Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Meet Nixon. To his owner, Dorothy, he’s a lifeline, a friend and the eyes of her world ...

Continuing our series on pets, Jamie McDowell and Kerry McKittrick talk to three blind people on their lives with guide dogs — and to two women who believe cats make the best friends

Nixon
Nixon
Dorothy Callan photographed at her East Belfast home along with her guide dog Nixon.
Lisa McLaughlin
Jean Sheil and her dog.
Darlene and Thor
Hollie

Dorothy Callan (77) lives in Belfast with her husband Desmond. She says: I moved house with my mother when I was 14 and I was putting a bed together when a splinter flew into my left eye.

I went back and forth to the doctor and hospital a few times as it got infected. I was in hospital and I hadn't even realised I had lost my sight. I got up and went to the toilet down the corridor and came back to the bed.

I had done it so many times before I thought I could see where I was going. It was my mum who realised what happened because I came back and got it bed without seeing her there.

I eventually had my eye removed and then contracted a condition called sympathetic opthalmia which led to the sight failing in my right eye and that was removed too.

It probably wouldn't have happened today but I ended up with two artificial eyes.

I got my first dog on April 23, 1965. My mum wasn't too happy about it because she thought it was cruel for the dog — she came around though. I've had seven dogs since then and my current one is Nixon.

He's been with me for about a year.

Most of my dogs have retired which has been great. They've been re-homed with friends of mine so I was able to see them again even if they couldn't work.

My last dog, though, Dougal, passed away very suddenly. We knew that there was something wrong with him and took him to the vet — he had to be put down three weeks later.

That was very hard to deal with because it was so sudden.

You have to start from scratch with every dog you get. I normally go for a two-week residential course where both you and the dog are trained to work together. It's normally like a little holiday but the last time round the trainer came and trained me at home which wasn't quite the same.

I find it gets easier and easier to bond with the dog each time round though.

Without a guide dog I wouldn't be half as independent as I am now. I worked as a secretary for more than 40 years and I certainly couldn't have done that.

Walking with a stick can be very stressful and takes a lot of effort. If I had been going to work with a stick it would have taken so much out of me I would have had to go home as soon as I got to the office.

As it was the dog would always come in and sit beside me on a wee bed I brought in for it. People at worked loved them too — they were a real talking point.

Once a girl in the office found out I was coming to work there and didn't know what to do because she was absolutely petrified of dogs.

Within two weeks she was taking the dog out for walks on her own.

I have so much more independence with a dog — I can go almost everywhere. My husband is blind too but he doesn't have one.

He has a little bit of vision but anyway I don't think it would be wise to keep two dogs in the house together.

There is definitely a bond that grows between you and your guide dog because you become partners with mutual trust.

Guide Dogs are funded solely by donations from the public. If you would like to donate go to: www.guidedogs.org.uk

‘She does more for me than anyone’

Lisa McLaughlin (26) lives in Holywood. She says:

About six and a half years ago I lost my sight overnight. I was born 28 weeks prematurely and it meant that the blood vessels at the back of my eyes weren't properly developed. My retinas detached and that was it — my sight was gone in spite of four operations to fix it. It's simply like someone came along one day and blindfolded me.

I was 20 when it happened so it was a big shock to me. I had to learn how to do everything again from walking around the house to learning how to read Braille. It's easier to be blind nowadays because everything talks — iPods, phones and watches.

For the first couple of years though I found it very hard to put things into perspective. I had been working as an assistant chef but I obviously couldn't do that any more. I decided to apply for a guide dog to get a bit of independence.

I discussed getting a dog with my rehab worker and then went to Guide Dogs for the Blind. I was assessed on all sorts of things like my height and my walking speed and was taken on training walks.

I was on the waiting list for about 18 months before I got Yvette.

Yvette gives me independence that I couldn't have had before. At the moment of this interview I'm sitting in Preston, Lancashire.

Because of Yvette I was able to get on a plane and then catch a bus and a train to see my friend all by myself. She even knows what shops I like.

People talk to me with a guide dog too and that didn't happen when I only used a stick.

It wasn't all plain sailing of course. I would say it took about a year to a year-and-a-half for us to build up trust. I wouldn't be without her now.

She does more for me than any person could do simply because she gives me my independence.

‘My guide dogs help me through the rough times

’Jean Sheil from Donegal Pass in south Belfast has used a guide dog for the last 39 years and couldn't envisage life without her two dogs, Grant and Willow. She says:

My husband, Harry, passed away a few years ago and since then I've had to rebuild my life. Harry was always there to look after me, ever since I lost my eyesight. Luckily I have my great children who help me now. Since my husband passed away, I've felt very down at times, but I think I'm getting better now. I'd stopped going out of the house for a long period and I've been trying to get out more.

My guide dog Grant, who's a Labrador, will be eight years old in December. Willow is 14 and used to be my guide. They're my two babies.

No matter how people see me, I know that my two dogs love me unconditionally. It's hard for me to get by sometimes, but they help me through. Just having the knowledge that they're there is enough to give me peace of mind. If I call for Grant, he'll come and give me a lick in the hand to let me know he's there.

When I'm outside, I put my life in their paws.

I've been using guide dogs for 39 years. In 1966 I went totally blind, literally overnight, due to an eye disorder. In 1971 I got my first guide dog and I've had five since then.

It was hard for me because many of my neighbours at the time stopped talking to me. When I asked them why, they said they thought that I wouldn't be able to know who they were. It was clear who they were though, I could tell by their voice. People today come up and say hello.

I can't go into the city centre at the moment because all the roads are dug up and I can't find my way because Grant doesn't know where to go. If my dog gets lost I get lost. Also, when I get on the bus, many drivers forget to tell me where to get off.

And there's now this colour strip on the footpaths if it's a cycle lane as well.

But dogs can't tell that it's a cycle lane. That's the Government for you.

The best thing about getting a guide dog for me was being able to bring the kids to school and pick them up like a normal mum. It's hard to express what that meant to me.”

‘Cats always seem to get quite a poor image’

Darlene McCormick is managing director of PR agency Life Communications and has two Siamese cats, Thor and Coco. Her cat Regan died last year, shortly after her father passed away. She says:

I think that losing a cat is just as upsetting as having a dog die. Cats get bad PR — being in that industry I can see that. It's an issue of recognition between the animal and its owner.

Dogs are in the social hierarchy. They're seen as man's best friend. Cats are more aloof and independent and they're not seen with their owners in public so their relationship with people isn't visible. You often see dogs out with their owners or jumping into a river chasing a stick whereas cats stay at home.

I've had a few cats before and I think they do have different personalities. When I come home in the evening, Coco will run to the door to greet me, but Thor just lies there languishing, waiting for me to come to him.

So there is a strong relationship between the cat and the owner, you just don't see it.”

‘I’ll do what I have to to look after my pets’

Paddi Roberts from Hillsborough has 11 cats and a dog called Tasse. She says:

We can have up to 14 animals in my house at any one time. We started with one stray kitten that we took in as it had a broken leg. Then it had a litter and we took in another stray which had a litter.

All of them have been spayed now, except for Mr Minky. I tried to catch him recently and he clawed me on the lip and I ended up having to get two stitches in it.

My cats are called Bagpuss, Mr Minky, Baggy, Baggy Junior, Blacky, Tortie, Smidge, Mr Kitty, Fred, Smokey and Denis Gray. Smokey is a bit of a vampire, he only comes out at night.

Recently, my dog Hollie was put to sleep while we were on holiday. She was fantastic. She followed me everywhere. Tasse is seven and loves his food.

I think that cats are a lot more independent. They’ll vanish for days at a time, but dogs are definitely a part of the family.

The great thing about a dog is that if you give it food and water it will give you its trust. Dogs are more reliant and dependable.

The food bill is big, but I’ve taken on a responsibility and I’ll do whatever it takes to look after my animals.

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