4 October 2021

Blind Trust: Eyes On Four Legs

10 years ago, and in just a short period of time, Francis was not only diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, but her doctors had also discovered irreversible eye damage. Having found several “infarcts”, which are small, localized areas of dead tissue resulting from poor blood supply, Francis was sadly left with only 1.5% residual vision, classing her as visually impaired. 

These days, Francis leads a busy life. She likes to regularly take walks in the woods, as well as works hard and spends time with friends. Furthermore, she does all of these things with her two dogs by her side, Nikki, who came first, and her sister Claire. 

It was in 2015 when Nikki took her place walking to the left side of Francis, but now, after six years of hard work, Nikki has retired and has now moved to Francis’ right side, as forever her friend and loyal companion. Now, working on Francis’ left, is Claire. 

How is a dog matched to an owner?

Before a guide dog is placed with their owner, professionals work hard to match them seamlessly. The character of both human and canine is considered, as well as the lifestyle of the individual who requires the support – both the lifestyle they currently lead and the one they aspire to lead while supported. Other factors such as genetics, walking pace, their capacity for work and how they deal with conflict are taken into context when selecting the perfect pooch.

Once matched, the dog is given two weeks of intensive training in the home of their new owner. After that, they are placed on permanent loan from the training institute they originally came from. That is, until the time comes for them to retire.

Each support dog also comes with their own version of Kaleido Care! A helpline to call should the owner ever need help or advice.

Francis, Nikki and Claire

Nikki: A very clever dog

Because of the active pace of Francis’ life, and the 24/7 nature of the work, Nikki needed to stop working after six happy years with Francis. Francis knew that the time had come for her friend to take a rest when Nikki’s tail stopped wagging when her help was needed.

Claire was matched as Francis’ new companion, but it wasn’t an easy transition. Another two weeks of intensive training, plus years of building up a mutual respect and love needed for such a special and important partnership. 

Not only that, but Nikki had a special skill, one that is rare and precious in four-legged friends: detecting hypos and hypers. Research shows that a person’s scent changes when their blood sugar fluctuates, and often so does their behaviour. Nikki, a very clever dog indeed, picked up on these changes and knew she needed to alert Francis to them. She did this by tapping her snout against Francis’ hand… irritating, but incredible! On checking her blood sugars, Francis found that Nikki was always right. She was indeed ahead of the sensor.

So, can Claire do that too?

Like all big sisters should, Nikki helps Claire sometimes. She’s not technically responsible for training her, but Claire knows to copy her behaviour sometimes in order to be more helpful. She quickly learned to give the same warm welcomes that Nikki does, but also to pick up on hypos and hypers when Francis experiences them. When this happens, she places two paws on Francis’ knee. So now, not only does Francis get a tap on the hand from Nikki when her sugars are out of range, who still insists on it despite her retirement, but she also receives a different signal from her new pup too. Neither will budge until Francis takes some action. 

How long did it take the dogs to develop this skill?

After a year of being by Francis’ side, Nikki started picking up on hypos and hypers. So far, Claire has been with Francis for six months and already knows how. Francis is truly grateful: “I am very lucky with this because I have hypo unawareness and two dogs that act faster than a sensor.”

It’s also important to add that neither Nikki and Claire are Diabetes Alert Dogs. They are guide dogs who taught themselves new skills. Some dogs with ambition and a good nose, are able to do that, and they can be trained, but it’s always best to opt for an official alert dog if you are considering it.

Both Nikki and Claire are a mix of Golden Retriever and Royal Poodle. They’re both spunky ladies with true character and personalities. Francis couldn’t have asked for better.

Has Francis ever used the helpline?

Unfortunately, during their time together, Francis and Nikki were in an accident. They got hit by a car, but luckily neither suffered any serious injuries. For a working dog and the person who depends on them though, an accident like this one can be devastating. Both are so reliant on each other to complete their roles and they need to work to rebuild that special dynamic again. 

Following the accident, Francis contacted the helpline who sent someone out to assist her. The three of them spent two hours at the site of collision, walking the route together until trust and ease clicked back into place. The vulnerability that can be felt by Francis without help by her side can have a huge impact on her confidence and independence, so must always be nurtured and repaired as a priority.

More about Guide Dogs

When they walk on the left, then are the dogs performing their work. It’s very intense work. When Francis walks with them she counts the turns and steps she makes, this is her orientation. Alongside her dogs she is able to walk safely to the place where she needs to be, but if she is approached on the way, or disturbed in an unexpected way, that orientation is compromised. In these circumstances, she must return to the place where she had stopped counting and begin again. That’s why it’s so important to never distract a working dog and their owner! They are performing a very important task.

Last but not least: The offer of help is always appreciated, but not always convenient for Francis and her dogs. If you’d like to compliment a working dog, remember they’re part of a team! Always compliment the owner as well, they’ll be sure to appreciate it.

About Francis

Francis has a busy life and likes to get out. Since 2015, she has done this with her dog Nikki by her side, and in 2021 Claire took over her duties. Francis’ favourite thing? A good walk through the woods. With both dogs of course!