Hanging Up The Harness

Trudy's harness 2008 - 2013

Trudy’s harness 2008 – 2013

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.

Goodrich Castle 2011

Goodrich Castle 2011

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.

The fantastic Fownhope Cubs 2012

The fantastic Fownhope Cubs 2012

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.  IMG_3627There 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 testing the water at Teignmouth, Devon

Trudy testing the water at Teignmouth, Devon

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.

IMG_3606

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!)

In the River Wye

In the River Wye

Go Walkies Fundraiser 2012

Go Walkies Fundraiser 2012

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.  IMG_3621

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.

Diamond Day 2012 (notice the approaching snout...)

Diamond Day 2012 (notice the approaching snout…)

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.IMG_3596

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.

Running through thawing snow in Queenswood Arboritum

Running through thawing snow in Queenswood Arboritum

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.

The Viewpoint, Aylestone Park

The Viewpoint, Aylestone Park

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.IMG_3613

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

IMG_3617struggle 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.

Sock Thief (Not yet rehabilitated)

Sock Thief (Not yet rehabilitated)

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.

Pawprints in the sand

Paw prints in the sand

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”.

Crafty Smile

Crafty Smile

Trudy mesmorised by Ghosty the Morrisman

Trudy mesmorised by Ghosty the Morris-man

Overseeing the excavation at Studmarsh, 2012

Overseeing the excavation at Studmarsh, 2012

Fundraising at Tesco 2012
Fundraising at Tesco 2012

To find out more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, please click here: http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/scarlett3/?gclid=CI_KgorL9bcCFfLHtAodYyYAqw

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Retreat of The Black Dog

I have so much to write about in Clairetrude’s Corner.  Some people may be wondering whether I made it to Scotland, or indeed, if I have returned.

Well here I am, in my Hereford den, poised to relate my adventures.  But the black dog has sought to hound me yet again, and that is why my WordPress Tartan Trilogy is still wrapped in its box in my cerebral attic.

I have stolen the black dog metaphor from Winston Churchill because I cannot produce a better one.  The hound appears from nowhere, hungry for your soul, thirsty for your life-blood.  When you wake up and espy the beast lying at your bedside you cannot escape from him.  Loyal as any hound, he follows you wherever you go, and finds his way into the core of your being.  In many ways you become the black dog which is haunting you. 

Shortly after my return from Scotland I learned that my grandmother had died.  I thought that I was coping fairly well with my grief until the black dog bit my ankles and brought me down.  Once I was on the ground with his hot breath pumping into my face, I could not get up again. 

Over time I have learned that the black dog is not something to fight.  He is stronger than I am, and could kill me with one snap of his jaws.  Whenever I feel those iron jaws upon me, despite my instinct to fight him off I must reach out to caress and soothe him.  As my fingers plunge into his black fur I know that I have to accept this unwelcome visitor.  For an unspecified period I will be sharing my life with him – a semi-feral beast who would not be averse to eating me for dinner.  If I allow him to stay and treat him with wary respect, I have a better chance of staying alive.  For being no ordinary hound, eventually he will tire of me and wander away.  The black dog likes to wander. 

As I write, the black hound still lurks nearby but he appears to be retreating.  As soon as I feel some space between the beast and myself I crawl onto my knees and examine my wounds.  The bites have been severe this time, but they are not fatal. 

I know that as soon as I regain some inner-strength and optimism he will slide away into the shadows.  When I become master of myself, I am master of him also.

So the Tartan Trilogy may well appear fairly soon if the black dog continues his retreat.  But right now he is still skulking between me and my mental archives, and I do not wish to lose my fingers.

Monday Melancholy Is On The Dole

 Monday – it always brings a flavour of melancholy as it peeps through the bedroom curtains.  Today’s Monday emptied an entire dessert spoon of gloom into my morning coffee.

I had to get up earlier than usual – never a great start to the day.  Trudy got up too, wondering if breakfast was going to be extra early.  After some tense anticipation she grumbled and slumped into her day-bed in the lounge.  How I envied her, lying curled up in all that fur just waiting for breakfast to be served.   

An engineer from the Housing Association was supposed to be coming to fix my shower which is slowly detaching itself from the bathroom wall.  So while it was still dark outside and the birds were feebly trying out their vocal chords, I was polishing taps and shower fixings, and almost got to the point of cleaning the floor.  But procrastination filed away that noble idea before it had time to flourish. 

I was told the engineer would arrive  “AM”.  According to the Tenancy Handbook, that can be any time between 7am and 1pm.  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited even more until AM turned to PM.  No engineer!   When I phoned to ask what was afoot, I was given no explanation, just an apology and a re-scheduled appointment for tomorrow morning.  The waste of an entire morning and the likelihood of a repeat performance tomorrow fuelled my Monday melancholy into despair. 

But today is one of those cold days with an icy sun baring its bald head in the sky.  So I decided to take Trudy to the park to give her a free run and to give me a blast of cold January air.  Even before I had reached the metal gate at the park entrance my spirits had risen in line with the sun.  The sharp breeze was flushing out my lungs and giving them new life.  I gulped like a goldfish to take in as much air as possible. 

Standing still in the open field which spans the bottom of the park, I felt invigorated.   Monday melancholy was insignificant here.  She began to lose her power and before long I could no longer sense her shadow.  Trudy was tucking into an earthy molehill, her back-end was vertical and her collar-bells were clinking rather than ringing.  When I whistled her she was reluctant to come, but eventually the prospect of a titbit was more alluring than a mound of earth and she bounced towards me with her ears flapping.

Within seconds she was off again, investigating some new scents which she had not noticed before.  If only I could learn from my Labrador and live for the moment.  No anxieties about the long-term future, no regrets about the past, just the here and now.  Something about Aylestone Park in Hereford always brings me back to the here and now.  There’s a magic in this park that stills Time, calms the spirit and frees the soul.

Minutes later Trudy came brushing by in the hope of another titbit.  I ruffled her fur, it was damp and smelt of winter grass.  Her wagging tail thumped against my legs and I counted the beats – one, two, three, four.  It was like a slow drum-roll at the start of a dance.  While we stood there together the ice on the sun began to thaw and I felt a warm glow drizzling over my shoulders.  I realised that I was truly happy.

When Trudy and I ventured home we were both transformed.  Trudy was tired and slow, and could only manage a very slight wag with the tip of her tail.  I was at peace and ready to start my Monday afresh, even though it was half past two in the afternoon.

As I write this, Monday has ebbed into the early hours of Tuesday.  Trudy is stretched out on her bed lost in Labrador dreams.  Before I start to slide into my own dream-world,  I thank God that I am alive.   

I Love Aylestone Park

There is a park in Hereford which is four minutes walk away from my flat.  This park comprises two large fields/meadows, a canal, an orchard and a gravel path which snakes its way round in an irregular loop.  The trees are fairly sparse so it always feels breezy, and on a day like today there is a good chance that hat-wearers would go home hatless.  Over the past few months I have become indebted to this open space known as Aylestone Park.  As I feel the wind seize my hair by its roots and flutter against my face I can’t help feeling moved, for I am in no doubt that I am in the presence of something beyond words.   This presence stirs, and seems to manifest itself in the tumbling wind.  When I stand still in Aylestone Park I feel bonded to nature, I feel humbled by the elements, I feel mortal, I feel free.
Simply by rooting myself to the ground I am reassured.   The earth still breathes and moves beneath me but my feet are still.  My mishmash of worries becomes lighter, and my restless spirit starts to calm.   Hope revives herself within me.  I love this park because it has not been unduly tampered with.  There are no landscaped flowerbeds and no ornamental ponds guarded by stone goddesses.  Humans have their rightful place, as does the long grass, and the scuttling mammals.  Dogs bound everywhere, sniffing out the mole hills and splashing in the canal.  Some people find Aylestone Park “boring” because it is themeless and its only “facility” is a large car park.  But to me this park is freedom itself.  Just planting myself in the lower field and allowing the wind to absorb me breaks open the ties which bind my spirit.  I feel so fortunate to have such freedom.
Trudy my Guide dog adores this park.  It gives her freedom too, as here is where she sheds her harness and tears around being a Labrador.  This time of year she goes scrumping in the orchard and I’m often showered with leaves as her snout sends them flying into the air.  All I can hear is the rustling of twigs and leaves as Trudy pursues the myriad scents which arouse her snout.  She befriends two or three pet dogs every time we visit, and eagerly joins in their games.  If I take her to the canal she throws herself into the brown-blue water and doggy-paddles back to me snorting like a pig.  The snorting is even louder if she’s carrying something in her mouth, and little jets of water spurt out of her nostrils.  Sometimes a regular group of dog-walkers whom I’ve nicknamed “the Labrador Convention” arrives at the canal and Trudy mingles with the black, yellow and chocolate Labradors teasing and chasing them.  She steals their frisbees and dives in after their treats.  She is in Labrador paradise.  When it’s time to go Trudy pretends not to hear the whistle and I have to use all my cunning and skill to lure her back to me.  Even with her smelly water-logged fur I am relieved when she comes lolloping back.

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.