Alex Pepper, London Vision’s Networks Manager, recently got his first guide dog. Alex writes about his guide dog training experience and how his first guide dog River has already changed his life.

After being on the waiting list for a guide dog for 12 months I was ecstatic when I got the call from the London team to let me know they may have a match. A big part of me almost didn’t believe it, it seemed a bit too good to be true, and so I arranged for a match walk the following week with a large part of me thinking it wouldn’t work out.

On the morning of the meet, and the whole drive there, I felt more nervous than I think I ever have! I guess this was just because I wanted so much for it to go well and knew how disappointed I’d be if it didn’t. The moment River came into the room he gave me a quick sniff, then laid at my feet for a tickle. Just to clarify, River is my guide dog, not the Guide Dog Mobility Instructor “Tim”.

River is a 18 month old blonde Labrador; he’s a big boy, weighing 33kg and has a huge head and oversized paws. As you can guess by now, the match walk went perfectly. I wasn’t used to walking so quickly at first, so kept telling him to “steady”, then by the end of it I was telling him to speed up as I eased into it.

I started residential training up in Redbridge mid October, again I was extremely nervous on my first day. I had faith that things were going to work out, but the idea of being responsible for a dog was pretty overwhelming, but things soon settled down once we’d had a little play in the room and I’d given him his dinner. Once I was in charge of food that was it, I was his new favourite person, and he knew who’s boss. I should mention that Tim made me feel so much more relaxed as well. He was staying at the hotel for the first few nights, and he really made me feel I could phone him day or night if I wasn’t sure of something.

I didn’t know what to expect in training, I thought “how hard can it be”, when at the same time also thought “where will we start”. Guide Dogs have worked out a great structure on training delivery. I underestimated how draining it would be to learn all these new skills, not to mention all of the walking. Since losing the bulk of my sight a few years back I haven’t done much more than 6 thousand steps a day. Now I’m doing 10 thousand as a minimum. Don’t get me wrong, I love this. I can now go for a walk for the sake of it again, not just because I have to and there’s no one around to drive me.

On top of the new skills, you’ve got to groom, spend, play with and relax with the dog. It may sound a lot, but I felt so happy to do it all as I could see straight away how much River was helping me. It astonished me every day of training how clever River is. Each time I learned how to do something new I almost didn’t believe he’d know how.

A lot of people have asked me “what was the hardest part of the training?” which I find difficult to answer. The biggest adaption I had to make is getting up early every day to take him to spend, and feed him. I’m not going to mix my words, I’m NOT a morning person at all. But now I’ve got River I have found getting up in the morning a lot easier.

River came home with me around 6 weeks ago now, and we now can’t imagine life without him. He is such a calm happy dog, never doing any wrong (well almost never). He is so good with children, we have a five year old at home who loves him, and the feeling is definitely mutual. As for everyone else in my personal and work life, well they also love him. It’s safe to say I now live in the shadows of a dog.

When Tim and I got on to do my routes for home life and work I couldn’t believe how much quicker and stress free they now were. A walk down to the station to head up into London almost halved in time.

In training we’d been told how to deal with members of the public who distract our dogs whilst working, or stroke them before asking permission. I have to say I haven’t really had much of an issue with this so far, or maybe people have been and I just can’t see! People seem to actually treat me even better than before I had River.

So what’s the biggest or best change River has made to my life? I’m not sure I can give a singular answer to that question, but I’d say that having River by my side has now made me a better person overall. I’m more confident to go anywhere, I’m more driven to get up and on with the day, I take pride and joy looking after him, and he’s just slotted into our family so nicely.

I’ve already mentioned how my Guide Dog Mobility Instructor “Tim” was so good, but I have to comment on how great all of the Guide Dogs staff have been. It’s so obvious everyone is extremely passionate about their role within the organisation, and I hope they know the true impact their work has on people’s lives.

What would I say to someone considering applying for a guide dog? Two words … “DO IT”. If you think having a guide dog may improve your life, I’m very confident to say I think it will!

For more information about Guide Dogs visit their website.