'He allows me independence... I can't imagine being without him' - Joe (79) on how his guide dog changed his life
To mark the Irish Guide Dogs For The Blind's 40th anniversary, our reporter meets the visually impaired people who say the specially trained animals have changed their lives
'When I arrive back home after a walk, having heard the sea and felt the sun on my neck, having popped in to the coffee shop where people have spoken to me like a normal person that they know well, it's quite a wonderful feeling." The words of Joe Bollard, 79 from Bray, Co Wicklow, perhaps sum up what's most important about Irish Guide Dogs For The Blind (IGDB, or Irish Guide Dogs for short), an organisation that's celebrating 40 years this week.
Blind since an operation at the age of two, Joe says he never minded being unable to see in the first place. Despite working as a musician and touring around the world until 1975, he had never been out by himself. After a period training with guide dogs in England in the late 1970s, he was one of the first people to get a trained dog from IGDB, and he says it's given him an independence he never knew was possible.
"I'm now on dog number six, and York is the best one yet. He even surprises me. Maybe I've got better, or maybe they have, but he's wonderful.
"He allows me independence and mobility, and that's so important. I would always have had to ask someone to bring me for a walk before, but now I walk from my house to the DART and go up to Dublin, to Grafton or O'Connell Street, and we get back the same way.
"People are great and they offer, but you don't want to trouble them. There are no words to describe the joy of being able to go out with York, and I've got to the stage where I can't imagine being without him," says Joe.
Irish Guide Dogs For The Blind was founded in 1976 in Dublin before moving to Cork in 1980. Its founder Jim Dennehy had a sporting accident in 1968 which left him totally blind, and as a young man working in the family motor business with a wife and two young daughters, it was important to him to return to being mobile and independent as soon as possible.
"I trained with a long cane in the Royal National Institute for the Blind in Torquay England in 1969, and while there got an opportunity to visit the Guide Dog School in Exeter.
"It was there I had my first experience of the life-changing impact that a guide dog could have for a vision-impaired person."
Jim got his first guide dog Vanessa, a German Shepherd, in 1970, and her impact on his quality of life was immediate. Not long after, Jim met Cork woman Mary Dunlop who was a fundraiser for UK Guide Dogs.
Both of them had a shared determination to establish a guide dog organisation in Ireland because in the 1970s, getting to the UK to train with a dog was simply unaffordable and unattainable for a lot of vision-impaired people.
From 1971, they worked for five years with a small group of friends and supporters to build the case for an Irish guide dog organisation.
Forty years later, Irish Guide Dogs has 176 guide dog owners, 286 assistance dog owners and 738 other vision-impaired clients.
The services of their 77 staff are offered completely free of charge, and over 80pc of their income comes from voluntary donations or fundraising. Perhaps not many people realise that it costs €38,000 to raise a guide dog from birth to retirement, and two years to turn a puppy in to a working animal.
"Public support has been a major part of the organisation's success from the offset," explains Jim. "The public have joined as volunteers to raise funds and to help raise and train the dogs.
"A large number of volunteers have been with the organisation almost from the start, with more and more joining each year, happy to help knowing that they can contribute to a vision-impaired person or a family of a child with autism receiving life changing services and support."
Jayne Husband, 54, is one of the centre's guide and assistance dogs mobility instructors. She's originally from the UK, where she started working with guide dogs in 1985 before transferring here in 2003.
"I really like the smaller scale of Guide Dogs in Ireland, it makes the contact with our clients much more personal as you get to know more of them. I also enjoy the variety of working both with visually impaired clients and the families of children with autism."
Jayne says that all guide dogs are different. "I still really enjoy getting to know them, understanding what makes them tick, getting that bond with them that's so important before you can even start teaching them. And of course I love seeing them getting better at their role and developing their understanding. But as much as I love working with the dogs, my real job satisfaction comes from seeing them with their new owners and the difference they can make in their lives."
In Jayne's role, she sees first hand the difference the dog can make, and says that's what keeps her going after 31 years in the role.
"I remember working with a lady who had a new assistance dog, sitting down in a local hotel with her and her autistic son and his dog for a coffee. She suddenly started crying - when she could finally speak, she said it was because he was seven and she has never been able to do this before, so they were happy tears."
Francesca Lennon's son Sam, eight, was diagnosed with autism before his third birthday. The family applied for an assistance dog, and when he was five, they travelled to Cork to meet with Irish Guide Dogs to see if Sam was a suitable candidate.
"We met with one of the trainers who asked us all about Sam's personality, character and also his behaviours related to his autism. We went to the kennels where Sam was attached to a dog and brought on a small walk around the kennels which he tolerated very well, and we were then told he would likely benefit from having an assistance dog.
"I was heavily pregnant at the time, and decided to delay the process for a short while. Irish Guide Dogs were so accommodating," she says.
Sam was matched with his dog Giggs, and a few months later Francesca went to Cork so they could all train together. "Our trainer Eoin then came to our home a week later for Sam's first outing with Giggs, and on three occasions after that."
Francesca says that Sam was prone to bolting before Giggs came in to their lives, but now they have the assurance that he can't run into harm's way when attached to his dog.
"Sam would also suffer with anxiety when in new surroundings, but Giggs' presence helps so much - he knows when Giggs is with him, he's safe."
Giggs was a great help when Sam started school. "Sam goes to a mainstream school, and Giggs was a huge attraction to the boys to come over and chat to Sam - it gave him a social outlet with his peers. He has a newfound confidence and independence with Giggs that we could only have dreamed of."
For more information and to donate to Irish Guide Dogs, see guidedogs.ie