AN INTERVIEW WITH A GUIDE DOG OWNERFetch talks to guide dog owner, Jade Sharp about her experiences
6th–14th October is Guide Dog Week – a time to recognise the life changing work that guide dogs do. To celebrate, our web trader, Megan Bloomfield asked her friend, Jade Sharp to share her personal experiences of owning a guide dog. This is what we found out.
MB: Jade, could you start by telling me a bit about yourself, about your guide dog, Brodie and how long you’ve had him for?
JS: Of course! My name’s Jade and I’m 25 years old. I’ve been registered blind since birth; I was born 15 weeks early and I have the eye condition ‘Retinopathy of Prematurity’. This means that due to being born so early, my lungs weren’t formed properly and the doctors had to give me lots of oxygen; however, they gave me too much and it damaged the back of my eyes. Now, I can see light and dark; I can tell if it’s daytime or night-time. Brodie is a Golden Retriever; he’ll be eight years old in December and I got him in August 2012.
MB: Is eight quite old for a guide dog?
JS: It depends. If they retire early, they sometimes retire at the age of eight; some guide dogs can work until they’re about ten – it depends on where and how often they’re working.
MB: How has Brodie helped you? What are you able to do with him that you weren’t able to do before?
JS: Brodie has given me so much confidence over the last six years! When I got him, I was at a residential college for the blind. After college, I lived in supported housing for the blind for a few years and for the last year, I’ve been living independently with him! We can get to our local convenience store up the road; we can get to the bus stop on the high street; and we can get to Richmond train station on the London Underground so that I can see friends all over the UK. Brodie’s really been incredible – the furthest we’ve been is Newcastle!
MB: Wow, he has indeed! Could you explain how you and Brodie learn new routes?
JS: With most of my routes, I go over them first with my cane and the assistance of my Guide Dog Trainer or a family member/friend with sight to suss out all the landmarks; then, I will teach Brodie the route. We’ll get Brodie to find the landmarks such as certain road crossings; when we get to them for the first time, I’ll give him a treat. He’s a good little worker, but he’s quite food-orientated, so if you give him a treat, he’ll think, “Ooh, I’ve got to stop at this landmark and cross Jade over the road!”. Then, we’ll turn around and walk back a few steps before reapproaching the landmark, and he’ll know exactly when to stop.
MB: Amazing! How do you and Brodie know when it’s safe to cross?
JS: A lot of the road crossings that we use have the tactile bumps on the floor so we know we’re at the edge of the road. We also use pelican crossings with the button that you press – most of the crossings will beep to let us know it’s safe to cross, but if they don’t, there’s a small cone underneath the control box which I feel out for and it spins when it’s time to cross over. Brodie will not give me a nudge to let me know when it’s time to cross; I have to make that decision. Brodie takes me to the edge of the road and, when it’s safe to cross, I’ll give him the command ‘forward’ and he will take me across. He will only stop me if something is approaching. Cars shouldn’t beep their horns to alert us it’s safe to cross, as me and Brodie will both take that as a warning and stay still. It’s better to wind down the window and tell us.
MB: It’s very much a partnership then! When you learned routes, what sort of treats did you give Brodie?
JS: Guide dogs are on a strict diet – it’s important that Brodie stays in shape so he can be active and do his job properly! Because of this, I took as many pieces from his dry food as there were landmarks I was learning out of his daily allowance, and gave him one piece at each landmark.
MB: What should people do if they see you and Brodie walking down the street?
JS: When me and Brodie are walking, he will have his yellow Guide Dogs harness on that says, ‘Please don’t distract me – I’m a working guide dog!’ Unfortunately, a lot of people distract him anyway, but it’s not good for me because Brodie’s going to be focusing on the attention he’s getting off people instead of helping me get to where I need to go safely. When a member of the public sees a dog with a working harness on, it’s always good to approach and speak to the owner rather than just stroking the dog without asking. Every guide dog owner is different – there are some who are very strict and don’t allow contact from anyone when the harness is on.
MB: Yeah, it’s happened a few times when we’ve been out together. So, is Brodie allowed to go anywhere in public with you?
JS: He is allowed anywhere; however, we have had a few access refusals. We’ve been refused in a few restaurants; I think a lot of staff aren’t being made aware of guide dogs or haven’t had the proper training. The worst problem is taxis – the amount of times I’ve booked a taxi through a mobile app and I’ve phoned the driver to give them a heads up that I have a guide dog travelling with me for them to just hear the word ‘dog’, refuse to take us, and cancel the trip. In the last few years, my family and I have taken ten drivers to court for refusing me and Brodie because what they’re doing is illegal under the Equality Act 2010. Eight out of the ten drivers were found guilty and had to pay fines between £300 and £1,500.
MB: Wow. It’s awful you’ve had to go through that, but hopefully it helps raise awareness for other guide dog users! So, to change the subject a little, what is it like having Brodie at home?
JS: You do have to be a bit stricter with him than a traditional pet dog – the sofa and the bed are my space and the floor is Brodie’s space! I always make time for him when we’re at home because it’s important to keep him active and have bonding time. He has a tug-of-war-type rope toy as well as a number of squeaky toys. I also live quite local to my mum and dad and so we’ll take Brodie to a local park and give him what Guide Dogs call a ‘free run’. This means that he’s not working and he’s off his lead and harness. Exercise is important – guide dogs are not robots!
MB: It’s important for them to get that work/life balance that we all need then! What will happen when Brodie retires?
JS: When a guide dog retires, the owner gets given a few options. Guide Dogs will get in touch and let you know you can keep the dog in the family; or, if you don’t have anyone to look after them, they can help to rehome him/her. In my case, we’ve always said that mum and dad will have Brodie because he’ll have been a part of the family for eight years by then and I couldn’t lose that bond with him! I’d like to get another guide dog after that, but it’s a long process. I’ll be put on a priority waiting list because I’ll be without a guide dog and I’ll be reassessed; Guide Dogs will find out which local routes I’m doing and if I get accepted and they find me a match, I’ll stay at a hotel in London for two weeks’ training with my new dog.
MB: Final question, how do Guide Dogs match you and the dog?
JS: When they find me a potential match, they will bring the dog to me and we’ll do a local route that I already know. They’ll see how fast I walk and they also look at character traits – if you’re quite a loud, outgoing person, they’ll give you a cheeky dog with a personality; if you’re quite laid back and not too fast of a walker, they’ll give you a laid back, chilled out dog. It’s a very fine process that they have to go through for matching you; it’s not simple.
MB: It sounds like they have to match the right dog to the right person! Thank you ever so much for discussing your experiences with me today, Jade. It’s been very eye-opening!