Meet Zym. I’ve had him for just over a year. I went in the first place to a guide dog presentation session about 18 months before, so you can tell that the application process is quite prolonged and complicated. Things did not all go well for me during that assessment phase, so I was thrilled to hear that I had at last been accepted on to the waiting list.
Zym is a three-year-old yellow Labrador/Golden Retriever cross, with the friendly characteristics of the Lab and the stubbornness and cheekiness of the Retriever. This seems to be the commonest breed used for guide dogs in the Unite Kingdom, though there are some German Shepherds and, for those with particular allergies, standard poodles.
Zym has characteristics white canes and high-tech gizmos don’t have, and the most important of these are that he’s smart. On his first visit, we walked around the block, and at the end he sat down firmly in front of my house. He’d never visited my house, and we didn’t start the walk from there, so what on earth was going on in that doggy brain?
When we went inside, he laid down looking at me, and later put his paws on my arm and started licking me. He wasn’t mine yet, but I was quite satisfied that he was the one for me. A few weeks later, he moved in, and life has not been the same since!
At the simplest, a guide dog goes from point A straight to point B, avoiding any obstacles at point C that might pose a problem for the dog and handler. So say I’m starting from my house, he goes to the nearest kerb and sits. Then I tell him left or right and he walks to the next kerb and stops. You command the dog with three things; voice, hand signal, and body position. For example, to turn right, I’d step back a little way to clear a space, wave my right arm to the right, and say “Right!”. As time goes on, I don’t need all three, but that’s the official version.
In the early days, I had to stick to routes the trainers had shown me, and it was very frustrating to stick to those same old streets. This is because of insurance, evidently. Then, when we graduated, I could go anywhere in the world, and I started to explore all sorts of places.
After I had been using a white cane, Zym was a real liberation! For a start, I could walk at what had at one time been my normal speed, which is fairly fast. I didn’t need to worry about bumping into things, because he almost always avoided the things. Once, however, he did walk me into some sort of pole on the pavement, and I made him go back and try again. When we got to the pole, I tapped it several times and said, “Look!”, which he did. He hasn’t walked me into it since then.
From these simple beginnings, I’ve recently taken him through shopping malls, which I find hard to navigate at the best of times, the chemist’s, the doctor’s, and several supermarkets. And my wife’s funeral. I’ve walked to the city centre and back several times, a distance of 8 miles or so. And of course there has to be playtime, too, so we’ve done our fair share of open spaces and parks.
A guide dog isn’t for everyone, I know. It can be hard work. He must be fed, groomed, exercised every day, come rain or shine, sickness or health. Sometimes I don’t feel much like going out in the rain yet again, and sometimes Zym doesn’t. Believe me, he has his off days, just as I do. Mostly, though, he’s very keen, and the more difficult his work is, the more he seems to like it. His tail goes up, and he’ll look me in the face as if to say, “I did a good job there, didn’t I?”. And he gets plenty of encouragement and fuss, even the occasional food treat.
What you get for your hard work with a guide dog is it’s unconditional love and loyalty, and a way to get across the roads safely. The dog will almost always keep yu safe, and will not obey you if you try to make a dangerous move. If there is a vehicle you haven’t noticed coming your way, it will stop and dig its claws in. If something is blocking the pavement, I say, “find the way”, and Zym will usually find the safest way through, if there is one.
If you want to see Zym in action, there are some slideshows on my YouTube channel. Some of my own favourites are:
I don’t have children of my own, my wife has passed on, and my brother lives about a hundred miles away. Zym is my family now, and we do quite nicely together.