They may be known as man's best friend, but when it comes to creating a special bond there are few quite like those between guide dogs and their owners.
Although now a common sight on our high streets, many people often don't realise the amount of work that goes into selecting and preparing a guide dog for its working life, not to mention the process of matching a dog with the right owner.
The UK-wide charity Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, known as Guide Dogs, has been helping transform the lives of blind and partially-sighted people for more than 80 years, by training dogs as skilled companions and guides.
The dogs are taught to help people with a range of other health conditions too -- like brain tumours and autism -- by assisting with daily chores, helping them interact with the world and giving them freedom and mobility.
The outstanding work of these animals will be the focus of the Guide Dogs Annual Awards in London tomorrow evening, where dogs and their owners will be recognised for their achievements in categories including Partner of the Year, Breaking Down Barriers and the Guide Dog of the Year Award.
And ahead of the big event, we have spoken to two local guide dog owners shortlisted for awards to find out just what makes their relationship with their dogs so special.
The 23-year-old lives in Ballymena and volunteers with Guide Dogs NI. She has been nominated for the Young Persons Achievement Award, for those who have contributed towards fundraising or other voluntary activities. She says:
I was born three months early, and I've been blind since birth as my eyes didn't develop. I've had my dog, Ushi, for three years now.
I started volunteering after I got a guide dog. I was so grateful for her and the fact that all of her food and medical fees are paid for. I thought this was very generous and hope this never changes. I also try and help encourage others who are thinking about volunteering through events across the province. I enjoy that too, as they can speak to someone who benefits from the work of guide dogs as well as meeting a working dog.
I fundraise and take minutes for the committee and I have started to give talks to schools, Boys' Brigade and Girls' Brigade groups, as well as organisations like the Women's Institute.
I was a little nervous at first but now I just go with the flow. I also sit on the board of another local charity called Angel Eyes, which is dedicated to helping parents who have blind or partially sighted children.
Having Ushi is great, she's given me so much independence. I can now get up and go for a walk whenever I want and I can get buses and trains without having someone to help me. I used to use a cane but I didn't feel anywhere near as safe or independent with it. Thanks to Ushi I've actually managed to go surfing.
I went to Benone beach on the north coast and was able to try it out. It was great craic, and the only thing I didn't like was the water going over my head -- it was very disorientating. Ushi doesn't like getting her paws wet either, so she watched from the beach!
I'm also lobbying Stormont to have audio announcements on buses, but at the moment the ministers don't seem to be listening. I'll keep going and hopefully get a result soon.
Ushi has really changed my life. I can go to the shops and travel independently when I like. I always talk to her when I am walking along, so I'm sure that passers-by wonder about me!"
The 31-year-old lives in Belfast and volunteers for Guide Dogs NI. Her dog Zeta has been nominated for Outstanding Work in the Guide Dog of the Year category. She says:
I have never had sight. I was born with a condition called restinoblastoma, which was cancerous tumours at the back of my eyes, and to eliminate the cancer they had to remove both eyes when I was two.
I've had guide dogs since around 2001, and Zeta is my third. Odette worked until she was six but she became 'people shy', so she was retired. My next dog, Vale, only worked for 17 months until she was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma when she was three and also had to retire.
I didn't feel I was ready for another dog when I met Zeta, and the team were quite aware of that. She was just brought out to me to see what my walking speed was and the needs I had.
It wasn't suppose to be a matching visit but it ended up that way. Zeta has been working for me for five years now.
Guide dogs can often suffer from allergies, and Zeta has quite a few. She's allergic to yeast, couch grass -- which is everywhere -- and house and dust mites. She needs quite a few injections and medications and I wipe down her paws and her ears. That doesn't stop her, though, as she loves to work and be in the harness. If I put it on her for five minutes just to nip to the shops she doesn't like that. She would much prefer to go out for a couple of hours.
Before I had dogs I used a cane. It's ok for some people but I found it quite limiting. I felt quite vulnerable and that I could walk into walls or steps.
Having a dog feels much more natural and has given me much more freedom and independence. I can walk straight down the middle of the path at a decent speed like anyone else walking their dog.
People approach you more when you have a dog but the other side of that is that people sometimes don't look where they're going and walk straight into Zeta. When that happens I have had to say to the person that they should look where they're going.
I lived in England for a while and once there was a taxi driver who wouldn't let the dog in his taxi. We pursued him through the courts and he ended up with a fine.
The only discrimination I've had in Belfast was a Chinese restaurant that wouldn't let my first dog in. They ended up settling out of court through the Equality Commission. Most of the time, though, people are happy to help.
I studied music at Queen's University and had a recital that I was due to sing at. I worried about how to get on the platform and realised that Zeta was able to guide me up the steps. In fact, if the accompanist was in his seat at the piano she could guide me on to the platform, give the accompanist a 'kiss' and walk me round to where I had to stand. It meant that on the night of the performance I was able to walk on and off the stage holding Zeta's harness, feeling as independent as I ever would.
I also volunteer with a dance group and we were once rehearsing in a car park which had cars passing nearby.
One part of the dance involved all of us walking forward and when Zeta saw me walking, she came over and put herself in front of me so she was physically blocking my path. The dance teacher thought she had become unsettled by the music but I realised she was stopping me moving towards the cars, even though they weren't anywhere near us.
There is a big bond between guide dogs and their owners. Saying goodbye to them is hard, but I know that they deserve the best retirement we can give them. They do such amazing things for you.
Zeta has been working for me the longest. She saw me through the tough times after I lost Vale.
To know that she has been nominated, and for her to go forward to the final is amazing.
If she wins something, brilliant; if she doesn't, the fact that she has got this far is recognition enough -- she's a winner to me, no matter what!"
Factfile: Guide dogs
* The average working life of a guide dog is five to six years
* There are over 4,700 guide dog owners in the U
* More than 1,300 pups are bred each year at the Guide Dogs National Breeding Centre in Leamington Spa
* From six weeks to 12-months-old, the dogs live with volunteer puppy walkers. They start formal training at a year
* About 75% make it as a guide dog. Others become buddy dogs or go to organisations such as Hearing Dogs for Deaf People
* It costs £5 per day to support each working guide dog partnership. The lifetime cost of a guide dog is around £50,000
* The guide dog service receives no government funding and depends entirely upon public support
* For more information or to make a donation, visit www.guidedogs.org.uk