As in many households, Emma Free's Golden Retriever, Jazz is an important member of the family. The four-year-old dog is no ordinary family pet though. She also serves as Emma's eyes. Earlier this month her dedicated service was recognised when she was named Guide Dog of the Year.
Emma has almost totally lost her sight due to a progressive condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa. Two and a half years ago she was given Jazz after realising she could no longer safely care for her two sons, Luke, now eight and Owen, six, without help.
"Jazz has not just changed my life, she has given me a life," says Emma, 32, from Ipswich. "I was using a cane to get around but my sight was getting worse all the time. I would drop Owen off at nursery and then panic about how I was going to get home.
"I realised my children were having to act as my carers and I wanted them to have their childhood back. I couldn't ever just take them to the park or anything without relying on other people. I wanted independence and freedom for the boys' sake really.
"I also needed to be sure they were safe when we were out. Once it was no longer just me I really had to accept my prognosis and do something."
Just how crucially important this support can be for a visually impaired person was brought shockingly home to Emma earlier this year.
Emma and her sons were on their way to a doctor's appointment and, coming to a road, they stopped as usual at the pedestrian crossing. Luke was standing just in front of Emma, who was holding Owen's hand. Suddenly Jazz yanked Emma and Owen back. Realising something must be wrong, Emma yelled for Luke who also jumped back.
"Seconds later a lorry sped round the corner and mounted the kerb exactly where we had been standing," recalls Emma. "If it weren't for Jazz I don't think my children and I would be here today."
As soon as Jazz pulled her back, says Emma, she knew something must be wrong, but without being able to see she had no idea what or where the danger was. "I just knew I could trust her with mine and my children's lives so I wouldn't hesitate to follow her."
As well as very careful training, the connection between owner and dog is crucial, says Emma. "I love Jazz like a third child, and she loves me completely. She is always on guard for me and children and I feel safe with her. That bond and partnership is so important."
Emma is also delighted that her sons and husband John also have such a happy relationship with Jazz. "Having a guide dog isn't the same as a normal pet. The boys can't just give her treats all the time and there are certain rules – like not letting her snuggle up on the sofa – which are important so she cannot get confused when she has the harness on and is working.
"When she is off duty she is our pet though. She loves to hare round the garden with the boys when they get in from school. She is a typical dog really."
Having Jazz around has also helped the boys – six-year-old Owen in particular – understand Emma's condition. "Before we had Jazz, Owen couldn't really grasp that I couldn't see. Now seeing what Jazz does for me helps him learn which things are difficult for me. It is also great at school as everyone knows Jazz and is interested. I feel like more than just 'the blind mum'."
While Emma still finds it difficult to accept some elements of her condition, she wants to focus on the positives. "I can't see my children. I wouldn't recognise them and I can't look at photos of them. That is still heart-breaking," she says.
"You have to make other ways to connect though and that can be amazing. My boys and I talk all the time and that brings you very close together."
When Luke's teacher recently praised his very advanced literacy skills, they told Emma they suspect his impressive vocabulary and language are down to describing things in detail for his mum. "He is brilliant at sharing things with me, telling me all about them."
"I am so proud of both the boys and of Jazz," concludes Emma. "Having her around has finally allowed us to be a normal family."
For more details about guide dogs see www.guidedogs.org.uk.
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