I had the most incredible experience today that has changed the way that I look at the world around me.

Caroline brought Arthur into town at lunchtime, and I spent some time with her learning how Arthur works when he’s in a harness. After a bit of watching, she handed me a blindfold, I picked up the reins, and Arthur led me through town.

For those of you who know Cardiff, we started up by Boulevard De Nantes, then headed down The Friary, accross Queen Street and into St David’s Arcade, down the steps into Queen’s Arcade, around past Boots and Marks and Spencer’s, and back out onto Queen Street. Right turn then down past Natwest to Churchill Way, down to Bridge Street, over to the Job Center and up Charles Street to the office. That entire route was done with me blindfold.

Guide dogs walk on your left, and have a rigid handle on their backs attached to a harness around the shoulders. This lets you feel which direction he’s turning in and gives you very good tactile feedback. They’re there to guide you around and over obstacles (people, lamposts, kerbs, traffic, etc) and not necessarily know where to go, but since most of us have a routine, they’ll rapidly learn most of the routes people take. There are a few commands you need to know, and a lot of trust.

When I first took the handle today with my blindfold on, I felt incredibly apprehensive. Arthur and I have spent 10 weeks together and we know each other pretty well now. He knows my moods and I his. But this was a whole different kettle of fish – I was now placing my trust in him to not walk me into an object – and he doesn’t wait around. As Caroline said “German Shepherds are for people who want to go places.” There was a very real risk in my mind that I could get hurt here, or if he made a mistake by a road, even worse.

So I picked up the handle, adjusted teh blindfold, closed my eyes and firmly said “Forward.” Caroline had a lead on him to slow him down at first, because I was very nervous. I was quite shaky – you don’t realise how uneven the floor is – you take cues unconsciously from your peripheral vision when you’re walking, but when you’re unable to see, you have to just hope the floor is there somewhere. At first I found myself stiff, unattural and very scared. People walking all around me, cars, building sites, smells, sounds, flickers of shadows making me flinch. But I put my trust in the dog, and despite the knowledge that somewhere to my right was a row of steel bollards at about the right height to hit me in the groin, and the feeling that he was going far to close to them, I relaxed a little and let him lead me.

We reached Queen Street having navigated around a reversing van, which shook me quite a lot – I could hear him revving, but I wasn’t sure of where he was going and I had to keep turning my head to try and pinpoint the noise. I didn’t have any idea where we were – somewhere along that street, but I couldn’t remember there being an alleyway there…

Queen Street itself was interesting, with Arthur indicating to me where those annoying gutters were, perfect for a quick stumble. We weaved around the lunchtime crowd, and I was starting to relax, when we headed straight for the arcade. The temporary doorways shocked me – the noices suddenly changed and I was very aware that my surroundings were far smaller – I wanted to shy from the walls, but I trusted him and just kept going. He found the temporary ramp and gently lead me in.

Now I know how bad this place can be for a fully-sighted person at lunchtime, so I was quite apprehensive. On we went, I could feel him guiding me around that balcony and over to the steps. “Find the steps” I said, and a few paces later felt him stop. Because he was so far in front of me, I had two paces or so to stop, so that wasn’t a problem. I put my right hand out, and there was the handrail. “Forward” I said and down we went, one step at a time. The handrail levels out where the steps stop for a few paces, then dips again for the next bunch of steps. Down we went until Caroline warned me about a pillar. I took my hand away from the godsend that was the handrail and felt in front of me. The handrail disappears directly into a pillar so conveniently placed some two or three steps from the bottom. Around it I go, with Arthur gently leading me, and we stopped at the bottom for me to get my balance for a second. Damn that pillar, what fool of an architect put that there? (Mal – pay close attention! grin)

On we went at a slower pace and I could feel Arthur working hard as he moved around in the crowd. Navigating me close to the left hand wall, we passed Boots and turned the corner by the opticians. This was tough going for him and I had a bit of a surprise when someone cut it a little fine and brushed passed me. By now I was relaxing a bit and keeping up more, turning quickly as I felt the slight changes in his handle. It’s amazing how quickly you can sense what he’s going to do.

We approached the door and he stopped suddenly, standing still. I ran my hand along his back, along his head and in front of his nose was the door handle. I pushed and we were outside again. This time we turned right and headed down Queen Street, before turning right by the Natwest bank. It was considerably quieter here and Arthur picked up the pace a little. After a few seconds of holding back a bit, I threw caution to the wind and went with him, letting him tell me where to go. We reached the crossing at the end in no time and turned right, heading towards the job center. Crossing the road was interesting, though Caroline helped, and we turned right by the job center. This is where it got fun. Without me knowing, Caroline unclipped herself and let Arthur take me, following closely behind. Arthur picked up his pace and I was happy to trust him by now, except for the fact that Charles Street has trees all the way down the pavement which leads to nasty, uneven pavements. We stopped at the office, and I took my blindfold off, amaxed at his skill and how much trust I had in him now.

Ok, so that’s the basic gist of it, I’ll send another update tomorrow with some details on general thoughts about the whole thing.

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