December 8, 2020

My new guide dog Ava has brought back all the confidence I lost in the Covid-19 pandemic

By haziqbinarif

I’ve always been told a guide dog would change my life, but I didn’t realise how much of a difference four paws and a waggy tail could really make.

Nine months into the pandemic, and we’re all exhausted. We’re craving normality, popping round for a cup of tea with family, the cinema, our favourite pub, even the daily commute. The impact on our lives has been huge, but for visually impaired people like me the loss of independence and confidence has been devastating.

I’ve barely managed to leave the house by myself since March. I used to travel into Central London every day. Now simple tasks like going to the supermarket or catching a bus have been terrifying because I rely on a white cane and can’t see two metres in front of me. Too many near misses with members of the public ignoring social distancing made me scared of even walking around my local area without my partner. After fighting so hard for my independence it’s taken a real toll on my mental health to feel so vulnerable.

Training with a new guide dog during a pandemic was a bit different

Three years ago I was put on the waiting list for a guide dog. When I got a call at the end of September saying that the team wanted to do a ‘reassessment’ I was convinced that they were going to kindly let me know it was never going to happen. However, they turned up with a cheeky two and a half year old Golden Retriever called Ava. We took a walk around the block together and then they asked what I thought of her. I said she was very cute, enthusiastic about working and walked at my pace. Daniel, my guide dog Mobility Instructor, replied: “Great because we think you’re a match!” I was stunned, and had to check twice, still not quite believing it was real.

Ava and I have trained together for six weeks, from learning the basic commands to navigating cars parked on pavements. It’s been a whirlwind of new skills to take on. It’s amazing what she can do, like finding the button box at a pedestrian crossing for me or the seat at a bus stop.

Training with a new guide dog during a pandemic was a bit different, especially when the Government imposed Lockdown 2.0 in the middle. After a lot of risk assessments, hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing, it was agreed we could continue our training if we did it entirely outdoors. There were certainly some soggy cold days and I really missed being able to have a break in a cosy cafe! We qualified together last week after our final assessment and now Ava is officially a professional good girl.

Her favourite toy is a squeaky Boris Johnson that was bought as a joke, but she adores chewing his head a lot!

Unfortunately during training I experienced a few people trying to pet Ava or distract her. Not only is this really disruptive for me and Ava trying to work safely together, it also violates social distancing. If you love guide dogs then please just watch them working and don’t distract them by trying to get their attention or petting them. They’re amazing dogs that can really give a life back, but let them do their job because it’s more important than ever.

Ava really is the perfect match, she’s smart, loves busy places and has a bit of a diva side that makes me laugh. Her favourite toy is a squeaky Boris Johnson that was bought as a joke, but she adores chewing his head a lot! Ava’s enthusiasm for going out and about is infectious. Being with Ava makes me less frightened of catching Covid-19 because I’m no longer bumping into people. Whether it’s a trip round the shops or just a walk to the park, I feel safer knowing that she will steer me around people and find a clear path for us to walk.

I hope the success of the vaccines means restrictions are eased soon so Ava and I can safely explore the world together. I am braver with her by my side. Day by day I’m rediscovering my old confidence. My ‘new normal’ with Ava is going to be incredible, I can’t wait.

Dr Amy Kavanagh is a visually impaired activist and campaigner. She tweets @BlondeHistorian

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