By VICTA Intern Harriet Smith
I first began the process of applying for a guide dog at the end of 2014. The application process is different for everyone, depending on their situation. In my case, I wasn’t very confident around dogs. Before I could even be considered for the waiting list I had to improve my mobility a lot. In order to have a guide dog, you have to learn at least three routes in your local area with your cane first. When you eventually get a guide dog you have to direct it every step of the way, including deciding when to cross the road. That is the owner’s decision, not the dog’s, as so many people think.
In the early days of my process, I had many dog-handling sessions at The Midlands Regional Centre in Leamington Spa. I had to practice with a wide variety of dogs and they mainly gave me naughty ones! There was a reason for this though. I needed to practice the “lead correction” technique and see how the dogs responded to me. The more I practised with these dogs, the more my confidence gradually increased and I felt happier about handling them in general.
These sessions also familiarised me with the harness and clips on the lead and how they all fitted together. Although I’d had pet dogs in the past, they hadn’t used leads so I had very little knowledge of how they worked. I also had to get to grips with using a halty, which was one of the most difficult parts. The harness was also new to me. Although I’d seen other guide dogs’ harnesses before, I wasn’t familiar with all the clips and the terminology associated with them. The staff at Guide Dogs were very kind and gave me a spare lead and harness to practice with. I spent every day for the next couple of years practising putting them on a toy horse. This helped me so much and I will always be grateful for that.
When working a dog, there are various commands and body positions that you use in order to work the dog to the best of its ability. I spent a lot of time during the training sessions learning these body positions and commands, as well as practising them in my own time. These positions come naturally to me now, but at the time I had to put a lot of effort into remembering them.
In terms of my mobility, I worked extremely hard on this and put all my mental energy into learning my routes. I haven’t always enjoyed mobility lessons so I didn’t find it easy at all and it took a lot of courage. But my overall goal of getting a guide dog spurred me on. I found the more I practised, the easier the routes became. My advice to anyone applying for a guide dog is to practice, practice, practice the routes you’re learning as much as you can. I won’t lie, it is boring and tedious but it pays off in the end!
In Spring 2017, after working solidly on my mobility for almost two and a half years, I was assessed by Guide Dogs on how well I was using my cane. This is a standard part of the application process and I felt relieved that I had reached that point of it. Thankfully I passed!
From there I had a harness walk with a dog they thought could be a suitable match. This is also another standard part of the application process. A harness walk involves going for a short walk at your local Guide Dogs training centre in harness with a qualified guide dog so they can assess such things as your speed. I am pleased to say that my harness walk went well. A few weeks later I was ecstatic to be informed that a suitable guide dog had been found for me to be matched with! I couldn’t believe it! After all my hard work and determination, it had happened!
I trained and qualified with Sparky during the summer of 2017. I found the training process exhausting and mentally draining. Walking with Sparky was so different to using a cane. I’d lost all my physical landmarks of the shop buildings which I was used to tracking along. Now I rely on the surface beneath my feet (such as the blister bubbles at the pelican crossing) to know when to cross the road. So in some ways I was re-learning the routes again.
I’ve had Sparky for two years now and wouldn’t go back to the cane. Sparky is not only a fantastic guide dog: he is a lovely companion and my best friend. I no longer feel alone when I’m walking the streets, which I sometimes did when I had my cane. Something else I’ve found is that it takes much less time to get to places. Now I have Sparky people talk to me more, and he is a great conversation ice-breaker. Sparky has helped increase my confidence in general, and I’m looking forward to our future together as we grow as a partnership.
Find out more about Guide Dogs on their website: www.guidedogs.org.uk
Read our other Young Person’s Voice blogs in our Stories Section