Northern Ireland

The long wait facing guide dog users

Guide dogs standing next to a charity box Image copyright Guide Dogs for the Blind
Image caption There are more than 1,400 guide dogs trained in the UK each year

"For me to walk down the centre of my village with a cane would be an Olympic event. But to do that with a dog is totally safe. The dog is trained."

For the past two years, Eddie Warke has been on the waiting list for a guide dog.

Since his dog Creighton retired on medical grounds in March 2017, Mr Warke - a 52-year-old who lives in Dundonald - has had to go back to using a cane.

Guide dog owners in the UK face an average wait of almost a year between their guide dog retiring and receiving a new dog.

While more than 1,400 dogs are trained in the UK each year, it is more than just a numbers game - and the process of matching an owner with a dog is a delicate one.

"When you get the dog, you step up the ladder in terms of more independence," says Mr Warke, a national account manager for manufacturer Swift Fine Foods.

"The reassurance that it gives you, and the confidence that it gives you."

Matching a dog

With owners having their guide dogs for about eight years, a lot goes into the matching process.

"We are continually putting measures in place, and I would say the waiting time is one of our biggest priorities," explains Andrew Murdock, policy and engagement manager with Guide Dogs NI.

"Depending on the person, how old they are, how fast they walk, their temperament - these things all go into it.

"Some dogs will be tall, some will be small. In the matching process, they look at the physical control someone has."

Even something like voice intonation can be a significant factor in successfully placing a guide dog, says Mr Murdock.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Matching a guide dog can depend on age, a person's walking speed, temperament, and even voice intonation

"If someone is working in an office, they need a dog who is relaxed and doesn't mind lying down, that is something else which would be considered," he adds.

Concentration

Eddie Warke's dog Creighton, which he had for two years, was retired when he became too unsettled to work.

"He was such a beautiful dog, he was a long-haired black retriever with salmon eyes, and these used to just melt people," recalls Mr Warke.

Image copyright Eddie Warke
Image caption Eddie Warke had his dog Creighton for two years

Describing navigating with a dog as "fabulous", he says using a cane is much more sensitive.

"You need to concentrate 100% to use it properly," he says.

"And that's hard to do, it's very tiring. If you're not concentrating 100%, you can miss a kerb, especially if it has been trimmed down."

Bridges the gap

Stephen Campbell, who swam for Ireland in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, applied for his first dog around the start of 2005, and was matched with Finn in the early part of 2007.

"I got around a lot faster, a lot safer," he says.

Image copyright Stephen McElhone
Image caption Stephen Campbell competed for Ireland in the Beijing Paralympics

"It did give me a sense of freedom. I was on the Ireland squad for eight years. Having that dog with me to go down to Dublin, I was just a lot more independent."

Having worked alongside him throughout his entire adult life, when it came time for Finn to retire in 2015, he made the decision not to go back on the list immediately - so he could keep Finn in his retirement.

"Finn was in the tech with me in Dungannon, he went to university at Magee with me, and then he was at Queen's with myself in my post-grad. He was also part of the family as well," he said.

Mr Campbell has been back on the waiting list since January 2018.

He says it took around a year after his dog retired for his cane skills to return to where they were previously.

"The dog somewhat bridges that gap where it makes a person notice," he says.

"When they notice the dog, they follow the dog's head to the harness, and then the harness to the lead, and the lead to me. And they realise 'oh, it's a guide dog'."

'Walking down the road drunk'

For Eddie Warke, the process of finding a dog to suit his professional needs has been difficult, with three unsuccessful attempts at a match.

He says his perfect dog would "have energy", but would still be "calm enough to stay in an environment where it is busy".

"With the last dog I tried to match with, Bella, it was OK in a crowded environment, but then you're not in top gear," he says.

"On an open stretch I couldn't keep her straight.

"Her head is cocking around to the left, so she's leaning around to the left, and then I'm trying to correct that by going around to the right, and you would have thought me and Bella were drunk walking down the road."

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