Updated: Oct 21, 2021
It’s a cool autumn afternoon in Sydney and my wife Heather and I are waiting for Chris to arrive. He is an instructor from The Seeing Eye Dog association. I am feeling quite anxious as my Golden Retriever, Unity, who is almost eleven years old is going to have a “follow up”. This involves a walk and a visual assessment.
Chris will be looking for reasons to retire my old mate. I totally understand the importance of this session, he needs to ensure that Unity is still doing his job well, still physically capable and keeping me safe. He will also check to make sure Unity is enjoying his work. Heather and her black Seeing Eye Dog, Zepplin, will also be assessed. Zep is roughly the same age as Unity, and although a Labrador, his physique is more like a Greyhound.
Chris is running late and I say under my breath, “Come on, I just want it over.” Heather is her usual relaxed self and says, “Sit down and relax. He will be here soon.” But I keep pacing.
The doorbell chimes and I start rushing to it, slowing myself down as I realise what I am doing. I am a bundle of nerves.
Take your time Nick, don’t be stupid. The reassuring voice in my head helps me as I open the door.
“Hello, my name is Chris, so sorry I am running late.” His Scottish brogue is warm and friendly and it is hard to feel annoyed.
“It’s absolutely fine,” I smile, thinking: Nick you’re a liar.
We shake hands and I notice his firm grip. We chat and learn that he has trained in many countries and with various breeds of dogs.
My mind is almost shouting, Let’s go, let’s get it over and done. As if Chris has read my thoughts, he asks who would like to go first? What a fabulous accent. Rich and friendly. I wonder if he plays the bagpipes. Or wears a kilt? Total blindness often encourages a very active imagination and in my mind’s eye, the world is usually extremely beautiful.
I give Heather the opportunity to go first, but she doesn’t mind so I leap to the chance to get started.
“We’re ready, Chris. I was thinking that we could walk to the shops. Would that be okay?”
“Yes, sounds great. Tell me Nick, how old is Unity?”
“Ten years and eleven months.”
Chris gives him a loving pat and I explain that he is my first dog and that he has been absolutely wonderful.
“What speed do you think he walks at these days?”
“Average to slow.” I feel guilty as I utter these words.
“Let’s go Uni,” I say in a positive voice. He is standing with Heather, almost hiding. He knows what’s going on. He lifts his black nose up for me to place the harness over his head, the voice inside me thinking: This might be the final working walk.
I want to whisper in his ear, you can do it.
The harness is on Unity, something which I have done thousands of times during his long wonderful career. We make our way to the front door.
Chris speaks gently to him, “You have lovely brown eyes, old mate”. I suspect there may have been a quick rub behind the ears. Unity has always been very popular because of his caramel coat, his mane like fur on his neck and his extra fluffy legs. We are now on the veranda and I am calling out goodbye to heather. I explain to Chris that I have had a sore ankle and although it is improving I hope I do not limp and affect Unity’s gait. It feels as if I am trying to help him, to justify any problems he may have on our walk.
We walk down the five front steps off our veranda and along the path. I am surprised to find Unity is pulling. I stride out with him. Steady Uni, steady, I say under my breath. We go out the front gate and Uni increases the speed. Steady, mate, you have a big walk ahead. We pause at the roadside and cross. Chris is following. Unity takes off. I have already forgotten my sore ankle and extend my stride to stay beside him, just behind his shoulder. The cool wind is behind us, giving us an extra push. He is moving like a young dog again. I am totally surprised.
Chris calls out, jokingly, “Wait for me”. I smile and ease the pace.
“Chris, do you want us to slow down for you?”
“No, no, do what you want to.”
I release the tension through the harness and leash and we are now powering along. I am smiling and it feels fantastic. We enter the narrow, long, park and the children’s playground, which often has Kookaburras laughing at the world. We spent a lot of creative time in this playground many years ago when our children were younger. We were often flying to exciting places like Mars, Venus and the moon. I can hear young voices now, no doubt, they are flying to other amazing places. Perhaps their minds take them to galaxies far beyond my comprehension. I can hear the squeak of the swing and a small voice yelling, “Mum, I can fly”.
We slow down for Chris to catch up and I explain that we will stop temporarily as this is where Unity likes to have a sniff and an opportunity for him to toilet, which is extremely helpful on days where there may be limited grass areas later on for him to empty.
Uni stops and I remove his harness. He walks onto the grass and does a few circles, finds the right place, it must be the exact spot and he wees. I am thinking that Uni will probably slow down now that we have had a break. I put the harness over his beautiful fluffy head and fasten him in again.
Okay boy, let’s go.
He is off again and this time even faster. I know we are way out in front of Chris and I am laughing silently. I am smiling and each time I praise Uni, he increases his speed. I cannot believe it. We wait for Chris to catch up.
“You guys are flying”.
“Shall we slow down for you?”
“No, no, keep going.”
We power down the street and the sound of Chris’s footsteps are soon fading away. We turn right into the river road and I say to Uni, “Let’s go”, and he responds by walking even faster. Chris is saved by the traffic lights, as we have to stop and I am also starting to pant. My smile broadens, it’s hurting my facial muscles. We cross the intersection and move into the shopping centre.
Uni does slow his pace now as we need to manoeuvre through various obstacles, including people, a pram, another dog, a Jack Russell, as well as, tables and chairs. He does it so professionally. Moving left, shifting right, suddenly stopping and turning in front of me. Someone almost walked into me from the other direction and he saves me. He is always on the lookout for potential danger. Chris says, “Well done, brilliant work”.
We reach a favourite café, and Chris taps out on the table, 1,2,3, “I submit”, he laughs as he falls into a chair. “Can we stop for five minutes”.
“Uni, find the chair,” I say and dutifully, he puts his chin on the seat. I praise him and sit down. He lies down next to me. Chris says, “Unity, I may need to lie down with you”.
“Is he really almost eleven?”
“Yes, on the 20th of April.”
“Amazing. Nick, Unity is smiling”.
I grin and tell Chris that over the years, a lot of people have noticed his smile and bright white teeth, I love it. They have also known his tremendous work. This old friend has guided me through crowded cities, onto trains, buses, ferries and over one hundred aeroplanes. He has recognised dangerous situations and saved my life. Today, he is the conductor, the performer and Chris is his appraising audience.
We chat and after five minutes, I announce, time’s up, let’s run. We start racing home and I know Uni’s beautiful feathered tail is flying in the wind. He is like a Ferrari, and we are going through the gears. We are back in the park and I give Unity total freedom as I relax the leash and we are now almost airborne. We are in rhythm and bounding along. It is a tremendous feeling.
I remember one afternoon when he was two years old and a little girl of about three, calmly said to her Mum as we walked in our local shopping centre, “Mum, look, there’s a lion”. I imagined the lovely smile her Mum gave the world when her daughter shared her joy at seeing a lion.
I wonder if Unity would like to go any faster.
I chuckle to myself an say, “Let’s go Uni,” and he finds another gear.
Rev, Rev, we are moving even faster.
He knows he is under scrutiny and is running the instructor off his feet. I am his willing accomplice. Chris is trailing a long distance behind and I know he is extremely surprised by the fleet of foot Unity. We are definitely showing off now.
We are back in my street and Uni starts to slow the pace. It is as if we are coming into land on the runway and he is winding down. We cross our street and enter our property. I unharness Uni and give him a huge pat, “Well done, good boy, yay!”. The removal of the harness means, job done and he shakes himself, before running off into the front yard. Chris is still catching up. Chris and I are both panting and I wipe the perspiration off my face. I am hoping, praying Uni has passed his assessment.
We enter the house and Chris says to Heather, “Unity walks as fast as a young dog, he has a V8 engine for a heart, he is not ready for retirement.”
I flop into a lounge chair and Uni lies at my feet. I know Unity is saying to me, “did you ever doubt me?”
I pick up a caramel ear and caress it. I can hear Heather saying to Chris, “Would you like some water”.
“Oh, please, I am absolutely knackered. Do you happen to have a respirator?” he laughs with us.
Ten minutes later, Heather is harnessing Zep and Chris is saying, “Let’s do a fifteen, I mean ten, minute walk and please not fast!”. Heather is smiling and says, “Chris, we usually walk four or five kilometres.
“Oh, no, please,” he chuckles.
It is the hundreds of instructors like Chris, the unsung heroes that assist thousands of people who are blind to find and maintain their independence. Thank you, Chris.
Heather, Zep and Chris leave and I turn to Unity.
“I love you mate,” I tell him and gently squeeze his big Golden Retriever paw.
We can rest. Our working partnership will not end today. I give Unity another pat. He rolls on his back and extends his body full length. It is Unity’s way of having the last say.
“RUB MY BELLY.”
Unity’s reward for a job well done.