What is it like living with a guide dog? June Bowden has been a guide dog owner for 30 years, and talks to us about how her canine companions have helped turn what was just an existence, into a life.
June Bowden has had many happy years thanks to Guide Dogs. After getting in touch with the charity in 1981, she was placed with her first dog, Cyder, followed by her next dog, Wheat, in 1988. Sadly this relationship was cut short when June had to move to a new home that wouldn’t accommodate dogs.
After twelve years of having a partner to guide her through life, June suddenly found she was by herself, and couldn’t even leave her house alone. With help from a Guide Dogs rehabilitation worker June eventually managed to build up some long-cane skills that helped her to get along. Then in 2000, her housing situation changed, and Esme came into her life.
“I first met Esme at the Training School and from the moment she bounded into the room I knew that I loved her. How much I would come to love her, I couldn’t begin to imagine. Because of my back problem, Guide Dogs matched me with a slow-walking, very conscientious dog. For the next eight years we walked the streets of my local area and Esme rarely made a mistake. At home though, it was a different matter – she turned from the reliable guide into an exuberant and lively dog!”
“Without support, life can be hard going and lonely. Choosing clothes, getting things repaired or replaced, finding someone to do jobs and knowing you can trust them, these are all difficult things to accomplish. Without the help I’ve had, I’d be frustrated and depressed, knowing I have abilities which would be wasting away.”
Many people don’t know that Guide Dogs provide help beyond trained canine companions. When June met Chris, another rehabilitation worker, and told him about her love of writing, Chris encouraged June to get a computer, and even helped her to set it up and arrange computer classes.
In early 2009 June’s back problem worsened, and she had to make the difficult decision to allow Esme to retire. “Throughout Esme’s time with me I had a friend with a unique character. I was the pilot and she was my navigator. When she retired, I lost my eyes as well as the ability to go out when I want to. There’s not a day when I don’t wake up and miss her.”
The bond between a guide dog owner and their dog is very strong and the ending of a partnership is usually extremely emotional. It can be hard moving on. A legacy officer at the charity, Joette, called June so that she had someone to talk to who would understand the enormity of the loss. June explains: “Even though I’m sure it wasn’t part of Joette’s job description, she gave me the time and space I needed to talk. It helped enormously.”
In late 2010, Guide Dogs were able to match June with Rosa, a two year old Labrador with a gentle temperament. Their relationship had a rocky start – after they’d started training together, June had to move into a new home, which was a different and challenging environment for both her and her new dog. Then, June injured her foot and was unable to train with Rosa. It could have become too much, but a visit by a partially sighted friend and her own guide dog gave June the determination to push on and finish the training.
A Guide Dog trainer came to help Rosa learn the routes that June uses around her home, and their partnership started to blossom. June now feels settled and close to Rosa, just like she did with Esme. “You cry when they come and cry when they go, but the bit in between is lovely,” she says. “Now I couldn’t imagine going into the world without Rosa. A guide dog can turn an existence into a life. To walk down the street in freedom, that’s what having sight must be like.”
“As a blind person who has had four guide dogs, I not only appreciate the excellent work of the charity, but have greatly benefited from it. I could never repay the deep debt of gratitude I owe to Guide Dogs for the wonderful support I've had and the lovely dogs themselves. That is why I decided to include a gift to Guide Dogs in my will. The infinite care and attention they pay to each individual is equalled by no other organisation in blind welfare, and I’m so proud to be associated with them.”