Following My Leader

My pride had suffered a severe battering after I walked face first into an awning support pole in the Coffs Harbour mall.  After wiping tears of pain and humiliation from my face I felt shocked, fearful and unsure about my future.  I didn’t see the pole at all.  I returned home shaken.  With the responsibilities of caring for three young sons I promptly forgot the incident.

When I was ten I lost sight in my right eye. After my fifteenth birthday, while playing basketball at school I was hit in the head by the ball.  This accident detached my retina, robbing me of most of the sight in my left eye.  Surgery restored some tunnel vision.  I could see to do most things I wanted but lurking in the back of my mind was the fear of blindness.

A year after the pole incident , in 1990, we packed up our beachside home and moved to Sydney.  It was a culture shock for us all. There was frightfully busy traffic and thousands of people who were always rushed.

Eighteen months after leaving Coffs Harbour we purchased a home in Sydney.  We decided on a school for our boys and were settling into city life.  One day I was attempting to cross the road after I collected my youngest son from preschool.  I almost killed him.  I could not see the traffic light change.  There was a stationery truck in the centre lane.  It had a red arrow for turning right.  I thought the lights were green for me and started to cross.  Screaming brakes stopped me.  I swiftly pull the stroller backwards.  The car had screeched to a stop but not until it clipped the stroller’s front wheels and sent it spinning down the road.  My heart stopped.  On shaking legs I ran and picked up my little fellow and hugged him to myself.  He had not been injured.  The driver was shaken and apologetic.  It had not been her fault.

One of the school’s teachers drove us home.  I settled my little man and then contacted the road authority to have audible indicators installed at that intersection.  This was done the following day.  Shortly afterwards I contacted the Guide Dog Association to discuss my options.  After a lengthy assessment I was told I could have a dog.  I had a wait of nine-months before a compatible dog that had similar temperament and energy to me could be found.

In September 1992 I received confirmation that a dog was waiting for me.  I was excited and felt trepidation.  I had never put my trust in a dog.  Would the dog lead me safely?  How would my children cope without me for four weeks?

Three weeks later I left three clinging, tearful boys with their dad. Then with an anxious heart I flew to Melbourne for four weeks of training.

Initially I learned to follow a harness with my trainer as the dog.  I had to give the trainer commands such as left, right, stop and forward.  Until I had that correct I would not be introduced to my dog. Initially I found following the harness awkward and I was uncoordinated.  The trainer was patient and we kept practicing until I had the commands perfect.

On the second day our dogs were given to us.  We had to take full responsibility for them.  For example the dogs slept in our dormitory room and it was like having a new baby.  Sometimes my dog wanted to go out in the middle of the night and she would wake me up to take her.  Every morning we groomed our dogs and made sure they had a run in the pen before we went out with them.  After returning from the walks we gave them water and another run and fed them in the evening.

The dog I was given was a vivacious golden Labrador with sparkling brown eyes and biscuit ears.  Her name was Sophie.  I often wondered if she and I were a perfect match.  What did Guide Dogs think of my personality?  Though Sophie was a wonderful worker she was an absolute rascal off harness.  Her spunk and inquisitive nature got her into trouble.  On reflection she was just like me.

A guide dog has the age intelligence of a two to four year old child.  Sometimes they act like a cheeky child who needs regular disciplining.

Training was a month of daily walks and lectures.  At the centre there were three people who were given a dog and seven people doing white cane training.

In the guide dog group there was an elderly gentleman who was given a giant golden retriever like a polar bear.  The second man had a regal Labrador cross poodle and I was given a lively Labrador.  During the class times the other dogs settled down quietly at their masters’ feet.  But every time someone moved my dog jumped up.  I was often instructed “control your dog.”  I was often perplexed.  How is a high-spirited dog expected to sit still during a long lecture?

My trainer was serious.  She was strict and thorough.  She did not appear to have a sense of humour.  I did not hear her laugh once in four weeks.  My fellow students were also dour.  I always see the funny side in everything and often I would be the only person laughing at incidents that I thought were hilarious.  Such as the time when a gentleman with the golden retriever was trying to harness his dog. He was repeatedly saying “come on put your head in here.”  As we were listening we heard the trainer say “you are trying to put your dog’s tail in the harness.  Turn him around.”  It was understandable as his dog was so furry and he was having difficulty determining the difference between his dog’s head and tail.

Twice a day we climbed into the minivan with our dogs.  When we had arrived at the destination the trainer took us one at a time, with our dogs on harness, around the block.  Then we’d wait while the others had their walks.

Slowly as we gained confidence the trainer removed her lead from the dog and followed closely.  It was very important not to make a mistake as the dog learned by routine.

Back in Sydney I took hold of her harness and let her guide me.  I had a new independence. I put my absolute trust in Sophie as she loved to work.  She also loved to eat.  Food was a constant distraction.

If you can imagine the level of a Labrador’s nose is that of a three-year olds’ shoulder.  One morning we were walking along the street and a child was eating chips.  Sophie swiped her tongue and the snack disappeared.  I heard the child crying “that doggy has by chip”.  Another time my mother baked cheese scones and left then to cool.  She went to investigate a rustling sound.  There was Sophie with her paws on the bench greedily gobbling down the warm scones.

Sophie was an escape artist.  Two new homes were being built in the next street.  She would take off and eat the builders’ lunches.  When the builders saw me walking with her they told me what she had done.  You’d think they would put their lunches somewhere safe after losing them to a dog.

In March 1993 I started work with Freight Rail.  Sophie settled into work sleeping underneath my desk.  Many people did not realise she was with me.

A group of tough-looking union representatives was touring the offices.  A very tall bearded man stood talking beside my desk.  Sophie thought I was being threatened. She gave a warning growl then an ear-splitting bark.  The representative jumped almost hitting the roof in fear. My colleagues and I could not stop laughing.

Sophie was protective.  We were at a camp where a mother was play-fighting with her young son.  Sophie did not understand and thought the boy was being attacked.  Sophie rushed barking at the mother. The woman was shocked and jumped away. When Sophie was happy that all was well she sat down again beside me.

Although Sophie was the most mischievous dog off harness, her work could never be faulted.

A couple of years into our relationship we were waiting at traffic lights in Parramatta.  Two vicious bull terriers attacked Sophie, jumping on her, growling fiercely and biting her.  I dropped the harness, as we were trained.  There were people all around us but no one intervened.  I was frightened and Sophie was whimpering.  Eventually an elderly lady came to our rescue and shooed the menacing dogs away.  It was a terrifying experience and Sophie was shaking.  We returned to work and I checked her for injuries.  Fortunately she was unhurt.

Sophie and I walked everywhere.  She confidently navigated me around crowds and street furniture.  We walked five kilometres to and from work and had many trips by ourselves into Sydney CBD.  It was a pleasure to walk independently with her.

After Sophie had been with me for five years she developed a large tumour on her chest.  The tumour was removed by surgery.  When she recovered she was able to continue to work.  Twelve months later we got the saddest news.  The cancer returned throughout her body.  She could no longer work and was on chemotherapy tablets daily.  She got weaker and passed away quietly in July 1997.  We all were heart-broken.  We sat on the seat outside patting her and crying.

It takes twelve-months to be fully familiar with your dog and teach her all your various routes.  She was prematurely retired and it was time to consider a new dog.  The challenge was daunting.  Losing your best guide is like losing your left arm.  To walk with a white cane is awkward.  It’s a different way of navigating.  The dog avoids obstacles and working with a cane you must locate obstacles to give you reference points.  I have never known a cane user to walk for pleasure.  However, people using dog guides walk effortlessly with their dog.

After Sophie’s death I missed her terribly.  My life changed.  I went to work walking with a white cane.  I had never used a white cane and I could not walk in a straight line.  Many vision-impaired people choose a cane over a dog, but not me.

Once after work I was walking down the street when the cane went under a bus seat.  My knee cracked against the edge of the seat.  The pain was excruciating.  I sat on the seat and cried.  One of my colleagues passing asked “where is your dog?”  I burst into tears afresh and told him.  He kindly walked me to the taxi.

After a couple of months of working with a white cane my new dog was waiting for me.  He had a quieter temperament than Sophie and similar colouring.  When we were introduced it was love at first sight for us both.  The following morning he jumped on my bed for a cuddle.

His name was Zeff and he had the sweetest nature.  He never got into mischief nor did he do anything naughty in the twelve years he was with me.

We walked five kilometres to work every morning and he never put a paw wrong.

When Zeff was five years old we bought a puppy golden retriever, Emma.  Zeff put up with her chewing on his ear and generally being annoying.  Sometimes he’d walk away indignantly and tried to hide from her.  She thought he was her parent and stuck beside him.  He was grateful to go to work to have a rest from her.

I fed the dogs together in the evening.  Some mornings the puppy’s bowl would be downstairs under the washing line.  It was always a mystery how it got there.

One morning my son was up early pegging up his washing.  He caught Zeff carefully carrying the puppy’s bowl downstairs.  “Zeff!” Luke exploded.  Zeff guiltily dropped the bowl and slunk off.

Zeff’s only vice was he had a problem with breaking wind.  Some days at work it would be so toxic I had to tie him in an area where there were no workers.  This area became known as “the wind tunnel”.

In 2002 I changed jobs with a different route.  Zeff navigated me over very busy roads, through tunnels and around overhanging trees.

One day I was waiting in a chemist when a lady mentioned “the little child in the stroller beside your dog is feeding him”.  I thought it was cute but moved my dog out of reach.  One of the rules with a guide dog is that no one other than their owner ever feeds them.  I was very strict with my dogs as my safety relied on them.

Zeff and I were walking to work on 31 May 2005 when a negligent driver, looking to the right and turning to the left hit me with the wheels going over both my legs.  As I was falling under her wheels I remember thinking it’s impossible that this is happening.  I was in the middle of the road and very easily seen when she hit me.  I was seriously injured with multiple fractures in both legs.  Zeff was unhurt and lay beside me whimpering until the ambulance arrived.  It was obvious that the driver had not been watching for a long period of time.

After I graduated out of my wheel chair and then off my crutches we worked together but in a very limited way.  I never walked to work again.

Zeff developed arthritis in his hips and walking became painful for him.  I had to retire him.  After a brief illness he passed away in 2007.

I was two years without a dog.

Eventually I applied for another dog.  Molly came to live with us.  She was a delightfully spunky cross Labrador golden retriever.

By the time I got Molly I had left working for a company and started a home-based massage clinic.  Due to the accident I was fearful of crossing the road by myself.  This restricted my walks with Molly to trips around the block.

Although Molly was a delight and such a wonderfully friendly young dog our time together was brief.

I found I was not using her to her full potential and surrendered her to Guide Dogs NSW/ACT.

I hope she is still successfully leading another blind person.

I loved my three dogs and their devotion to me was obvious. The bond between a working dog and their master is unique. We worked as one using hand signals, positioning of our bodies and often a nod of the head.  By holding the harness handle lightly I could feel my dog’s slightest movement.  Working with a guide dog is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had.  We worked like a pair of dancers, always in step.

If I had a favourite it was Zeff.  He was always faithfully beside me.  I still miss him.