12-year-old Ruby Darbyshire from Gateshead was born prematurely at 30 weeks, but it wasn’t until she was six years old that doctors diagnosed her with cerebral visual impairment (CVI) caused by a brain malformation.
CVI impacts the way the brain reads and interprets the signal from the eyes. The condition is regularly misdiagnosed and as Ruby is long-sighted and had delayed development, it was thought this was the reason for her difficulties.
Her Mum Lisa explains: “Ruby’s vision is variable, and she can see less well when she is tired or in conditions with poor weather or lighting.
“She can also have difficulty recognising familiar people if they are in a different environment to where she is used to seeing them; she may not notice people or objects in her peripheral vision; she has reduced acuity, tires more easily, gets easily distracted, and finds it difficult to negotiate unlevel surfaces.”
All of this is a lot for a young girl to cope with, but in November 2021, Golden Retriever buddy dog Cooper came into the Darbyshires’ lives and changed everything.
Buddy dogs are dogs that have been given a career change because life as a guide dog wasn’t quite right for them. These dogs are there to support vision impaired children as a friend and companion. Cooper wasn’t able to become a guide dog due to a skin condition, but this led him to being matched with Ruby as a buddy dog.
Lisa continues: “We were of course aware of Guide Dogs but we hadn’t heard of their buddy dog service. It was during an activity run by another charity where I spoke to another family who have a buddy dog which led me to speaking to Guide Dogs – and the rest is history!
“Our Guide Dogs specialist has been a huge help to us in ensuring that we were prepared for Cooper's arrival but has also been in regular contact during his placement to help us with any issues or questions. “Cooper is the most patient and loving dog I have ever known, and he immediately fit right into our family. Already we can’t imagine a life without him.
“Since having Cooper, Ruby has gained so much more than a dog – she has a best friend! He has given her the opportunity to gain responsibility and independence – something which she needs to develop, but it can be tricky for a child with multiple disabilities.”
Robbie Campbell, Canine Assisted Partnership Specialist at Guide Dogs said: “Ruby and Cooper are an amazing example of the positive effect that buddy dogs can have on the wellbeing of a child with a vision impairment, helping to develop their self-confidence, life skills and social interaction – as well as a wonderful sense of fun and companionship.
“We are hoping to expand the scheme across Newcastle and the North East and would love to hear from local families who may benefit from a buddy dog and are interested in finding out more.
“A buddy dog is not a guide dog and does not provide mobility assistance. It joins the family as a pet and teaches a visually impaired child the responsibility and enjoyment of caring for and living with a dog. Just like Ruby and her family, we’ve heard from many other buddy dog families across the UK how much their life has transformed.”
Having Cooper means that Ruby can develop and improve her fine motor skills. She uses her scales to measure out Cooper's food allowance twice daily, puts on his harness for each walk and is learning how to put on the lead.
Lisa adds: “Cooper has treatment twice a week for his skin condition and Ruby takes responsibility for starting this process each time by getting his bag and following each part of his treatment which I administer. She gives him treats as rewards."
“Most importantly, Cooper gives Ruby a reason to go out of the house each evening. As a child with a vision impairment and other disabilities, she can become very isolated in her bedroom – now with Cooper she wants to go out and walk with him, so he is really helping with her exercise and social interaction.”
And it’s not only Ruby who he has an amazing bond with. Lisa says: “He truly is a part of the family and is adored by both Ruby's brothers - four-year-old Oliver and Lewis, aged 17.”
Ruby adds: "Cooper is the best dog ever as he loves playing with his toys with me!"