Several years ago – far more than it actually feels, to be honest – I had a dog, and like all good dog-owners I would walk him twice-daily on a nearby park. Although a relatively modest green space compared to some of the more expansive oases the bigger cities can boast, fellow dog-walkers were nevertheless in abundance; long-lasting friendships were formed with some, whilst others only existed as genial acquaintances within the context of that small albeit largely friendly community. One of these was a blind girl who I routinely used to encounter on there as she strolled around the circuit with her guide dog. Initially, as with many confronted by a sightless person when not necessarily accustomed to them, I tended to be very conscious of her condition and tried not to put my foot in it. Of course, the more one attempts to do so, the more the likelihood of ‘mentioning the War’. I can remember walking round with her on one early occasion and the subject of a TV show came up; I aired my opinion of it and she said she hadn’t seen it yet. I then thought, ‘Shit – obviously, you haven’t seen it; you’re blind’. As my stupid head was trying to work out how someone deprived of vision ‘watches’ a television programme, my mouth did its best to change the subject.
A little later on, when I’d changed my address, I discovered the same girl was now a neighbour of mine and we’d often bump into each other – not literally, I must stress – when venturing outdoors. By this time, the fact she was blind had lost its ‘novelty value’ (for want of a better description) and it wasn’t an awkward obstacle to being at ease in her company anymore. I got used to announcing myself whenever our paths crossed and then we’d simply converse. So used had I become to seeing her with her guide dog, the first time I saw her on her own without her canine companion, I naturally inquired where the dog was; she informed me he’d been retired. This was something I’d never even considered. Yes, it may appear to be obvious that a guide dog can’t retain its sharpness as it ages and will eventually have to call it a day for fear that its diminishing ability to do its job may pose a danger to its owner, for whom it acts as surrogate eyes. But it’s one of those factors that distinguish working dogs from mere pets that ordinary pet-owners tend not to think about; most of us have our dogs until they pass away, and that kind of parting is hard enough; we don’t even think about guide dogs that retire and leave their owners whilst still in the land of the living.
During its golden age, ‘Blue Peter’ would regularly provide an introduction to the world of the guide dog by following the progress of a chosen puppy that – in time-honoured tradition – viewers were invited to name. Said pup would be shown receiving training from one of the programme’s presenters (usually Peter Purves) and the climax of this ongoing narrative spread over several months would be the eventual placing of the dog with someone in need of its acquired skills. I guess unless we have a friend or a family member who happens to be sightless, most of us only ever come across guide dogs on streets or in supermarkets and rarely take time out to ponder on what a invaluable lifeline they are to their human companions – and how their working status means the years doing the job is something they can’t simply forget when they’re too old to keep doing it; retirement is thrust upon them and there has to be a parting of the ways within the partnership that must be upsetting for both.
I was reminded of this when hearing a story of the blind BBC correspondent Sean Dilley, who appeared on the ‘Today’ programme describing his feelings about his 10-year-old guide dog Sammy, whose dreaded day of retirement after eight years’ sterling service had arrived. Dilley invited a film crew to record the pair’s last working walk together in order to illustrate the hard reality of having to say goodbye to his most vital companion. Dilley described a farewell unique to guide dog-owners and spoke from the heart. ‘We (the blind) lose our dogs twice,’ he said. ‘We lose them when they hang up the harness and we lose them when they pass on. And we know that’s the reality, and so when we sign up to train with our dogs we know that one day, this day is coming.’ Sean Dilley was born with congenital blindness and the poor partial sight he had was gone by the time he reached the age of 14; what he describes as his ‘guide dog journey’ began when he was 16. Sammy had predecessors, though emotional bonds have deep roots after eight years, and Dilley clearly felt the pain of this latest parting as acutely as he no doubt felt about the others. ‘The last walk anybody does with their guide dog is poignant,’ he said, ‘and a thousand emotions of sadness really go through your mind. Like the rest of us, a dog has a working life and they would come to a point where they slow down…I don’t think the words actually exist to express the gratitude I have for Sammy and my mobility…when Sammy leaves me it will leave a huge hole in my heart.’
However, like hundreds of other guide dog-owners having to retire their dogs in the UK, Sean Dilley now faces up to two years of getting by without a replacement. Thanks to Covid, guide dog partnerships have dropped from 5,000 to 4,000, leaving those in need of the service somewhat in the lurch. As with so many necessities for so many people during a period when all resources were diverted into tackling the coronavirus (or were diverted into the pockets of the despicable opportunists who profited from the pandemic), puppy breeding of future guide dogs was placed on ice in 2020 and ’21 as a means of ensuring ‘volunteer and staff safety’. Sean Dilley is currently receiving training in becoming more adept at walking about with just a cane as a guide. ‘A dog is not for everybody,’ he said, ‘but for me it means I can live the life I want to live and have the independence I need to have. I trust Sammy with my life and he trusts his with mine, and what we have is a partnership beyond any words that exist.’
Interestingly, this sad story isn’t the first time the non-working life of Sean Dilley has ended up as a news item. Sammy the dependable dog had been alongside the BBC correspondent when his body-cam captured the moment just six months ago when the pair of them strolled into two London Tesco stores and were informed dogs were not allowed in the shop. At the time Dilley commented, ‘For somebody to say that I cannot come into a shop, or that I have to leave because of a guide dog in 2022, it just feels the north side of unacceptable to me.’ Tesco swiftly issued a grovelling apology when their ignorance of the law was publicised, though research by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association revealed 75% of guide dog-owners have endured a similar experience, with 20% of these coming in supermarkets. Those of us for whom guide dogs have always been a familiar sight in shops – indeed for many years it has been a perceived privilege unique to them – will be surprised at these findings as well as the fact there is no specific law in the UK that prevents dogs, working or otherwise, from entering shops. However, guide dogs are exempt from rules by businesses banning dogs, something one would imagine Mr Tesco would’ve informed his staff about.
A friend of mine who happens to be the sole survivor of those twice-daily visits to the aforementioned park that I’m still in touch with had a dog of her own at the time; this dog was gifted with remarkable road sense and was generally an exemplary model of good behaviour. The one curious exception was the dog’s dislike of guide dogs, which she would always bark at. We used to joke that the dog imagined working breeds were somehow letting the side down by being so bloody perfect and setting an example that the humble canine pets could never compete with – like a dog’s equivalent of the character criticised and envied in The Undertones’ ‘My Perfect Cousin’. Whether or not that was the case, it’s undeniable that the service guide dogs provide is indeed a special one and one that it’s so easy to take for granted by those with the gift of sight.
© The Editor