I have an acute sense of smell. And the truth of the matter is, I stink.
I have had my guide dog Trudy (AKA The Hereford Hoover) for just over five years, and we’ve reached the time that I’ve been dreading most – her official retirement.
When Trudy bounced into my life I was living in a residential home and had got used to the fact that I would probably be there forever. I rarely went out on my own, and feared strangers to the extent that I could not tolerate busy streets or crowded rooms. I spent most of my time indoors listening to music or the radio. The big wide world was virtually inaccessible to me.
Of course the furry whirlwind that filled my small room in May 2008 changed all that. Time for a cliché – it really was love at first sight. I knew Trudy was special. I knew she would radically change my life. It was breathtaking. Three days after that momentous first meeting we began our four weeks training together, and life has never been the same since.
Less than two years after training with Trudy I moved into my own flat and immersed myself in a new life. With Trudy’s help I overcame my fear of people and trained as a volunteer Speaker for Guide Dogs. Sometimes I wonder if I am the same person when I give a talk to an audience. I remember the me who refused to go into a room if there were more than two people in it.
Before I had even met Trudy I was told that she was a stubborn dog who loved her food. I had no concept of the Hereford Hoover then. Trudy’s trademark is her pinkish brown snout, glued to the ground wherever she goes, sniffing, snorting, and snuffling her way forward. There has been countless occasions where the Hoover has been offered cleaning jobs in various public buildings. (And as many where she has narrowly escaped being ordered off the premises). But despite her penchant for hoovering, Trudy was always a first-class guide dog. She has guided me to Scotland, London, Devon, Essex and all over the West Midlands. Together we have mastered ferries, trains, buses, trams, the London Tube and even a carousel in Hereford High Town at Christmas. Before I met Trudy, I would have preferred to die than go anywhere via public transport. (And I definitely never would have tried the carousel!)
Trudy stopped walking in harness about three months ago, but is due to retire officially next week. Her guide dog harness will be taken away for good.
Five years ago I never envisaged the emotional turmoil this would throw me into. A guide dog provides so much emotional and practical support that as a team you begin to function as one being. Picking up the harness and fastening the buckle under Trudy’s stomach is second nature to me. We just used to get up and go out. Being out and about with a guide dog is a real joy. I was forever finding reasons to go out with Trudy just to experience the unbroken communication between us.
I loved the feel of her body bobbing up and down under the harness, the different signals she used to give me through the harness handle as we explored the streets of Hereford, and her sneaky attempts to procure food from the pavements wherever we went. Hoovering aside, I knew that I could trust Trudy with my life. The trust between us is mutual and it unites us. In her guide dog heyday Trudy was a keen worker and would always fly into her harness (quite literally!). She used to cock her head as if to ask me what our plans were for the day. No two days were ever the same. One day we could be in Worcester, the next in the park, the next on a coach to London and the next in the theatre. (I regret to say that Trudy often graced musical performances with her own vocal arrangements, so I always made sure we were right at the back near the exit!)
Reflecting over the past five years brings home to me how much Trudy has transformed my life. In 2010 she was runner-up in the Life Changing category of the Guide Dog of the Year Awards, and in 2011 she won the Life Changing category. The 2011 award was in recognition for Trudy’s role in helping me to cope with Breast Cancer. She unquestionably speeded up my physical and emotional recovery.
Trudy is notoriously inappropriate on official occasions. She nearly ruined the photo shoot in the 2010 ceremony when she dived to retrieve an apple stalk and refused to drop it. And far worse, when we met the Duke of Edinburgh last year during the Royal visit to Hereford, she stuck her snout inside his raincoat to sniff a certain part of his anatomy… Less said of that the better. (For the curious among you, he remarked: “Something must smell nice in there!”.)
Our precious moment of un-glory.
It’s very hard to acknowledge the end of an era with such a character as the Hereford Hoover. Trudy is not quite ten, and probably could have continued as a guide dog for longer had she not effectively retired herself. About a year ago I began to notice subtle changes in her demeanour when we were out together. She seemed fed up, and became more and more distracted. She started meandering instead of walking in straight lines, and frequently led me up the garden path (in fact every garden path in the street!). I got the distinct impression that she was no longer enjoying walking in harness. Eventually this was confirmed when she lay down in the middle of the pavement on strike. (Not once, but three times on three separate walks!) A guide dog on strike needs to be listened to.
So three months ago I decided to stop taking her out on harness. Since then Trudy has found her inner puppy, and bounces through the park revelling in her well-earned freedom. I know I have made the right decision.
But although Trudy is benefiting from the redundant harness, I am finding our new way of life quite difficult. The guide dog harness is a freedom ticket, and without it I have lost a lot of confidence. I still have my lovely dog and she gives me so much in the way of affection, humour and companionship. But our roaming area has shrunk from UK unlimited to a small corner of Hereford.
I am reasonably competent at using a long cane but this way of getting around ignites my old fears and anxieties about going out. I find using a long cane quite an ordeal, and it makes me incredibly nervous. After being dependent on a guide dog a long cane seems clumsy and lonely. I have tried taking Trudy with me on my various practise expeditions. It is better than being out on my own, but the slow walking speed and numerous crashes into bins, bollards and boards continue to put me off. In addition (and this may sound ridiculous) relying on a long cane is a constant reminder to me that I cannot see, whereas walking with a guide dog enables me to forget it. So my current solution is to go to the park every day with Trudy, but nowhere else. And after five years of freedom and increasing confidence, this is a set-back. If you imagine someone who has been used to walking with a prosthetic leg suddenly losing that leg and having to rely on crutches – that is how I feel without a working guide dog. Thankfully I still have Trudy, and she has prevented me from becoming a recluse.
And that brings me onto the pivotal question. What next? This is the question that has caused me untold agonies. My first decision was to keep Trudy as a pet and train with a new guide dog. Guide Dogs have been very supportive and in March they loaned me a dog for a week to see how I would manage with two dogs. The week went well and I coped.
But I knew deep down that I would not be able to sustain it. When you have a guide dog on harness you’re not allowed to walk another dog at the same time. I tried to imagine myself on a really bad day where I
struggle to make it out of bed. Could I honestly say that I would be able to go out and about with the guide dog and then come back and take Trudy to the park? There are days when I just manage to take Trudy out to the grass and then to the park gate where I let her off the lead. With a young guide dog raring to go, and Trudy needing and deserving a quality retirement, I know the pressure would get to me eventually. Not only that, I remember so clearly my first year with Trudy. The first year in a new partnership takes every ounce of time, patience, energy and determination. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it would not be fair on either Trudy or the new guide dog to have the two of them.
So the reluctant decision I have had to make is that when the right guide dog is found for me Trudy will go to live with a friend in Hereford. Subject to approval by Guide Dogs, this would be a brilliant compromise. Trudy will have a fantastic retirement with people she knows and loves. I will still have contact with my Hereford Hoover, whilst benefiting from having a guide dog to help me fulfil my remaining dreams. This way Trudy and I will both be winners. Someone advised me recently to imagine that Trudy is going off to University rather than leaving for good. (Look out St. John’s College, Oxford!). Bizarre as it may seem, this has helped me with the heartache. Trudy will still be a huge part of my life.
In the meantime, Hoover and I are spending some quality time together and I have no regrets about her retiring. I have my fingers crossed that my new guide dog will be an anti-establishment, rule-bending and reliably subversive canine with a character to rival the Hereford Hoover. As Miranda Hart might say; “Such fun”.
To find out more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, please click here: http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/scarlett3/?gclid=CI_KgorL9bcCFfLHtAodYyYAqw
I was up early on January 27th 2012 – well before I needed to be. Whenever I undertake a long journey I have a rigorous pre-travel routine, which has become more complicated since Trudy’s arrival on the scene. On this particular trip Trudy’s kit took up more suitcase space than mine! (Probably my fault for packing more dog food than necessary in case we got stranded somewhere). The motto “Just in case” unfortunately determines most of what I pack when I go away.
Sight-impaired people often find public transport a real headache. Travelling by train in the UK has been made easier thanks to station stops being announced on the train’s PA system. It is not very often nowadays that we have to resort to counting stops or checking the time to ascertain where we are on a train journey! But the noisy, smelly and busy platforms, crowded trains and huge gaps in between the train and platform can be off-putting. As for which platform to go to and which train to board, that’s another mountainous obstacle. Booking Assisted Travel beforehand reduces the stress of an unfamiliar train journey, but nevertheless it is not easy to put your trust in a “system “.
Hereford Railway Station has the most expert staff when it comes to assisting passengers who need extra help. Down to a T, they are faultless. Even so, until I was a hundred per cent sure that I was on the right train to Crewe I could not relax. As it was early the train was quiet and I found myself settling back very quickly. Trudy’s agenda was to hoover up beneath the seats and wriggle as far away as she could on the lead. After she had licked the floor and eaten all the stray crumbs, she grumbled and curled up in a big lump to catch up on some missed sleep. Labradors have it so easy.
Crewe was where I needed to change in order to catch the train to Glasgow Central. When I had Googled Crewe Station a few days earlier, I was dismayed to learn that the station had 12 platforms and several cafes. In other words, it was BIG. This meant that as the train approached Crewe I became steadily more anxious. What if there was no staff member waiting to meet me and assist me with the connection? What if I actually missed the connection and never got to Gourock? Suddenly my whole life seemed to hang on making this one train connection. It became my ultimate goal, my springboard, my future. Crewe Station was Rivendell, Mount Olympus, Utopia, Paradise. I had to get there, and equally I had to leave. The Quest was gigantic and seemingly impossible.
On arrival, I was met by an extremely cheerful young man who took charge of my suitcase and bad me follow. Off I went into the nether regions of Crewe Station, Trudy hoovering in the lead, completely oblivious to where we were heading. It paid to be trusting. In a few minutes I was comfortably established in one of the cafes I’d read about, relieved that at least I would make it over the border to Glasgow. The chirpy lad was unquestionably sure of his trains, and that meant that I was sure too. Ironically, I actually informed a fellow passenger that this was the correct platform for Glasgow Central – such is the ebb and flow of public transport!
The second leg of the journey felt like the real start of my adventure. For one thing, I am so used to Arriva Trains that sitting in a train which was owned by a different company felt decidedly unorthodox. It was like being in a stranger’s house. This train was very crowded, and Trudy received far more attention than she had done on the way to Crewe.
I could feel the tip of her tail thumping against my foot as one by one, people described her as “marvellous” and “beautiful”. Her ear flaps were pinned back against the side of her head as she licked the cream off the luscious compliments. She was the picture of stoicism – the perfect working dog, saintly, bordering on smug.
So when she dived into an un-manned crisp packet and virtually devoured the contents before anyone could intervene, the food crime appeared all the more shocking and unthinkable. I was expecting a Tabloid journalist to tap me on the shoulder and berate me for “creating” a thief. I felt the shame of a disappointed parent. The aisle was narrow and there were people jammed in every available space, so Trudy’s intention to finish off her ill-gotten gains was harder to contain. I succeeded in retrieving the crisp packet, only to realise that my hand and sleeve were covered in slimy, half-chewed crisp remnants fresh from the mouth of a Labrador. I pretended I was not with her. I was disgusted. Trudy was disgusted too, for she wanted the crisps. The atmosphere was a tangible bubble of bad mood.
Then we reached Preston. I remember Preston because the train suddenly became colder. This was my first awareness of being “on holiday”. It was snowing outside, and I began excitedly sending texts to friends and family relating that I was at Preston, and “guess what guys? It’s snowing!” The PA system decided to pack up here so I rapidly tried to recall how many stations lay in between Preston and Glasgow Central. There was a swift change of guard, and the new one was Scottish – so we truly were on the way to Glasgow!
Having survived Crewe, I was not overly anxious about Glasgow Central Station. I’m very glad, for this station dwarfed Crewe by far. It was like a micro-city, with swarms of passengers buzzing hither and thither. Thankfully the Assisted Travel was still up to the mark, as otherwise I would have disappeared into the underworld and never emerged again. In Glasgow Station I giggled like an over-excited kid – I was actually over the border, out of England, venturing into another country! My ears tuned into Scottish voices, some of which I could barely comprehend. I slid about in my own Englishness, for it felt totally inadequate in this environment. I so wanted to add a bit of Scot to my identity!
My third train was a relatively short journey from Glasgow Central to Gourock. By sheer coincidence I found that I was sitting opposite someone who was destined for the Murder Mystery Weekend in Dunoon. Trudy actually introduced us and hence made the discovery – in return for which I forgave her earlier food crime. The Snout has its uses.
Thus I reached my destination of Gourock Railway Station nearly seven and a half hours after leaving Hereford. The smoothness of the journey gave me untold confidence when it came to returning home three days later. Ironically this time I did miss the connection at Crewe which delayed my return to Hereford by over an hour. The event was almost an anti-climax and I smiled recalling the anxiety which had plagued me just a few days earlier. I can even whisper to the world that I think I now feel confident travelling by train. “If there’s a railway station,” I heard myself saying to someone a couple of days ago, “Trudy and I can get there”.
The second part of the Tartan Trilogy (in progress) will recount the Murder Mystery Weekend itself – tune in if you dare!
Standing still. Stopping. Preserving your energy. Feeling at peace. Feeling fear. Paralysed. Deep in thought. Stuck. Lost. Exhausted. Inhaling freedom. Taking stock. Musing. Listening. Planning. Having a break. Hiding. Waiting. Dying. Observing. Falling in love. Smiling. In pain. Breathing. Arresting. Inspired. Confused. Reflecting, Enraptured. Stunned. Intoxicated. Numb. At a loss. Wondering. Sniffing. Holding. Being held. Reaching safety. Panicking. Eating. Wounded. Grounded. Crying. Standing still.
Standing still is life and death. It sharpens our senses and calms our minds. It intensifies our emotions and shuts down our defenses. It is survival and capture. It is both passive and active. Standing still marks the beginning and the end. It involves feeling and thinking. It is when we take control but also when we give up. Standing still has a kaleidoscope of meanings.
Today I stood still and waited for a dog’s teeth to bite into my skin. It had iron legs and its breath was baking hot. I covered my head and stood still while it pranced around me growling and snapping. Its doorstop paws imprinted themselves on my chest. I was gripped by fear. Time stood still with me, but it was not my ally. I waited for the first stab of pain. I could hear my heart thumping in my ears and I smelt death.
But the dog did not bite me. In the end it scampered away, and I felt the comforting presence of Trudy by my side. My gentle Labrador brushed away my terror. I inhaled the biscuit-scent of her fur and sighed with relief. Slowly my panic subsided and I lowered my hand to stroke Trudy’s silk-purse ears. As I stood still she licked my fingers and the familiar roll of her tongue dispelled my remaining anxieties.
After a moment Trudy moved away to investigate something new. Although she was nearby and I could hear the jingling of her collar-bells, I was conscious of my vulnerability. Motionless, I listened for danger, and jumped as a group of people walked by calling their dog. I prepared myself for attack, but nothing happened. They greeted me warmly, so I smiled. We briefly exchanged doggy-talk which made me chuckle. Then Trudy came bounding back to me when she spied me retrieving a tit-bit from my pocket.
Minutes later I was alone again but this time I felt at peace. The strong breeze rushed through me refreshing my lungs and making me feel glad to be alive. Standing still I reflected upon my transformation. I seemed to have travelled along the spectrum of thoughts and emotions. Each of my senses had been stretched to the limit.
It could have turned out very differently. I cannot say whether my fear was justified but I know my head was clanging with danger claxons. In Life’s great scheme this was a minor event, yet it has made me even more conscious of my desperate fight for survival. Standing still has enabled me to consider just who I am and where I am heading. It has reminded me that I am human. I cannot control my fate, yet I can control my actions.
We amble back home through the tall stems of prickly grass, Trudy is usually munching weeds or thrusting her snout into the hedgerows. Before I put her back on harness we often stand for a few more minutes savouring our freedom. I turn my face towards the wind and feel it tussle my hair. I inhale its freshness and allow all my anxieties to melt into the air. They disperse like paper petals. Trudy has a final nose-dive and then drums her tail against my legs ready for the four-minute stroll home. I never leave the park with an ounce of stress or fear lingering. This magical place renews and invigorates me. It makes life seem even more precious, and I arrive home eager to make the most of everything I have.
It’s Guide Dogs Week 2011 (1st – 9th October). This has got to be one of my most active weeks this year! My volunteering for Guide dogs has taken on a slightly manic aspect. I find myself skipping breakfast and flying towards the bus stop with a grumbling Trudy who, like me, is not wired up to deal with early morning starts. As we sit panting on the bus Trudy’s noises of discontent gain her the sympathy of our fellow passengers. I smile haplessly and hope we won’t miss the stop, which is a frequent occurrence.
Luckily this week has been good so far as regards buses. No memorable food crimes have been committed by the hoovering hound, and nothing untoward has happened.
It’s a difficult time for fundraising. Spare cash is almost non-existent, so standing in a supermarket or Town centre with a collecting bucket is not as profitable as it was this time last year. Charities are all competing with each other for scraps from the master’s table. Some will inevitably not survive this barren period. But this does not make fundraising any less rewarding. For one thing, I am extremely fortunate having Trudy to help me.
When we are doing street collections we are not allowed to shake our buckets or ask people to donate money, so it can be quite disheartening watching a stream of people pass by seemingly oblivious to the fact that we are there. Trudy however, does not have to abide by any such rules. She locks onto the eye of a passer-by and draws that person towards me, begging him or her to donate to the cause. She rolls onto her back and folds her limbs in half just asking for her tummy to be tickled. Many people cannot walk by a prostrate Labrador who appears to be in the grip of sublime rapture. When Trudy does her fundraising roll (as I’ve dubbed it this week) my bucket sings with coins! Of course I explain to people that I have never trained Trudy to do this, but it is a fantastic fundraiser! Trudy laps up the compliments like a cabaret artist.
So although the totals are down, the rewards have not diminished. Bucket collections have always been characterised by fits and starts. Just as my legs start to go numb and my back aches to distraction I become immersed in conversation with a friendly person, and the coins clink into the bucket which is extremely invigorating. From somewhere, a new wave of energy emerges and I can finish my two-hour stint. (As I’m with Trudy, I’m only allowed to do two hours at a time – which is just as well, as Trudy’s head would become bald from all the patting and stroking).
As charities are being hit hard at the moment, it’s even more important to keep up a high public profile. It means working harder, but getting noticed increases your chances of raising funds. This is one of the many reasons I love being a Speaker for Guide dogs. Word of mouth is a very powerful fundraiser. I think it helps people to relate to Guide dogs the charity if they can see an actual Guide dog and listen to the personal experience of a Guide dog owner. Trudy loves being the centre of attention and as she’s such a vocal dog she usually makes the audience laugh at some point, which helps me no end!
For instance when I tell people that it costs approximately £49,000 to train and maintain each working Guide dog – Trudy often agrees with an expressive groan, as if to say “Because I’m worth it”. I’m so lucky to have such an ally. Trudy makes my talks real, and interrupts me which keeps them “live”. I never lose sight of the fact that if it wasn’t for Trudy, I would never have become a volunteer and a whole chunk of life would have been missed.
My quest is to raise funds for more Muttleys to be trained as Guide dogs, and as the charity receives no government funding I think I’m in for an awful lot of bucket collecting….
Guide dogs are adept at warding off gremlins, as I know from first-hand experience. The gremlin who inhabits my flat is often at his most peevish in the early hours of the morning. Trudy, whose criminal alias is The Hereford Hoover, is instantly awake the minute he pokes my eye to wake me up. She bounces out of her wicker basket which is adjacent to my bed, grabs one of my slippers and whacks the gremlin out of my day. It always works.
Even on the most drab and melancholy Monday mornings I can’t help chuckling at the gusto of my Guide dog. I usually attempt to get back to sleep, but the wagging rudder thumps incessantly to remind me that I owe her one for chasing away the gremlin. Once my arm is out of bed rolling up her Labrador ears into long tubes, sleep loses its appeal. So at the point when Trudy’s warm, wet tongue slides over my hand I invariably get up. Trudy is all fur and tail. She wraps her paws round my feet, sprinting off as I grope around for the slipper which is nearly always still in her mouth. I daren’t invoke the gremlin by checking the time – but it’s usually around 6 am by this point. I’m still half-dazed, only just aware of a hot-breathing hound baiting me with my own slipper. She pretends to lose interest, but each time I draw near she hares off again with her stolen booty. After much hiding and seeking, pleading and grumbling, I finally reclaim my slipper – damp and crumpled after its encounter with a Labrador.
Fighting gremlins probably isn’t in Trudy’s job description, yet she is an expert. She seems to sense when the insidious creature is lurking round the corner ready to ruin a morning or afternoon. Up goes her tail, beating rapidly to ward off the malevolent spirit. The climax of the ritual involves a complicated war-dance with Trudy wielding one of her toys above her head. Her current favourite is a massive pink turtle called Myrtle. Trudy won Myrtle at the Guide dog of the Year Awards and Myrtle is thankfully still intact with all her limbs attached. Whenever the gremlin is about to steal my smile, Trudy grabs Myrtle and flies towards me snorting and panting. Even if I’m not up for a tug of war game, Trudy charging towards me with Myrtle hanging out of her mouth is guaranteed to make me laugh Laughter is toxic to gremlins so my unwanted guest vanishes instantly. One of Myrtle’s bonus features is that her tummy makes rude noises when it’s held in a certain way. This feature has proved invaluable in the war against gremlins.
You may be wondering about these gremlins. I suspect there are many types and breeds skulking about in worldwide dwellings. But the character who sneaks around in my flat is particularly destructive. He tips over milk bottles, pokes me when I’m about to nod off in a chair, and sets off the smoke alarm when I’m really really hungry and just want a piece of toast….! He pervades my mind and needles under my skin if he’s not dealt with in time. Trudy will not tolerate him. If he slips a morsel of despair into my lunch box she will take it out and replace it with a chewed sock. I wouldn’t say it tastes much better, but it’s the thought that counts. Chewed socks, stolen receipts, the entire contents of my bag – they are all brought in dribs and drabs to cheer me up. One of the things I love about Labradors is that they never arrive on the scene empty-handed. Even though Trudy’s presents are usually recycled socks, scraps of paper or stolen items from my laundry basket they are still presents from her to me. The generosity of Labradors is unbeatable, and gremlins scarper at the sight of it.
Gremlins are intent on bringing gloom into your day, but Guide dogs are gremlin grabbers! I really came to understand this when I was separated from Trudy at the start of my radiotherapy treatment. After only two days without her I became aware that the nefarious gremlin inhabiting my flat had gathered a formidable army. I was utterly defeated and could not function. I did not even have any inclination to fight. I knew that I needed Trudy back, so back home she came. The moment she bounded through the door the gremlin legion lay down its arms and marched away. They have not returned en masse since.
I think that most dogs are capable of being gremlin chasers, but as I’ve never lived with a pet dog I can’t be sure. This got me thinking about stereotypes. The Guide dog stereotype is a noble, obedient,, long-suffering dog with almost no will of its own. As a Guide dog Trudy is exemplary, but thankfully she does not match the stereotype. She can be noble – even supercilious at times when she spies a misbehaving pet dog who should know better (according to the Laws of Hound). She can be obedient too when I really need her to be. But she is so stubborn there are times when a battle of wills determines the outcome of certain situations. We have stand-offs, sit-downs and strikes in the oddest and most inappropriate places. If Trudy had to wear a school tie she’d turn it inside out with the ends askew. I’d almost certainly catch her smoking behind the bike shed with a can of lager in her free paw. Yet she’d pass her exams and probably get into Oxford. She’s that kind of “told you so” dog.
It makes me smile when I explain to audiences about the matching process of Guide dogs. So much time and effort is put into matching the right dog with the right owner. How did Worcester Guide dogs know I’m stubborn, love food and prefer to do my own thing?! It concerns me that it might be obvious! Being matched with a Guide dog is a bit like registering with a dating agency. They pool your common denominators and mix up the rest, so at some point during your partnership you and your dog become one being. I think this is what makes Guide dogs experts at chasing away gremlins. Trudy knows before I do when something is amiss. This means that the lone gremlin who wakes me up in the early hours does not stand a chance. In fact I think Trudy is quite capable of chasing him away for good, but then I’d have a homeless gremlin on my conscience.
So next time you spy a Guide dog with a wagging tail and a glint of mischief in its eye, think of the gremlins it has probably chased away that day. If your smile lasts for at least four seconds any gremlins you know may take a hike at the same time…..