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02 March, 2016

Kathryn's new travel partner

Kathryn Stephens sitting on a chair in the garden next to her new Guide Dog, a black Lab named Gulliver

Guide Dog Gulliver begins travels around Wauchope

While Kathryn Stephens has spent the last two decades with a four-legged guide by her side, the Wauchope local says that she will never get used to the excitement she feels when receiving a new Guide Dog.

Kathryn was twenty-four years old when an accident with a semitrailer caused severe injuries and rendered her blind. Having overcome many of her injuries and once she could walk again, Kathryn began regaining her independence and mobility with the help of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT.

After five years using a long cane to get around safely, Kathryn experienced a radical life change when she received her first Guide Dog.

"Compared to the cane, a Guide Dog gave me a different level of confidence. I was finally comfortable walking at a quicker pace again," she said.

"It's hard to explain, but the companionship of a Guide Dog is incredibly reassuring. They make you feel like you're part of a team."

Following the retirement of her second Guide Dog at the beginning of this year, Kathryn was excited to receive a handsome black Labrador named Gulliver soon after.

While excitement is a common feeling at the start of a new partnership between Guide Dog and handler, Kathryn admits that a sense of apprehension can also be felt.

"You can never know what to expect. Each dog has an individual personality, so you spend a lot of time figuring each other out," she said.

"When you've been such a strong team with your previous Guide Dog, you're used to being able to read each other. This bond and trust that's developed between Guide Dog and handler is critical, and like any relationship that takes time."

For Kathryn and Gulliver, however, this process has taken no time at all. While the black Lab has only completed nine days of training in his new hometown, the pair have already reached an exciting milestone.

"Just yesterday we completed our first successful bus trip to Port Macquarie and back, without the help of a Guide Dog trainer," Kathryn said.

"That was a great achievement, and for Gulliver to pull that off after such a short time was pretty impressive. He's really come a long way" she said.

As a life and mindset coach and mentor for youth programs, Kathryn has used her experience with vision loss to motivate and inspire people to realise their potential. She is also passionately involved in person centred disability policy, and has spent the last three months writing disability access and inclusion plans for a group of community colleges on the mid-north coast.

"I like to call myself a 'Do-ability Consultant' because it's all about what people with a disability can do, and not what they can't," she explained.

Like all Guide Dogs, Gulliver cost $35,000 to breed, raise and train. As Guide Dogs NSW/ACT receive less than 2% of their funding needs from the Government, the organisation relies on the generosity of the public to fund their free services.

With a long and trusting relationship with Guide Dogs, Kathryn is also a PR speaker for the organisation. In this role, she spends time visiting schools and community groups to talk about her experience with vision loss and the many different ways the organisation assists people with vision impairment.

With Gulliver now by her side, Kathryn is looking forward to continuing to educate the public about what it's like to live with a Guide Dog. In particular, she wants to stress the significance of a Guide Dog's job and why you can't distract them.

"While it may seem harmless, it's important for people to understand that giving Gulliver even just a little pat will distract him from what he's doing," she said.

"Like anyone else at their job, he's working and needs to be able to concentrate."

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

Each year, Guide Dogs Orientation & Mobility Specialists work with around 4,000 people of all ages to help them achieve their mobility goals. Programs are tailored to meet the lifestyle needs of each individual, and most training is delivered locally, in the person's home, community or work environment.