A Tribute to My First Guide Dog | Guide Dogs NSW/ACT

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09 April, 2018

A Tribute to My First Guide Dog

Katie in her graduation gown and hat sitting next to her Guide Dog

On my seventh birthday my family gave me a soft and fluffy Guide Dog toy. He was a chocolate Labrador with a little harness and a tag on his collar that had in Braille the name “Oscar”. My family had worked together to wrangle him and get that tag squeezed into my Perkin’s Brailler to get his name on there.

I adored this little toy. I remember picking up the tiny harness handle and imagined him taking me places. I dreamt of one day having a real, full-sized version.

A decade later, that dream came true.

Ari, a handsome Golden Retriever cross Labrador, came into my life in February 2009 and our adventure began.

Ari was a gentleman. He was a very sensible fellow and also rather sensitive. He was very serious about his role. He always worked to an exemplary standard and did it all with grace and also with a hint of superiority, if that’s possible for a dog. I would be so excited when he thought his way through a complicated scenario, like finding a chemist in an unfamiliar shopping centre or navigating his way through road works. I, over the moon, would praise liberally to try to convey to him just how awesome he was. Typically, he would just give a few gentle tail wags, as if to say, “Well yeah, that’s my job, no need to get too excited.” I could tell if he was pleased with himself though when he would bow down in a big, casual stretch. This became a signature move of Ari’s which we called his yoga pose.

I started working with Ari just before I began a course at university. Our early training together consisted of learning how to walk there and find my classes. Those days were full of wonderment. Ari amazed me with his ability to always find me an empty seat, remember the way to the classrooms after just one or two walks there and the way he effortlessly moved me smoothly and quickly through swarms of people. It wasn’t long before Ari and I became known for our speed. People would often say to me, “I tried to say hi the other day but you were going so fast I couldn’t catch you.”

My confidence grew in leaps and bounds. Before I got Ari I hadn’t recognised the extent of my anxiety getting around with a cane. I had felt vulnerable. With Ari, I soon realised that together we could get back on track if I got lost or disorientated and I wasn’t going to fall down a hole while we did it. I grew to enjoy exploring. I hadn’t enjoyed venturing into the unknown before Ari, but with him I started actively seeking out opportunities. We must have ridden on thousands of buses and trains together and we travelled to most states of the country.

Katie sitting next to Ari on the beach

Ari saw me through many milestones. He got me through my undergraduate degree and walked me across the stage when I graduated. It was so liberating to me that I didn’t need anyone’s help to get up there and get off again. One rehearsal with Ari and we did it all ourselves. Ari even got his own degree in recognition of his efforts. Ari took me to my first job interview. My supervisor joked years later that I’d had the job from the moment we walked into the interview room and Ari, when I asked him to find a seat, placed one paw up on the chair in front of me. In that job, it wasn’t long before he had his own company name tag. I moved out of the family home and picked up the keys to my own place with Ari by my side. These memories of big things in my life; Ari was central to them all.

Ari and I worked for eight wonderful years together. I implicitly trusted him. I never got in any sort of trouble when holding onto his harness. I knew everything about Ari, from the way he got a bounce in his stride when he saw something exciting to the way he would have a huge shake when confused. Likewise, he knew me. He knew to slow his speed when the ground was uneven, to duck in front of me when we were walking along and someone stopped suddenly in front of us. If he was unsure about what shop I was asking him to find, he knew that locating a café was a good idea regardless. And because we knew each other so well, I knew when he started to slow up and lose a little of his joy for the job, that it was time for him to hang up his harness.

I knew Ari would not cope being left at home in his retirement while I still had to work. He was a dog who had to have company. It was a perfect fit when Ari’s Puppy Raising family, who between them could give him all the love and care he needed, offered to look after Ari in his retirement. I knew he would be adored. Still, my heart broke when Ari and I were parted. Ari had several months of joyous retirement, reverting to puppyhood, tearing up the garden and eating things he shouldn’t. Sadly though, his retirement was cut short by a diagnosis of an aggressive cancer.

Ari’s Puppy Raisers nurtured this beautiful dog from a pup, trained him to do lots of clever things and then looked after him as an older fellow. The most wonderful thing they did for me though was to bring him back to me when we knew he didn’t have long to live. Ari and I got to spend just over a month together. I am so grateful for that time I had with him to be with and care for him again. Just how we had been completely in tune with each other when we worked together, I knew when it was time to say goodbye that final time.

The Guide Dog partnership is a journey of love, reciprocity and trust. I will probably have several Guide Dogs over my lifetime. They will all be special for different reasons and see me through different phases of my life. Ari will always be remembered for the way he gave me the confidence to step out into the world and see what I could do, to move beyond my comfort zones and to make something of myself. I think I will forever miss him, and I know I will always treasure what he gave me.