It's barely the end of January and already, 2017 is proving to be a brilliant year. Why? Because I've been partnered with a wonderful yellow labrador called Oscar. Before that, I hadn't left my home on my own since I lost my sight completely eight years ago.
When Dave, my Guide Dog Mobility Instructor, called to say that they thought they'd found a guide dog for me, I can't describe the feeling. On our first meeting, Oscar and I took to each other straight away. He'll be two next month and while he's quite a playful character, when I put his harness on he gets straight to work.
Here's the moment I met Oscar for the very first time. That's Dave ringing my doorbell and introducing me to Oscar on my doorstep.
My first trip out on my own with Oscar made me feel elated, it was just magic. Before, I couldn't walk to my front gate without my wife, Elaine; even my back garden was off limits if I was alone, as I couldn't find my way back to the house. Now, Oscar and I trot down the three steps from the front door and off we go.
Here's a short video of our first ever training session together. In case you can't see it, it's footage from a camera which was strapped to my chest. Dave gives me some instructions on how to hold the lead and harness handle, then I take my very first walk along a pavement with Oscar in his harness.
So far we've mastered the route to my daughter's home, about a 10-minute walk away, and to the local shop, which takes about 20 minutes. It seems like such a small thing, but being able to pop out for a loaf of bread was one of the things I dreamed about doing when I applied for a guide dog. I used to do it all the time for Elaine when I had sight. It was something I just took for granted.
Since I went blind, I was afraid to wait alone outside shops while Elaine was inside browsing. I'd be sensitive to any little noise, worried someone was going to start some trouble with me. Now my fear has gone, especially as Oscar is so protective of me. We were in front of a shop the other day and a random man came up close to my face and simply said: 'I miss my dog'. Even though he was harmless, Oscar curled himself around my legs between me and the man.
Oscar's already firmly part of the family. In fact, Elaine says that having him in our lives is "like having another son"! The first time Oscar and I left the house together without her, she found it quite emotional and uplifting, though now she welcomes our trips out as a chance to get jobs done round the house! She's seen what Oscar has done for my confidence and she's noticed that I'm happier in myself.
Oscar's so sweet. He has a white soft toy seal, which he's had since he was six weeks old, and he takes it up to bed with him at night and brings it down again in the morning. When I'm emptying our tumble dryer, Oscar will poke his head inside the drum because he thinks that Elaine has washed the seal! But my back garden is no longer off limits - the dryer's in the garage at the end, and Oscar guides me there and back.
In the short time I've had Oscar, he's reminded me that there's a whole world out there. But he's done even more than that - he's made me feel like I have a future in it. Put simply, I feel like I've got my life back. I was one of the 180,000 people with sight loss in the UK who rarely or never leave home alone. The charity Guide Dogs exists to help solve this problem, and I couldn't thank them enough for the wonderful guide dog they have found for me.