceeded to have a conversation about a number of things, including what was about to happen with regards to the matching walk, how Commando and Lester, our pet Beagle, were to be introduced to each other, and a number of other details.  I was happy to go through all of this, but the abiding thought at this point was ‘when do I get to meet the dog?’  But eventually that time rolled around.  We went outside to my GDMI’s car, she opened the boot, put Commando’s lead on, and then brought him the few steps to me…

I put my hand down towards where I estimated his head would be, in order to give a hello stroke to my potential guide dog and was surprised when my hand only went a fraction of the distance I was expecting.  Now, dear readers for those who may not know, Beagles are fairly small dogs, at least our two have been, so I was unprepared for a dog as tall as Commando.  The second surprise was just how soft his fir was.  He seemed like some kind of massive teddy bear.  I’m pleased to say that his fir is still that wonderfully soft.

Once pleasantries had been exchanged it was time for the matching walk.  Up to this point, the match had been made purely on paper, with my characteristics and Commando’s being viewed as a potentially good match.  But since a guide dog partnership will, if all goes well, last for years, it’s vital to be sure that the match is as good as possible.  So Commando was harnessed up by my GDMI, I was given the handle, and off we went.  Commando always seems to like moving at speed whenever he’s somewhere new, and of course this first time was no different.  Accept of course he was not only somewhere new, but he was with someone new.  As a result I’m told that he kept looking back towards his GDMI as if to say ‘who on earth is this new person now?’  But since I have a fast walking speed Commando’s speed wasn’t really a problem, and by the time we turned around for the return leg of the walk we were moving quite smoothly, and I was starting to get an idea of just how wonderful walking with a guide dog was going to be.  Commando further hammered this fact home by making the very slight adjustment to the left on one of the curb to curb crossings to bring us perfectly up onto the path.  Something which I had never quite managed when using the cane.  At that point my thoughts turned to Commando and Lester, with the overriding thought of ‘oh please let them get along’.

Fortunately, get along they did indeed, and soon thereafter, after me confirming, this time without a moment of hesitation, that I would very much like to come up to Edinburgh to undergo training with this very nice dog, Commando and my GDMI left, with me just counting down the days until Commando and I would meet again.

That walk, that wonderful wonderful walk…

Following our successful matching visit Commando and I had begun our training in Edinburgh.  We had started training around Portobello high-street and were gradually extending the length of each walk we took.  This particular day we had started the walk by going along the main part of the high-street and were now heading back via a more residential and scenic route.  Commando and I were walking along, with our GDMI behind us.  We had a particularly nice day to work with and since we were in May, flowers and other greenery appeared to be thriving, and of course the birds were singing.  Those were things that were happening, things that were not happening included the following.  There was no cane getting stuck in paving, no drifting to the left or right, no worrying about running into a hedge or ending up on the road, no all-consuming concentration aimed at keeping the ark of a cane going as it should be.  There was just me and Commando, walking along, at a speed we were both enjoying, and there was the awareness, that wonderful awareness of the world around us, of the birds, the flowers, the sun on our backs and the sheer unmitigated joy of what we were doing.  Of walking along swiftly, smoothly and safely.  I will admit dear readers, I’m not sure I ever wanted that walk to end.  For the first time in years I was walking along at my own pace, feeling utterly safe and secure, already confident in Commandos abilities to keep us safe.  I think I must have been grinning from ear to ear when we reached our GDMI’s car, at which point I promptly started babbling about just how wonderful that walk was, how it was everything I had hoped for when I had applied to become a guide dog owner, and how through whatever training was going to throw at us over the ensuing days, I would hold on to the memory of that walk to keep me going.

Guide dog owner…

Although we had our ups and downs during training, like every other fledgling guide dog partnership.  We made it through.  A week after we returned home from Edinburgh, Commando and I set out on a walk like no other.  We set out on our qualification walk.  The route we would take had been agreed in advance and Commando and I had a simple mission.  Make it there and back safe and sound.  Of course we were far from alone on the walk.  My GDMI and the service delivery manager from the Newcastle team were keeping an unobtrusive distance behind us, observing to ensure that we were doing what we were supposed to be doing, to a standard which would allow us to qualify.  I will never hold a driving licence, but I think the qualification walk may be about as close to a driving test as I can think of.  Despite their unobtrusive presence, I knew that I was being observed and found myself hyper aware of every little thing during the walk.  We ran into a couple of slight complications, which in my heightened state, I felt had spelled certain doom for my hopes of qualifying that day.

I have never been happier to be wrong.  Upon our return I was told that Commando and I had qualified!! We were now an official guide dog partnership, and I was now officially a guide dog owner.  I even got a badge and certificate to prove it.  I also got to hand over the 50p piece I had kept in a separate part of my wallet since I had arrived in Edinburgh.  From that moment on I knew things would never be the same.  The utter sense of elation I felt surpassed even that of the walk we had taken over 2 weeks earlier because I knew that, now we had qualified, that walk was only the first of oh so many.

The widening circle…

I often describe my independent mobility over the course of my visual deteriorations as a series of ever decreasing circles, with each deterioration having an impact upon how far I could get on my own.  With each deterioration the circles got smaller, until there was more or less nothing left.

Almost from my first day as a fully paid up and qualified guide dog owner, those circles began to get wider once again.  Within the first few days we had been out for walks on our own, starting small, with trips to the local post box and back, but gradually increasing our distance, for example to the post box and back, but via the local primary school, which added a good 10 minutes to the journey.

But one morning I decided that we needed to try a walk to the local high street.  Not only that, but we would try a walk to the high-street, go into a shop, and return with something.  This would be the first trip to the high-street since our qualification walk, and I realized we were also about to undertake this quest on that most hated of days…  ‘bin day’…  However, Commando had shown that the wheeled menace held no fear for him and I had every confidence that he would be able to cope with it.

Commando didn’t cope with it that day…  Commando relished it that day…  He seemed to be taking a special delight in weaving in and out, avoiding every single bin, so well that I don’t think I ever came close to even slightly touching one on our way to the high-street or on our way home.  We found the local bakers without any problems, where Commando naturally made some new friends, and he demonstrated his utter professionalism by not showing any interest in the bag of tasty items I had purchased from the bakery, choosing instead to dedicate his attention to avoiding wheelie bins with style.  We returned home triumphantly wielding the spoils of our adventure, a bag of sausage roles and some cakes, and I was thrilled to find the new squeaking ring I had ordered for Commando had arrived when we had been out.  Running simple little errands like that had been something that for so long I did without thinking, and I was so pleased to be able to get out and do something so inconsequential once again.

A house isn’t a home without a dog…

During my time in Edinburgh I got an idea of what it would be like for me and Commando just to be living on our own.  At that time I was still living with my parents, but will admit to finding the idea of just me and Commando to be quite appealing.  During that time I had also been told that a house in the same street had become available.  It was still available on our return and we were encouraged to take a look at it.  It seemed to be a very nice house.  The layout was identical to that of my parents’ house so there would be no need for a learning curve.  Although I was impressed with what I saw I took a great deal of time to decide whether or not to act upon the matter.  Things had just been moving so fast during that time and I was struggling a bit to keep everything in order and just wasn’t entirely sure if I was ready for that particular jump.  But in the end I decided that there would likely never be a better time.  I was assured by my GDMI, now someone from the Newcastle Mobility Team, that Commando would quickly and happily adapt to his new surroundings as long as I was there with him.  Fortunately in the end I was able to take that leap and that house has since become Commando and my home. 

But I am quite sure that if I had not had Commando in my life at that point I would probably never have considered moving out.  After all, there’s not much point in moving out if you can’t actually get out of that new house without someone to help you.  Commando took absolutely no settling in, and I’m quite sure that he’s also glad that I made the decision to move us in.

What’s one more leap…

A few weeks after I had put events in motion to move into our new home I arrived at the local College, where I was due to start my HND course in a few weeks.  AT least that’s what I thought when I arrived.  Not long after arriving I learned that the course I was to study was to be moved to another campus of the College.  One of the main reasons for my choice of this course was my familiarity with this particular College campus.  At the time of applying I had not expected to be a guide dog owner and so had reluctantly prepared myself to be using the cane.  So it had made sense to choose somewhere I already knew quite well.  Needless to say, had I still been using the cane at that point then there is every chance that the relocation of the course would have been a deal breaker, and this HND would have been one more failed attempt to return to higher education. 

However I was not using the cane.  I was now a guide dog owner.  After a few moments of surprised hesitation in which I ran a number of things through my mind, my answer to the question posed by the lecturer sitting in front of me, which had been, “is this going to be a problem for you?” was a fairly confident sounding “no”.  Indeed this proved to be the case, as with support from my GDMI Commando and I were oriented with the campus, and the places we would need on it, all by the time we arrived to begin our studies.  As well as having Commando, it was the fact that I knew I could ask for and receive help from my GDMI which had enabled me to take yet another leap into the unknown.  A leap which resulted in 2 enjoyable if challenging years at Sunderland College, and which helped to build a relationship between the College and Guide Dogs.  Oh, and of course allowed me to earn my HND.

Finishing the unfinished…

Regular readers will recall that the first casualty of my deteriorating vision was my University degree.  This had always been something of a thorn in my side, as I felt that I had left things unfinished in the worst possible way, leaving as I had with nothing but regret and concern for the future.  But once I had returned to College and gotten back into the swing of education I quickly realised that I was still very good at this stuff, and eventually decided that if I was to finally make an end of this degree business, if I was to finally put this last ghost of what I now think of as my old life, to rest then the time to do it was here.

So do it we did.  Last September, having completed the HND, Commando and I arrived at the University of Sunderland to make one last effort at obtaining a degree. 

Once again Commando adapted to this new environment with the smoothness I have now come to expect from my boy, taking in unusual stare cases, building designs and far larger crowds all in his stride.  All while very much enjoying the water cooler water that his new friends among the staff were happy to provide for him.

Despite a very heavy work load, combined with other requirements on my time not the least of which was to ensure that Commando still got his working walks and free runs, as well as some volunteering obligations for Guide Dogs, I am very pleased to say that Commando and I did indeed finally and decisively finish my unfinished business.

As a result of having Commando in my life I am now the holder of a first class honours degree in Business and Management.  The graduation day was a very enjoyable affair, not least for the fact that Commandos name was mentioned along with my own.  As well as the fact that when I crossed the stage to receive my certificate, Commando was right there at my side, right where he belonged, able to enjoy the applause of the crowd right there with me.  Of course I’m quite sure that the extra applause we received was primarily for Commando, and quite right to…




Kevin, 9:08pm Mon 5 Oct 2015:

I recently qualified with my GD Spencer. I am fascinated by your blogs, the similarity between Commando and Spencer. I too have been writing blogs about our journey from the beginning

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