It was 1931, in a humble lock-up garage in Wallasey on Merseyside, when two pioneering women, Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond, arguably changed the lives of those living with visual impairment in Britain forever.
In the wake of the First World War, thousands of soldiers across Europe came home blinded as a result of the intense conflict, and became the catalysts for what is now the modern guide dog movement.
Fascinated and inspired by success stories from America, Germany and Switzerland, Crooke and Bond organised the training of four adult German Shepherd dogs to help improve the mobility of visually impaired soldiers.
On October 6, 1931, the trainees were handed over to four blind British veterans, thus establishing the first ever guide dog partnerships in the UK.
Within six months of meeting the dogs, the former servicemen reported feeling a freedom and independence they had not experienced since before the war and by 1934, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association was established.
Ninety years on, Guide Dogs’ work continues to change the lives of the visually impaired. Things have changed of course: from buying and raising puppies in the 1950s; to establishing a breeding programme in the 1960s that remains in place today, the process of taking a newborn puppy and transforming them into a well-adjusted, functional working guide dog has become a fine art for the organisation
But almost a century on, the primary focus of the charity hasn’t really changed: “Everyone deserves to lead the life that they want to lead. Living with sight loss is one of those disabilities which affects every part of your life, but, we believe with the right intervention; with the right support; possibly with the right guide dog even, there should be no barriers to people doing what it is that they want and need to do,” said Tim Stafford, the Director of Canine Affairs at Guide Dogs.
Scott Bailey is just one example of the impact that having a guide dog can have on the lives of those with visual impairment. I met up with Scott, 32, at a cafe in Nantwich, Cheshire, he was there early, waiting in line accompanied by his guide dog, a striking Golden Retriever named Milo.
A former dairy farmer from nearby Crewe, Scott is an easy-going, salt-of-the-earth type – a husband and a father to two girls, his warm and funny demeanour feels capable of putting anyone immediately at ease.
What stands out most to me seeing Scott for the first time however, is how, despite his disability, in this busy lunchtime cafe, with Milo by his side, he seems completely at ease.
I point out an empty table and lead as Scott passes a simple command to Milo: “Follow.” The dog assists as he leads Scott to the chair opposite me before lying down at his feet as we ramble gently into the interview. Milo remains relaxed but completely observant throughout our chat.
Scott was 30 when he first lost sight in one of his eyes: “I was just at work, milking the cows, when all of a sudden, I had this massive bleed in one of my eyes. It happened within seconds. It was like a light turned off.”
A diabetic since childhood, Scott had received some simple intervening treatment such as laser eye surgery on his eyes in the few years prior to his vision loss. “I was warned that this might happen. But I didn’t think it was going to happen. I thought I was bulletproof. I couldn’t tell anything was wrong. I was still driving, working, doing everything. Until it actually happened, I was going about life as normal.”
Scott was picked up from work by his wife Amanda, and taken straight to his local A&E where he was referred immediately to specialist care at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital.
It was there that Scott was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes that causes damage to the blood vessels in the back of the eye, and the leading cause of blindness in British adults.
Surgery on the eye is notoriously complex, particularly when performed on younger patients such as Scott. Over the course of nine operations, further complications also meant Scott later developed glaucoma and cataracts, two similarly debilitating conditions. By the May of 2019, Scott had been registered as blind, and his life was changed forever.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People, one of the UK’s leading sight loss charities, compares the emotional experience of losing vision to the pain of grieving. Scott recounted in harrowing honesty the true emotions he felt following his sight loss.
“I really could not do anything. I could not do anything at all. I remember I used to sit there in the kitchen, my wife would put the TV on for me. For some reason that was a timer, so that would turn off after a few hours. I would literally sit there whilst my family was at school and work. I’d sit there just waiting for them to come home.
“I’d gone from being outside, working, going about life, to literally being stuck inside four walls. Not being able to make a brew, not being able to make dinner, not being able to be independent and do things for myself. I grieved for my sight. At the time it feels like you’ve lost everything. You can’t see anyone. Of course they are there, but you can’t see them,” he explained.
“I was sad. I couldn’t see my girls’ faces, at all. Things were going through my head that were really horrible. I had no mobility skills, no adaptations, no support, no help. I didn’t even know one blind person.”
That was until Scott met his rehabilitation officer, Jim Cummings, who guided Scott through the first steps of adapting to his vision loss by training him how to use a cane. Scott cracks a wry smile as he now jokes that “it was literally the blind leading the blind.”
The impact that Jim had on Scott’s life cannot be understated, and also proved important in reshaping Scott’s outlook on life: “I wasn’t used to asking people for help. I’d never asked anyone for help. I wasn’t really a people person. I mean I’d grown up on a farm, I was a cow person! I felt embarrassed asking for help. But that changed. He taught me how to live a new way of life.”
Whilst learning to use a cane was key for Scott’s independence, it’s wasn’t a perfect solution. “Me and my wife were walking down the street, I had my cane, going along as I do: left, right, left, right, when I hit a bump. My cane poked me in the stomach – as it should.” Then came Scott’s lightbulb moment: “I said to Amanda, ‘do you think I should look into a guide dog?'”
Getting home, Amanda immediately emailed the charity and got the ball rolling with Guide Dogs. A couple of weeks went by before Scott got a phone call offering the first assessment: “They asked me what I could do? I told them: I couldn’t make a brew, I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t do anything. I think they were quite shocked by that.”
Scott passed the first stage of assessment, which was then followed by an in-person visit by the charity’s mobility specialists to observe Scott out on a walk: “They’re assessing how fast I was walking; what my vision was like; why I needed a guide dog. That day I walked square into a lamp post, which funnily enough was good – it show them I actually needed a guide dog!”
It was the beginning of 2020 when Scott received yet another call from the charity: “They said they noticed from their records that I’d never actually walked with a guide dog. They told me that they had this dog in training and that they wanted to see how he walked. You know, I’d never actually even met a guide dog at this point.”
What followed was the day that Scott’s life changed once again.
”This guy pulls up in a car, a lovely German guy called Maik. He gets out, I walk over and suddenly this yellow dog jumps out the back.” Maik tells him: “This is Milo.”
Scott recounts how a month earlier, he “remembered liking and sharing this post from Guide Dogs on Facebook. I remember looking at this post and saying to my wife Amanda, ‘I want this dog, he’s amazing!’” In a bizarre and beautiful turn of fate, that dog in the post was Milo. “It was the same dog!”
Tim Stafford jokingly compared the process of forming the relationship between dog and person as something akin to an “arranged marriage”, because “every dog’s an individual and every person is an individual, and one dog doesn’t always suit that person but might suit a number of others.”
But in Scott and Milo’s case, the pair seemed a natural fit from the start.
Walking with Milo for the first time was game-changing for Scott; for the first time since losing his sight, Milo enabled him to walk with true independence again: “I just felt free.” After their first meeting, Maik took Milo back to the centre in Liverpool and assured Scott that they’d be in touch shortly to ask for feedback.
Scott was out walking a couple of days later when Guide Dogs called once more: “They asked me if I showed my girls any pictures of me walking Milo. I told them that I didn’t; that I didn’t want to get their hopes up.” Scott looks a little wistful as he recounts what he heard next: “They told me you don’t have to worry about that, because we want Milo to be your guide dog.
“I broke down in tears. I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening. They said because I have another dog and family that they’d fetch him round for a sleepover. That was amazing. But I didn’t know that would be the last time that I saw him for six months.”
Scott was due to check-in to a hotel in Liverpool to begin his and Milo’s training the day that Boris Johnson announced the country would be going into national lockdown. Scott recounts the understandable heartbreak he felt that day: “It felt like someone had given me my sight and independence back and taken it away from me again.”
Of course, no one knew how long lockdown would ultimately last. Whilst the pandemic obviously proved tough for everyone, it would also present new challenges for visually impaired people like Scott: “All the way through the pandemic I was worried. There were new barriers everywhere. One-way systems. I was bumping into everything. I wouldn’t go out anywhere because I was just embarrassed. I think the only thing that kept me going through that pandemic was the promise of Milo.”
That September, that promise was finally fulfilled and Milo entered Scott’s life. The charity went above and beyond to ensure Scott and his family wouldn’t have to wait any longer.
“Normally, you get one guide dog instructor, but three of them teamed together so they could train me and Milo up. We couldn’t go to the hotel because of restrictions, so Guide Dogs travelled from Liverpool to Crewe and trained us every single day.”
By November, Scott and Milo’s training was complete, and in the twelve months that have followed, the impact that Milo has had on Scott’s life goes beyond words: “He’s given me so much confidence to get out and about. He’s made me so much happier – he’s made my kids a lot happier – he has allowed me to be a dad again. That’s the main thing. He’s made me a happy dad again.”
With Milo’s help, Scott is now able to attend college, where he is currently training as a counsellor. He now has aspirations to attend university and specialise in sight loss counselling, where, with his experience and empathy, he has the potential to change lives.
“The confidence that Guide Dogs as a charity have given me by giving me Milo is just ridiculous. I can’t explain it,” says Scott. “It’s because of Milo that I’m going to college. If it wasn’t for Milo I couldn’t go. I’d be stuck at home.”
Scott now acts as an advocate for Guide Dogs and the wider visually-impaired community, sharing updates on his and Milo’s life through his Facebook page Guide Dog Team Milo. He’s also recently featured on ITV, and this winter you will see Scott and Milo as the subject of Guide Dogs’ TV Christmas fundraising campaign.
The story of course isn’t over for Scott. On the day I met him he was just a few weeks on from surgery, and was preparing for yet another operation within a month. But Scott doesn’t seem like a man who is mournful.
Meeting him with Milo, the reason is clear: “This dog has allowed me to be independent. He’s allowed me to be happy. Since having Milo I’ve not had one bit of anxiety. He’s given me a sense of purpose.”
Supported by the work of more than 1,500 staff and at least 14,000 volunteers, Guide Dogs has established more than 4,800 working guide dog partnerships like Scott and Milo’s in the UK, and the charity further supports roughly 200,000 visually impaired people through advice, advocacy, training and support.
In a June 1933 edition of the Tail-Wagger”Magazine, Alfred Morgan, one of the UK’s first guide dog owners, was quoted saying: “No blind man, no matter how clever he is, can cover the ground with the ease and speed that I can with Bella’s help. Now do you see what I mean by saying that I have regained my freedom? The fact is I have another pair of eyes.”
“I still hear words like these today, 90 years later,” Tim Stafford tells us. “It’s not just about the dogs and it’s not just about the people, it’s about that relationship between the two, that they can both really help each other.
“Dogs love people and people can love dogs. And if you get that partnership right, that’s where the magic really happens.”
Scott and Milo feature in Guide Dogs’ new Sponsor a Puppy Christmas TV advert.
Sponser a puppy today and you can help train the next Milo who could go on to provide life-changing support to others like Scott.
Featured image courtesy of Guide Dogs.
Edited by Jamie O’Brien-Hartigan.