Four legs are better than two

Words by: Becca Yeomans
Photos by: Hannah Taylor

As I write this, my faithful companion is curled up at my feet. Well, she’s on them actually. What is it about dogs and laying on their owner’s feet? She’s keeping me warm, I’m not going to lie. I can feel her twitch as she falls asleep. We had a long walk today, it must have been near on five miles altogether. I can’t blame her for being tired.

Yashka is my first Guide Dog. We qualified almost two years ago in Leamington Spa and I can’t imagine life without her. I mean, I miss my lie-ins. I was never one for getting up early before I applied for a Guide Dog.

I used to get up around eleven or twelve when I didn’t have sixth form or university. I didn’t really do much, study and complete work was all. I used to watch television in the evenings and not go to bed until it was late. I didn’t go out much, I preferred and still do, to stay at home.

However, when I got that fateful phone call near the end of May 2016, everything changed. I originally applied for a Guide Dog back in 2012, I had to wait a very long time, but that is just my personal experience. I think I had to wait so long as there was no Guide Dog trainer in my area for under 18s. Anyone can apply for a Guide Dog, no matter what their age, gender, culture or circumstances. I’m glad I had to wait near on four years. It gave me chance to adapt, understand my disability and most importantly, to accept it.

That phone call in May turned my world upside down. Within a few weeks, I had met Yashka and had a few practice walks to see how she felt. Then, I was packing for training.

I had the choice whether to go on residential training. I choose to go, to get some independence and have two weeks away from home. It was very scary. I remember getting very stressed and anxious on the morning I was due to leave. I was being picked up as I couldn’t journey to Leamington Spa on my own. The driver was lovely and I felt much calmer after chatting with him, but when we got to the hotel, the nerves came back. And they remained for a few days, so much so that I was contemplating going home because I thought I couldn’t do it. There were tears before bedtime, but I’m not ashamed to say that. It wasn’t plain sailing. When I first saw Yashka in the hotel, I had no idea how to be around her. She was whining for the trainer to come back and rescue her, I thought we’d never bond. However, the other girl I was training with said her dog was the exact same. That’s when I realised I had made the right choice to do residential training. I had a friend who I could relate to. We both struggled during those two weeks, we both had good walks and horrible ones, but neither of us gave up. The thing I most remember about being on training was the first time I tried to put the harness on Yashka. It went very badly, but practice made perfect and now I can do it in a blink of an eye. Everything got easier eventually.

After all, the first year of being a Guide Dog owner is the hardest and most trying. You and your dog are still working each other out. Seeing how far you can push the other until they break. Yashka has tested me on many occasions and she still does. I don’t think that will ever change. She needs to know where her place is. She needs to know what she can and can’t get away with. At the end

of the day, she’s a dog. She will have bad days where she won’t work, where she’ll try every single trick in the book to get her own way. On bad days, she’ll test me to the limits.There are days where everything that could possibly go wrong, does. Days when I arrive home crying after a disastrous walk, where I’ll feel like I can’t do anything and I want to give up. However, I have people around me who give me a nudge and reminded me why I applied, why I waited such a long time. They’ll remind me how good Yashka is for me. That if I didn’t have her, I probably would have dropped out of university and would never leave the house. I need people like that. I think we all do.

It’s important to stick with it, even if it makes you upset, angry and everything else in between; it will pay off in the end. It may not feel it, but it will. Looking back to the first few months of having Yashka, I’m glad so many things went wrong, I learnt from what happened and I now know what to do if certain problems creep up again.

For example, take Bonfire Night. As I live in a small village, I assumed there wouldn’t be many fireworks, many of the residents are elderly so I thought it was going to be a fairly quiet affair. I was wrong. Two weeks leading up to Bonfire Night and afterwards, fireworks were going off left, right and centre. Needless to say, it was very stressful. I thought Yashka would never work again, I thought it was all my fault. Looking back, I know I overreacted. I was underprepared and inexperienced. Yashka is my first guide dog and my first, well, dog. To this day, I’m still learning about her and I’ll be learning right up until she retires from service. Now, for the next Bonfire Night, I will be prepared. Things will be in place well in advance. It was stressful, exhausting and upsetting, but I know what I need to do in order to keep her safe during fireworks.

I have no doubt things will go wrong in the future, we will have hurdles to leap over and conquer. I feel more confident to deal with them now. Even when we have horrid days and I question every single thing I did, I will be growing in confidence. I learn from my mistakes and do everything in my power to stop them happening again. If problems do reoccur, I will just have to try harder next time. Its trial and error, we need to work out ways that work for our partnership. I keep in touch with a few other Guide Dog owners via social media and they are more than happy to give me advice. They have been through it all, they know the positives and negatives of being a Guide Dog owner. They want to share their experiences to help us newbies get to grips with it all as quickly as possible.

Guide Dogs are supposed to be worked for forty minutes, twice a day. So around an hour and twenty minutes is the minimum amount of work they’re expected to do. I have university lectures three times a week so Yashka gets plenty of work. I live at home which means we have to get the bus to the city centre, then walk to the campus. If I have a nine am lecture, we usually leave home early so Yashka has plenty of time to have her second spend before the lecture.

(A spend is when a Guide Dog owner tells their dog 17to ‘busy’ before a walk so the dog can relieve itself. It’s grim, but you get used to it after a while. I’ve lost a few of Yashka’s big spends when it has been very dark.)

At university, she’s still working until we get to the classroom and I take her harness off. Then, she can run around, get fuss from my peers until she flops down by my feet and has a little snooze. Students are still shocked and bemused to see a dog on campus. I don’t think the novelty will wear off. We walk back to the city centre after lectures and get the bus home.