Paws for a Snack

I'm so hungry!

All Guide dogs are noble when they need to be, but I think the best Guide dogs possess that “lovable rogue” quality which brings out the funny side of life.

My Guide dog Trudy has those Labrador eyes which melt the most hardened hearts, and she knows precisely who will fall for her “please rescue me, I’m starving” act.  The Postie has got used to her head appearing round the door with an empty food bowl hanging from her mouth.  But people who aren’t used to Trudy never cease to tell me that they think “she might be hungry”.  The empty bowl with its well-chewed edges is the picture of neglect when it’s dropped at the feet of a stranger.  She looks up at the unsuspecting newbie with sorrowful eyes, which I’m positive she has learned to enlarge just to increase the pathos.

The starved Labrador act comes into its own when we’re out and about.    When we’re walking through a busy street I always have to be ready for the sudden lurch of the harness – it invariably means she’s spied a discarded sandwich crust, or a lone chip.  As I know her tactics I can usually grab her back before she’s reached the edible item, but she still occasionally manages to outwit me.

Sometimes she’ll lunge for something dramatically, but when I prize it from her mouth I find it’s nothing more than an apple stalk or a dried piece of orange peel, or a till receipt.  I can almost hear the “Ha ha, fooled you” snigger as I pretend the incident never occurred (I have to maintain my own street cred…).

In the early days of our partnership Trudy committed some worthy food crimes.  One late evening I was walking down the hill towards Hereford Town centre and Trudy suddenly appeared to be limping.  I was alarmed, and stopped her to check her paws in case she’d trodden on some glass or chewing gum. I was unable to find anything, so gave her the command to continue.  As she did so I noted that she was definitely walking peculiarly, and became quite concerned.  After stopping her again and checking her more thoroughly, I discovered a dirty great doughnut hanging out of her chops.  She’d procured it without even stopping so I hadn’t noticed the crime take place.  And she was so determined to hide her stolen booty that she was trying to eat the doughnut on the hop before she got rumbled.  Unfortunately for Trudy, walking in harness whilst munching a doughnut requires considerable practise, so she didn’t get away with that one.

At home Trudy is a seasoned thief.  Her bed is a hoard of socks, gloves, shoe laces and other items which may come in handy later.  Stealing underwear from my laundry basket and presenting them as “gifts” to visitors is one of her favourite antics.  I’ve had to buy a Trudy-proof laundry basket to protect my dignity…  (Trudy is a canine expert on the topic of “how to embarrass the parents”).

She has only thieved from a shop once.  This particular crime occurred in a local pet supplies shop, in which ironically I was purchasing some rawhide chews.  Just as I was paying for the multipack of pressed rawhide, I was aware of a rapid crunching sound in my left ear.  Torn between ignoring it and facing the inevitable, I reluctantly plunged for the latter.  I reached down to Trudy’s muzzle, and felt the thin end of a gluten-free chew disappearing into her mouth.  She looked up at me with such imploring “I couldn’t help it” eyes that the shopkeeper actually offered her another one!  “They’re only 43p” he said, chuckling at the notion of a shoplifting Guide dog.  That’s Labrador psychology for you.

Trudy is untrustworthy whenever there is unsupervised food.  (The 5 mince pies left unwittingly too near met a grisly end last Christmas).  But despite the fact that she has earned the nickname of “The Hoover”, I have never felt unsafe when I’m out with her.  She has never once led me over a kerb into the road, or put me in any danger.    I am 100% certain that Trudy’s professional role as a Guide dog overcomes the scallywag Labrador when my safety is in question.    Trudy is a synonym for mischief, but the fact is I know I can trust her with my life.

Although there have been times when Trudy’s antics have caused me to cringe with embarrassment, there is nothing about her that I would ever wish to change.

Nerves are not always the enemy

So many people have a fear of public speaking (or glossophobia). The notorious wedding gaffs, the blundering after-dinner soliloquy, politicians who pulverise their careers in a single speech. The list of public speaking nightmares is endless. Many of us know people either directly or indirectly who have got blind drunk just to face “the mob”.

It makes no difference whether “the mob” is three people in a back room or a worldwide audience listening via satellite.  An unknown audience looms like a demon, waiting to devour you the minute you falter. Yet oddly enough,this vulnerability – the moment in which you hesitate and see your speech assuming the shape of a large pear – is what can connect you to your audience.  They see that you are human, and most of them understand.  A polished speech delivered with effortless confidence might well get a good reception. But a speech which comes from the heart will often be more memorable.

I do not consider myself to be a first-class public speaker. When I became a volunteer speaker for Guide dogs I had no idea whether the experience would destroy my confidence or increase it.. Something inside me relished the challenge, but the thought of actually delivering a speech churned my stomach. I had no previous training or experience, so when I received a phone call last Summer asking me to give a talk at a local primary school I was terrified.

The terror manifested itself physically.  Standing in front of the entire school,  my voice wobbled, my hands shook, my heart clapped against my chest, and the sweat poured down my face. My guide dog Trudy was nonplussed, and lay in a quiet heap at my feet, steady as ever. As my nerves escalated I began to falter.  Suddenly the realisation that 90 children were hanging on my every word  sent me into a paroxysm of panic. They were all listening to me! (This is apparently known as the “spotlight effect”). What if I messed it up? What if I couldn’t finish?  I was speaking without notes as I’m not a braillist, so everything I needed was inside my head.  The same head that was swimming with half-formed words and misshapen thoughts. I froze for a good few seconds. The silence thundered in my ears. This was make or break, and I knew it.  But somehow I managed to regain my composure. The conviction that I was about to die became less of an issue. My voice still wobbled like a de-railing train, but I made it to the end. What’s more, I got a positive reception from the children and teachers. This was my first building block in the confidence tower. When the talk was over, the adrenalin buzzed through me and I felt truly elated. The relief was indescribable. Afterwards I wondered what had made my first talk a success. After all, my nerves were bubbling for all to see. Yet this seemed to bother me more than my audience. They listened and responded to me, they felt my passion and they knew it was real.

I have given several talks since, mainly to adult audiences.  My nerves still plague me and I cringe at the sound of my vibrato voice.  But at least the fear is very familiar now, I know exactly what to expect.  I also know that the fear won’t get any worse, it won’t kill me and it’s  never forced me to abandon a talk and walk out.  I would say we’re evenly matched, my fear and I.  The feedback I’ve received has shown me that being nervous does not necessarily alienate an audience.  They hear the emotion in your voice, they see the raw struggle as you shake and stammer, and they’re alongside you when you win the battle.

Being a volunteer speaker has given me fantastic experience.  Talking about guide dogs and GDBA does not attract antagonists – quite the opposite in fact.  Speaking to largely sympathetic audiences has allowed my confidence to steadily grow.  My experience has taught me some valuable lessons in how to connect with an audience, young or old.  The following tips may be useful.

1 R  Relevance – Make sure your speech is relevant, know your audience, find out what they want

2 I  Interaction – Involving your audience keeps them focussed and enables you to understand them

3  P  Preparation – Make sure you’ve researched your talk and established which points are important

4  P  Practise – Rehearse your speech, read it out loud over and over again and get the rhythm right

5  L  Length – Find out how long you’re required to talk for and time yourself beforehand

6  E  Enthusiasm – Enthusiasm is contagious, it defines your delivery.  Speak from your heart

One final tip: humour is a great ice-breaker and if you can laugh it will dissipate your tension as well as add to your audience’s enjoyment.

Post-treatment Free Fall

When I first found the lump I did what several people do – tried to ignore it.  Sometimes I could go for months without thinking about it.  But then (usually in the shower) the niggle would start to worm away inside my head: “What if it’s cancer?”

When it was just my lump it was my secret.  Deep down I knew it was cancerous, and it was more than a general anxiety.  I knew in my heart that this was nothing to do with hormones or my menstrual cycle.  So in the end it was a case of when to visit my GP, not should I?  shouldn’t I?  I kept it to myself as long as possible, but all the while I knew that my lump’s hiding place would have to be exposed.  Confiding in a friend was the first step on the “cancer journey” for me.  She came with me to the GP, and we both talked ourselves into thinking it was nothing serious.  The statistics of breast lumps are that around 80% turn out to be benign, so I put myself in that 80% camp – though deep down I knew I wouldn’t be there for long.

The GP visit fuelled a whirlwind of events.  Within two weeks I was at the hospital undergoing a mammogram and biopsy.  My guide dog Trudy was behind the curtain with a friend, and I could hear her crying while the needles went in – first under my arm, then into the breast itself.  Although the axillary biopsy was quite painful, I found myself calling to Trudy to reassure her that everything was going to be OK.  But within half an hour I was listening to the Consultant: “I think you have a small breast cancer”.

The shock sent waves round my entire body, but I didn’t feel emotional.  My friend appeared more devastated than I did.  I went into fight or flight mode, and the battle was definitely on.  The results were confirmed two days later, which was exactly a week before Christmas day 2010.  I remember being surprised that I felt OK.  I was still exactly the same, except that I knew I had cancer.  The lumpectomy was booked for New Year’s eve, and after that it was an agonising wait for the pathology results.  Those two weeks dragged their feet as if they were shackled by a ball and chain.  I thought I was definitely going to need chemo, and tried to joke about losing my “barnet” although I dreaded the prospect.

But thankfully as far as cancer results go, mine were positive.  It had been caught early, and was not an aggressive cancer.  I was prescribed tamoxifen as my cancer was oestrogen-positive, and told that 5 weeks of radiotherapy would begin in about a month.  The tamoxifen affected my mood and I became very irritable and depressed.  The physical side effects (i.e. nausea, hot flushes, itching) were nothing compared to the sudden change in my emotional state.  Since coming off tamoxifen 2 months ago I now know that this was definitely the cause of my depression.

The radiotherapy didn’t affect me until the last two weeks.  My skin broke down completely and became infected.  The fatigue began taking its toll.  I literally couldn’t resist the urge to lie down – it was like a magnet pulling me towards the sofa or bed.  As the radiotherapy treatment was out-of-County in Cheltenham General hospital, that became my life for about 6 weeks.  It was Cheltenham, home, bed, Cheltenham, home, bed… Trudy’s routine was out of the window, and for this reason I decided to board her with Guide dog volunteers while I was having treatment.  But the separation was more painful than I’d anticipated and my life fell apart.  After two days, she came home and we endured the “radiotherapy days” together.  Trudy’s companionship and unerring support kept me from going under.

Then suddenly (or so it seemed) the treatment finished.  No more hospital appointments or doctors, just an empty space.  Was I supposed to be “back to normal”?  Was this it?  My empty space became a haven for fears and anxieties, suppressed anger, confusion and a sense that I should be happy, relieved, even grateful.  In truth I felt that I’d been abandoned, and was free-falling into an abyss far away from everyone.   The invisible cancer curse followed me everywhere.  I couldn’t express my fears easily as those who cared about me were rooting for me to be my “old self” again.  But my old self has left, and at first this realisation annoyed me because I felt the change had been forced upon me through no fault of my own.  Now though, the rawness of cancer and cancer treatment is slowly starting to heal.

I’m beginning to feel that I’ve been given a second chance, and it’s up to me what I do with this second chance.  As time goes by, I’m hoping my fear of a recurrence or that the cancer has already spread, will lose its grip on me.  There’s now an urgency about life, which gives me zest, and flattens complacency.  I consider myself very privileged to have had such a rude awakening.  None of us knows what lies ahead, but if you’ve battled with cancer or something similar you make damn sure that you value what you have and make the most of it.  I have Trudy who is unconditionally loyal, I have friends who have stuck by me even during my “tamoxifen tantrums”, and I have life.