Celebrating International Guide Dogs Day – Part 2
Listening to Henry Macphillamy’s experiences with his first guide dog, Billy, prompted fond memories of my first public walk in 2000 with my guide dog, Nev. The team work required between pilot and navigator is not as easy as one might think. To any onlooker, the interaction of a handler and their guide dog can appear casual and confident; the reality for me, however, was a total contrast in our early training days. Keeping Nev moving smoothly through a chaotic world took much trust, courage and good humour: Praise him, praise him and don’t panic was my motto.
Hold on – we’re going paw-wheel driving, destination Unknown.
The big day came when we climbed aboard the Guide Dog minibus. Five obedient dogs, five anxious handlers and two confident trainers all set off for a secret destination to carry out our first ‘real’ walk in public. A burst of giggles then silence swept through the bus, our loyal dogs quietly lying by our feet. The engine whirred down a few gears to a complete halt and the trainers briefed us on what was expected next. I felt like someone waiting in the back of a sky divers’ plane about to jump out into the vast unknown. The sliding door opened and a trainer announced the first ‘victim’.
‘Jonathon.’ Our trainer spoke confidently. Jonathon would be fine, he was the pro in our group training with his second guide dog. I sat back into the vinyl seat, my hands straying over Nev’s coat. My canine companion looked up at me as my trembling fingers toyed with his velvety ears like holding onto a comforting teddy bear.
A few minutes later, the sliding door opened again. ‘Are you ready, Maribel and Nev.’
Nev sprang to his feet, bouncing towards the door as he guided me down the two steps. Once on the footpath, I tried to organise my guide dog to take up position on my left. Nev fidgeted as I untangled the leash from around his front legs, my fingers fumbling with twisted leather, with a hot doggy-tongue licking my flushed ear.
‘Ready?’ Peter asked. Nev and I continued in a nervous dance on the pavement. ‘Sometime today would be good,’ he added, arms crossed, amused by our comic capers. I took a deep breath and nodded. This was it.
My task was to walk with my guide dog through the local shops of Fairfield to the end of High Street without colliding with any objects along the way. Peter would follow behind at a distance in case we got into any unexpected difficulties.
Moment of truth – trusting my guide dog completely
‘Forward, Nev, find the way.’
Nev lunged forward skipping first gear. I felt his body swerve to the left and my feet followed suit. We cruised past curious stares and a hushed silence fell on the street. A rush of heat burned into my palms trying to keep a firm but calm grip on the harness as we stayed in perfect step in the spotlight of our first public performance.
Swerving this way and that, we glided as one past every obstacle on the street.
‘Good boy. Find the way.’ I encouraged my pilot keeping verbal commands clear. A thin ripple of a smile broke free on my tense face. Everything seemed lighter, easier, as I stayed close on the heels of my guide dog.
An unexpected feeling of playfulness put a lighter spring in my step, Nev and I continued our effortless flight down the street. He really knew what he was doing.
Nev walked a few inches ahead, my shoulders letting go of tension as I adjusted my moves to follow his. He showed such grace and skill! Emotions swelled within me as I could hardly believe we were trotting together in effortless harmony and passing with flying colours!
As Nev pulled up by the end of the kerb, he threw me a glance as if to say, ‘We’re here.’ I bent down on one knee, buried my quivering lips into his soft coat and burst into tears, whispering, ‘My dear Nevvie. We did it.’
Peter sprinted to our side. ‘What happened?’
I stood up slowly, wiping away the moisture from my eyes,
Peter sounded completely confused. ‘Why are you crying then?’
Overwhelmed, I spluttered, ‘I can’t believe Nev just did all that for me. I’m so proud of him.’
My trainer’s voice lightened. ‘Oh, good grief, Maribel, is that all?’ He touched my shoulder and laughed, ‘That’s what he’s trained to do as your guide dog. That’s his job.’
“Congratulations! Today is your day,
You’re off to great places, you’re off and away!
You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself any direction you choose
You’re on your own – and you know what you know
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go
On and on you will hike, and I know you’ll hike far
And face up to your problems, whatever they are
You’ll get mixed up of course, as you already know
You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go
So be sure when you step, step with care and great tact
And remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act,
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft,
And never mix up your right foot with your left.”
Now it was time to go home, back to our real world, back to re-establishing the hierarchy between the warring teenagers who had no idea their mother had renewed confidence – as the ‘alpha-male’ in our pack.
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© 2013 Maribel Steel