Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is a UK based charity training dogs that will quite literally lead people with sight loss to the path of freedom. The charity, founded in 1931, thrives as an expanding charity breeding around 1,300 puppies each year. The charity helps thousands of visually impaired people across the UK to live independent lives.
One such person who has reaped the benefits of this charity for an exceeding portion of his life is London based guide dog owner Dave Kent, aged 55, Dave currently works as the London Mobility Teams Community Engagement Officer. Dave began his guide dog journey when he qualified with his first guide dog Elma back in 1979 and is now currently partnered with his 8th guide dog Chad. Having a guide dog myself that goes by the name of Unity I recently met with Dave and his esteemed new canine partner. Dave proudly informs that Chad is getting of to a wonderful start in his new career and is utterly brimming with life. Indeed, my guide dog seemed to agree on their first meeting in the offices.
This driven, book loving, cheese loathing, city goer is one of the most vivacious and present guide dog owners currently known by the charity. Best known for his jovial Welsh accent, his uncanny ability to impersonate anyone, and his appearance in a previous Guide Dogs TV advert with his 7th guide dog and sidekick Quince, Dave has led a colourful life and has a long history in working with these dogs best known for sporting their neon yellow harnesses.
'I'm probably one of the longest Guide Dog Owners in Central London,' Says Dave.
Losing his sight due to a failed surgical procedure at the age of 19, Dave strived to live an independent life just as any other teenager would and with the help of his four-legged companion he was able to begin to rebuild his life again. Qualifying with his guide dog in his late teens, with the world at his feet, Dave claims that it immensely helped him to readjust to his new life with sight loss. So that he now is able to choose the way that he lives his life, use all modes of public transport and to enjoy everything that living in the thriving Metropolis of London has to offer.
'It allowed me to carry on living a seeing life, for me that meant getting around properly and with some finesse. As well as having this great looking and an amazingly talented dog. It healed a lot of what would have been gaping wounds and it was an integral part of me adjusting to my changing world.'
The transition from using a long cane to using a guide dog had a remarkable impact on Dave's confidence and led him to develop a profound love for travel and socialising with different people from all walks of life.
Having had 8 Guide Dog partnerships and working in an environment that is fully orientated around these four legged creatures, Dave has built up a catalogue of many memories that his guide dogs have forged the good, the bad, and the comical. One incident that Dave recalls, with one of his previous guide dogs as they sauntered down a busy street in London, his dog sharply turned him to the left and Dave subsequently realised that his dog was attempting to lead him into Specsavers. The irony of the situation was certainly not lost on him.
The world of disability can be an area that accumulates an excess amount of myths and misconceptions. Some may be acquainted with the likes of "do you sleep in your wheelchair?" or "if you are blind how can you apply make up." But in many ways these adorable fluffy creatures often attract some whopping great myths about their capabilities. Dave regularly encounters people on his travels that believe in numerous myths that surround his guide dog companions such as that guide dogs can allegedly read bus numbers, tidy his home, and select his outfits. For the most part Dave takes mostly humour from these passing's, but there are times on his journeys where these myths leave him scratching his head, brow furrowed, pondering how on earth people can come up with such an idea even in this current day and age.
'Sometimes I find it funny. But there are occasions when people seem to genuinely believe that they need to tell my guide dog the directions and that they will be able to listen, comprehend, and carry out these instructions as if they were a Sat Nav.'
Of course, Dave's guide dogs have not just served to guide him through the streets of London and given him a few chuckles on the way. For Dave his guide dogs have seen him through some of the more turbulent times in his life like the death of his mother and the passing of his former guide dogs from old age. He remarks that guide dogs often will go beyond the call of duty to help, support, and protect their owners who they will spend a great deal of time with every single day. His guide dogs in the past have often prevented him from numerous severe casualties such as collisions with cars and precarious obstacles which Dave himself says he would not have foreseen due to his sight loss.
'Guide dogs save lives every single day,' says Dave.
The life of a working guide dog can be very challenging; guiding their owners to their destinations and listening to commands, whilst avoiding dangers such as vehicles, pavement clutter, other pedestrians, and overhanging branches that threaten to hinder the safety of their owners. Often guide dogs are expected to work until they are around 8 years of age. Dave himself has faced many experiences where his guide dogs have been retired and he has been partnered with his new sidekick who is always young, bouncy and raring to take up the mantle of guide dog. Their cobalt blue harness is traded in for the neon yellow one that emblemises their status as a guide dog. But, this transition from old dog to new is something that Dave passionately believes should be approached with an open mind, especially where first time guide dog owners are concerned to avoid any major glitches to the start of the new partnership.
'You take the best of your old dog and you celebrate that. But you have to be fair to the other animal. It's a sentient being, an animal with an independent thought process. You have to encourage the dog to do what you want it to do with love and support. That is the way you crystallise a relationship with your guide dog.'
Amongst Dave's work as Community Engagement Officer in which he regularly visits schools, colleges, and institutions to raise awareness of Guide Dogs to the public in order to break down some of the barriers that surround disability. Dave is also an advocate of guide dog policies such as raising awareness that guide dogs are legally exempt from being banned from public places, which for him, is a constant battle that he faces both personally and professionally on a regular basis. Dave is keen to work with children from different backgrounds and cultures in order to promote disability in a positive manner to enable future generations to progress in the way disability is perceived. Dave speaks with a passion about his sight loss, his guide dogs, and his work. He remains to work in the London Mobility Team, just a phone call away from any concerned guide dog owners who have faced injustice. Partnered with his guide dog he remains determined to do the disability community justice, one step at a time. His driving aims remains to be to raise awareness of diversity and to prove that not just sight loss, but disability itself, is not a barrier to achieving your full potential in life.
'People are sceptical of blindness and fearful of it in many ways. So to have a guide dog it breaks the ice with a lot of people and allows you to make some magic to help to empower sighted people to be more aware of disability.'
Dave continues to work for and support the charity that has been a constant source of aid to him throughout his adult life. Despite such a long time with working with guide dogs Dave continues to marvel at these fluffy, brown eyed beings with each new partnership he encounters.
'I love how they are able to do their job and keep me safe for so little in return. I marvel at it, the entire DNA in my dog and their spirit, which seems to be bigger than the whole Universe and that for me is the best part of having a guide dog. The day I stop marvelling at what my guide dogs do will be the day I will hang up my harness.'
And you can follow Dave's adventure's by following him on twitter @chad_and_dave
Guide Dogs: http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/aboutus/guide-dogs-organisation/facts#.VUTX3UIQ7zI