Smelling the Trees

In loving memory of Nev, my guiding eyes and special friend. 1998-2012.

When I was just fifteen months old I graduated from Guide Dog school.  It was a very proud moment in my puppy dog life – my family were there at my Graduation and they were so proud of me.

We couldn’t believe that I had passed my twelve months of socialising, five months of intense training and an endless week of exams. I was now a fully fledged Guide Dog!

It hadn’t been easy though, passing delicious food smells from café sidewalks, ignoring feline provocation from cats along our route, keeping my composure when a persistent Jack Russell sniffed my butt while I was waiting at the traffic lights. Honestly, some owners do have them, but I knew how important it was to stay focused and I was rewarded with an affectionate pat and a ‘good boy.’

After graduating, I moved back to the Guide Dog kennels where I was born. It was comforting to smell all those wonderful aromas again, from my puppyhood but now I was waiting to be matched to my new owner.

One morning,  I  overheard the trainers talking about my new family: Aha! She was vision-impaired and she had a small boy-child? Oh great, he’d better not pull my fur with his sticky fingers…oh well, paws crossed, let’s hope he is as well trained as me.

I knew it was a special morning: my trainer groomed me from head to tail.

‘Hey laddie, you’re going to a new home soon. Got to make you look smart for your new lady friend.’

I was so excited. I had a quick drink from the silver bowl outside the kennels and tried my hardest not to run around in circles. Suddenly I felt like a puppy again,  the fresh morning air tickled my whiskers.

Four Labrador colleagues were also being taken to meet their new blind owners for the first time. I sniff the ground looking for clues, I puff and pant, in need of another drink.

The door of her guestroom opens slowly – and there she is, my new human companion, sitting awkwardly on the cold tiled floor waiting to greet me. I toss my head proudly as I walk closer to her. She smells like the sweet white flowers just outside, and I give her a polite kiss on the cheek.

My trainer hands her my new leash, instructing us to spend a little quiet time to get to know each other. He’s gone?

I look around for her boy-child but can only smell doggy treats. She unclips my leash and holds out her hand, right up to my nose if you please,  her palm dotted with biscuits.

My taste buds go into overdrive and I fail my first test: diving under her bed to hunt down her secret stash.   She can’t fool my natural retriever instincts: maybe over here, under the chair? Or over there, under the dresser, or…

‘NEV. SIT.’

Her sudden harsh tone startles me.

Okay, no need to growl. Keep your fur on’

She seems happier now I am sitting by her side, and massages my back with gentle hands. We peer into each other’s eyes, the blueness radiates so clearly, I have to ask myself, ‘are you sure you’re blind?’

Several months later…

I am living in a comfortable home with my new family in a seaside suburb of Melbourne. The boy-child is tolerable, although he has an annoying habit of grabbing my collar, to pull me about like one of his toy cars.

He’s three years old and hasn’t even started school yet – can you believe that? Huh, and humans think they are the superior breed?

My duty of care for my blind owner involves guiding her safely around, crossing roads, navigating our way to the main street, avoiding obstacles and locating the places she needs to get to. I have to really concentrate and listen for her instructions but so far, we are working well as a team.

My favourite destination is the supermarket!  OH, the smells! The sensuous aroma of chocolate and

sweets, meats and cakes…and when we stand by the deli, oh my dogness, the scent is a hound’s paradise!

Some days we travel on the train to the big city. I can’t believe how ignorant humans can be…they walk right in front of us and make my work very difficult.

People try and get my attention by whistling, talking to me, giving me eye contact or, the worst thing – patting me on the head when we are standing still at a crossing. Don’t they know that a guide dog’s got to do what a guide dog’s got to do?

My handler tries to tell them politely not to pat me when I’m working, but some people just don’t listen. One rude guy once said, ‘don’t tell me what to do with dogs. I know he’s a guide dog, I’m not friggin blind!’ I licked her hand and slept close to her bed that night just to let her know I think she is pretty sweet.

Sometimes, after a very long guiding day in the busy city, I return home completely brain-dead. I unwind with a delightful bowl of dog food and a cuddle with my owner. The boy-child joins us to watch tv, and lies right on top of me as if I am his royal pillow. But I drift off to sleep, dreaming of hotdogs and where I might have buried my last smelly bone.

Many, many years later…

‘Happy Birthday, Nevie.’

My owner reaches into a white plastic bag, producing a juicy bone and drops it into my well loved dinner bowl. I grab it in a flash and run for the back yard, no one is having this now, it’s mine – she said so!

I’m a little older these days and my waistline isn’t what it used to be. You see, I retired two years ago. Guide-work just got a bit too much, the walking was killing my paws and I couldn’t keep up the pace…but I did give my beloved human companion the best part of 8 working years of my life!

I still live with her and the boy-child. But we have a new member to our family, a man-guide. He’s pretty cool too, and now they take me for a walk, sometimes not even with my leash and I am free to be myself, running around with the other dogs in the park.

My life is still rewarding, it’s just different now. Like they say, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks but the boy-child is showing me how to chase after balls and other playful stuff.

And the best part of my retired life is –

I finally have time to smell the trees.

Nev tells Bel a secret© 2013  Maribel Steel

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