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