Guide Dog handler chronicles journey | Guide Dogs NSW/ACT

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15 November, 2016

Guide Dog handler chronicles journey

Liz bending down on one knee to Poppi's height in a park. The beautiful image is on billboards and bus sides around Sydney.

Relationship between Guide Dog and handler told on Facebook  

Like many Facebook pages dedicated to a four-legged friend, Poppi the Guide Dog page fans eagerly await each instalment – a cute photo, colourful anecdote or funny antic – but unlike pages dedicated to pet dogs this page also has a much more serious side too.

Started by Liz Wheeler, who is vision impaired, the page offers an honest and frank insight into the world of someone who is slowly losing their sight.

“I started the page to express how I was feeling as I continue to lose my sight,” Liz said. “It is a form of therapy for me as I suffer from anxiety and expressing what is happening helps me work through this,” she said.

Over the past year-and-a-half, fans of the page have followed Liz’s journey from first receiving her Guide Dog, Poppi, to gaining more and more confidence. 

There have been emotional posts, funny anecdotes and educational ones as she discovered life with a Guide Dog. Then there are those that show Poppi acting like every other dog – eating a chew toy, playing in the yard and dressed up in costume for Halloween.

“Poppi has changed everything for me and opened my world up. She knows when I am feeling anxious and tries to distract me. If I’m panicking she will just sit with me or if I am nervous she will pick that up and be more assertive to give me confidence,” Liz said.

“She knows me so well and I can’t imagine life without her.”  

Touching photograph on billboards and bus sides 

Liz sitting in a park giving Poppi a hug.

The beautiful relationship between Liz and Poppi has been captured in a touching photograph which is currently on display on billboards at trains stations and on bus sides throughout Sydney, for Guide Dogs NSW/ACT’s ‘Sight Lost, Freedom Found’ fundraising campaign.

As Guide Dogs NSW/ACT receives less than two per cent of its funding needs from the government, the campaign encourages the community to donate to help breed, raise and train more Guide Dogs like Poppi, at a cost of more than $35,000 each. 

The confident lady depicted in the photograph has come a long way on her physical and mentally emotional journey.  

After years of denying her sight was failing and attempting to get around without the use of mobility aids, Liz began to rely on the people around her to assist. As time wore on and her vision worsened, she became scared to leave her own home.

“About three years ago, I started to find it really difficult to safely cross roads and navigate footpaths. I was unable to cook and I couldn’t get up and down the stairs in my house easily. It was a very unsafe situation and as a result I lost my confidence,” she said. 

“I contacted Guide Dogs NSW/ACT and began long cane training, but my confidence didn’t return. They spoke to me about applying for a Guide Dog, but I was unsure. I thought I just have to try harder in using my cane, I’m not trying hard enough.”

At 18, Liz was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. It was her great-aunt that recognised the symptoms. “When I got out of the car she waved to me from a balcony and I didn’t wave back and then she noticed I ran my hands across the walls to locate where I was. I just thought this was normal,” she said.

At the age of 23 she was forced to hand her driver’s licence back and at 26, Liz was declared legally blind. But it was still a number of years before she sought help. 

Liz has now lost about 95 per cent of her vision and expects the little remaining sight she has to continue diminishing. 

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Liz welcomes Poppi into her life

Although she didn’t realise it at the time, a Guide Dog, was exactly what she needed. That’s when Poppi came into her life.  

“It was amazing. The same path that had taken me 20 minutes to navigate only took five minutes with a Guide Dog,” Liz said. “It was amazing I felt like I could walk at the same pace as I did before I lost my sight.”

“I wanted a dog with lots of energy, and that’s exactly what I got with Poppi. She demands to leave the house, which helps a lot with my self-confidence. Things just became easier with Poppi.”

Liz waiting for a train on the station platform with Poppi by her side.

As she continues to chronicle her journey on Facebook fans have been reaching out to her.

“People send emails to say thanks for sharing while others who are also losing their vision have  also made contact,” Liz said.

On the occasions when she has had a terrible day, Liz tries to find a silver lining for her posts. When she can’t do this, the post aims to educate the community. This has been the case when members of the community try to pat or grab Poppi while she is in harness, distracting her from her role of guiding Liz. “I try to let people know why it is important to not do this and how it impacts my day,” she said.

“Starting the Facebook page has been really rewarding and a way to engage with not only other people who are vision impaired, but the wider community,” Liz said. 

Every day 28 Australians are diagnosed with uncorrectable vision loss, including nine who become blind.

To find out more about the ‘Sight Lost, Freedom Found’ campaign, please visit guidedogs.com.au/poppi

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