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A personal experience of having a guide dog by Emma McElwee

My name is Emma, and I have had my lovely Guide Dog, Gina, for seven years. Anyone who knows me would agree that they were surprised to find out I had applied for a Guide Dog after losing my sight, as I have been terrified of dogs my whole life. However, I can look back and say it was my best decision ever.


I was born with a genetic eye condition, meaning I have lived with sight loss my whole life. Although I have never had full vision, I worked very well with the level of vision I had. I do not feel it has held me back from achieving my goals. With the help of low vision aids, I completed an undergraduate degree in Psychology. I went on to complete a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy.


My sight loss did not impact my mobility, and I managed to get around without using mobility aids. However, things changed for me in 2014 when I noticed my sight deteriorating. It took a long time for my ophthalmologist to determine the reason for this deterioration. While it was being investigated, my sight continued to get worse and worse.


I tried my best to carry on as normal, but I finally reached the point where I had to admit that I could no longer get out and about on my own safely. In the summer of 2015, I lost my sight completely. This left me with making big decisions on how to get on with the rest of my life. I was very fortunate that I worked in the world of sight loss. I knew a great deal about how I could make the most of technology and different gadgets to maintain my independence.


My biggest issue related to my mobility. I met many people with sight loss over the years, and I felt from everything I’d learned through them that a dog would be best for me. I lived in Glasgow at the time and travelled to Edinburgh for work. I could not imagine doing this with a cane; however, in my mind, I felt it may be possible with a dog.


I contacted Guide Dogs to inquire about being put on the list; however, I was told that this would not be possible because I didn’t have any cane skills. This gave me a huge push to learn how to use a cane, and even though I wasn’t happy about it, this was my route to getting a Guide Dog, so I had to suck it up.


I had input from fantastic mobility instructors in Glasgow and Edinburgh to help me use a cane to get around my local area and my route to work. I learned to use a cane to get me into Edinburgh and then caught a bus to work, as walking to work was quite complicated to do with a cane. Guide Dogs revisited me to assess my cane skills, and I was finally on the list for a Guide Dog.


I explained my fear of dogs to the team, and they were fantastic in helping me overcome my wariness. I was invited to visit the office to meet different dogs and learn about looking after them. I was told there may be a long wait for a dog, but I would be contacted when a match was found. I vividly remember the moment I got the call nine months later to say that a potential match had been found. I was overjoyed, as was my husband. As we were sitting in a beer garden at the time, we decided to get another round to celebrate!


I met Gina for the first time in the Guide Dog office in Hamilton, and we really clicked. They explained to me what an amazing dog Gina was, and it was felt that she could take on my challenging work commute and routes I used in my personal life. I was warned that she could be a bit cheeky, which is true; however, her diva-like ways make her more loveable.


Going through the training was emotionally and physically demanding. I had never had a dog before, and this was a huge lifestyle change for my husband and me. I did have times when I felt that this was maybe not the right decision for me. However, I had amazing support from my Guide Dog Mobility Instructor, who showed how Gina could change my life, and I could not be more grateful that she did.


After completing our training, Gina and I travelled from Glasgow to Edinburgh five days a week for work. We would arrive at Waverly station and embark on our 25-minute walk to work. I had never been more popular until I began arriving at places with Gina. Gina is a very cute dog who attracts a lot of attention and laps up every minute. This meant I began to make new friends at work and around my local area.


Since getting Gina, I have gone on to have my two kids, and Gina has been with me every step of the way. Gina came with us to all the baby classes, which made it possible for me to make new mum friends that I relied on to get me through the early days of motherhood. She usually got more attention than the babies in these groups, so she was delighted to go along every week. Having Gina with me meant I could walk my wee boy to nursery every morning, which was so important to me as I couldn’t have imagined being able to do this without her.


Gina is approaching the age when a Guide Dog may retire, which makes me feel emotional just thinking about it. When Gina retires, I will return to the waiting list for a new dog. However, I can’t imagine being lucky enough to find another one like Gina. I now work as part of Visibility Scotland’s Patient Support service, and Gina is definitely a fully-fledged team member. My experiences of living with sight loss and applying for my Guide Dog benefit me greatly in my role, as I can pass what I have learned from these experiences on to service users who are going through the same thing.


Opting for a Guide Dog may not be the right decision for everyone; however, I can say with certainty that it has been the best decision for my family and me.


Gina lying down in a snow covered filed. She has a red ball at her left paw

Image ID: Gina lying down in a snow covered field with her red ball.

Image of Paul Hanlon
Written by: Paul Hanlon

Posted on the: April 26, 2023
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