Celebrating Annie: Guide Dog Retires from WE C Hope Team
Monday April 29, 2019
Annie, an important member of our team, retired on April 15th. Abby White, retinoblastoma survivor, WE C Hope founder and volunteer CEO, reflects on working with her guide dog for 7 years. She considers the gifts Annie has brought to both the individual retinoblastoma survivor, and to WE C Hope.
Annie, pictured in Oxford’s Florence Park in August 2016.
Navigating the World Before Annie
My first guide dog, Annie, has been a great blessing in the retinoblastoma experience. Observant guide, alert protector, loving companion, patient confidante, fellow traveller. But our partnership was far from “inevitable”.
I was screened from birth for retinoblastoma due to my father’s cancer, and diagnosed early. Treatment saved both eyes, but my right eye, which never had useful vision, was surgically removed in 2002 due to late effects of radiotherapy.
In 2000, peripheral vision began to fail in my left eye, and my central vision became increasingly blurred. Ironically, vision-destroying late effects of radiotherapy that saved my sight in infancy. My eye can at times also be intensely painful.
As my sight decreased, so did my confidence and self-esteem. I stopped socialising. I eschewed crowded environments where the combination of poor sight and difficulty hearing amid background noise can feel suffocating. I avoided engagements involving night-time travel as my limited night vision evaporated.
These changes occurred as oriented through other major life experiences, and as WE C Hope began to emerge (named Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund at the time). The very time I needed to be actively involved in and connecting with the world.
I learned white cane skills in childhood, but I’m not a fan. I find too many people see only a disability holding the cane, not the unique human being. I hated feeling exposed or “on display” by holding it. I have intense unease about being identified or defined by my eyes and sight. Perhaps an effect of excruciating times when doctors and medical students crowded around me as a child and I had no say in the matter.
In contrast, a guide dog creates space for shared understanding, for broad human connection uncomplicated by the fear and stigma of disability. No one has ever asked me my cane’s name, or how old it is – and if they did, quite frankly I’d be concerned!
A guide dog’s ability to assimilate information about the environment and make decisions appealed immensely. The cane can only indicate obstacles within 1-2 paces, depending on walking speed. The dog does so much more.
This was painfully demonstrated in January 2009, when I took a shortcut across the newly redeveloped Bonn Square in Oxford. I was not expecting a fan of steps on the far side – a tiny lip on the top end, rising to a flight at the other. I’m lucky I wore sturdy walking boots due to a planned river walk, and no bones were broken.
That experience propelled my investigation of a guide dog application. I’d trusted the one tiny step at the top end of the square would run uniform along the entire side. My pace didn’t allow my cane time to give me feedback about the steps. A dog would have seen the steps, slowed down and stopped at the top.
Still, I had concerns. Primarily about the practicalities of international travel with a guide dog. But by early 2010, research and conversation with other guide dog handlers gave me more assurance. So my application was submitted, and the wait for Annie began…
Annie and Abby with participants of One Retinoblastoma World 2016 in Dublin, Ireland.
Security and Confidence
Annie bounced into my life in June 2012, a cuddly four year old black Golden Retriever – Labrador cross. Already a working guide dog for two years, a change in her handler’s situation sent her back to Guide Dogs UK, and happily on to me. She was perfect, especially as she’d already flown confidently with her previous handler.
Annie has been an excellent mobility aid. Navigating around obstacles, finding routes, curbs, steps, ramp alternatives, road crossings, doors, familiar locations, counters, reception desks, unoccupied seats, and so much more.
But it’s her invisible gifts that have been the most precious to me. The security her presence creates beside me is immeasurable. Knowing she’s alert for potential dangers relieves tension that can build up without even being aware of it – until it’s no longer there. On familiar routes, I’ve regained the meditative pace one can relax into with fully present walking.
Annie has shared the decision-making. Her immediate calm and love is a balm when I’ve lost the way and there’s no one to ask for help. She’s a comfort and a sense of protection.
With Annie, I’ve slowly rebuilt confidence eroded by treatment late effects and confluent life events. As a guide dog, she was always an ice breaker. I had so many more conversations with people than I ever did navigating the world with my cane. I usually relish these interactions. They’re warm, uplifting, sustaining, and become great opportunities to educate about guide dogs.
Those interactions also often enable conversation about retinoblastoma and WE C Hope that would never flow without Annie’s initiating presence. Each exchange not only educates about the early signs of childhood eye cancer and global disparities in care, but also allows me to practice telling our story to an individual with genuine interest. I’m so appreciative of that opportunity.
Of course I am daily frustrated by the many people who see only the dog, who ignore her harness and pet her, who don’t acknowledge me or ask permission. But I still choose the guide dog over the cane.
In the beginning, constant recognition of Annie, without acknowledging me, made me feel invisible, unnecessary. I still dislike the intrusion, but I know I gain far more from Annie than anything those interactions threaten to diminish.
Guide dogs aren’t a magic wand. For example, they can’t tell their human when it’s safe to cross the road. The dog is trained to identify the safest crossing point, where the handler takes over – operating a pedestrian crossing, using senses, or asking for human help. The dog also can’t read traffic lights. Fortunately in the UK at least, most pedestrian crossings incorporate audible and/or tactile features to indicate when lights change.
One of the most common and dangerous places to pet a guide dog is while standing at a pedestrian crossing. I’ve been in multiple situations in which one person crossed against the traffic, followed by others when traffic was forced to stop for the first individual. Annie then tried to follow the crowd – including the person who petted her moments before, while the light remained red for the pedestrian. Petting distracts both guide dog and handler, so critical sensory information could be missed, causing serious injury, or even death.
Guide dogs are trained to ignore distractions and focus completely on their handler’s safety and commands. But they are firstly dogs, with a heart for human connection. If you make eye contact, talk to them, beacon them over, offer food or affection, they will want to respond.
Always ask permission of the handler first. Even if the dog appears to be sitting quietly, the handler has given that specific instruction, and it should not disrupted. If asked politely and the timing was right for us, I’ve been happy to drop the harness handle for a brief conversation and pet. Sometimes I decline, but if I’m not in a hurry and the person has asked respectfully, I try to explain my reasons – it’s a good education opportunity and returns the respect given to me.
Networking With a Canine Buddy
I’ve never been a fan of crowds, but my dislike has grown since 2000 as left-ear hearing loss increased. Wearing a hearing aid in noisy environments now helps, though holding dialog against the ebb and flow of background conversations still requires intense concentration.
I came to dread networking events, fundraisers, social mixers, and similar events. Steering through the room without being able to identify people or read body language was mentally exhausting and isolating. But I felt I Should be participating in such activities for WE C Hope. The “chattering monkey” has had no end of fun with that particular clash!
Annie proved again to be the perfect “plus one”. At most venues, I’m barely arrived before someone approaches to greet her. She opens up conversation from the shared love of dogs, and networking can flow from that first exchange.
This is one scenario in which I’ve privately hoped for others’ keenness to greet Annie. Still, I politely ask people not pet or distract her. Networking events often involve food, and guests invariably approach with tasty morsels in hand. I ask that people never interact with my guide dog while holding food. Even making eye contact signals her to look for food during the event, instead of following my commands.
If possible, I try to obtain a guest list in advance. I’ll note at least five people I want to connect with. Invariably, someone will ask to greet Annie soon after arrival. As conversation with that person closes, I’ll ask them to help me locate someone on my list – or another guest who may be a good connection. Sometimes my approach is scuppered – my companion is whisked away, for example. By that time though, Annie has usually captivated someone else, and the process begins again.
Annie considers a change of career – sheepdog maybe?
Emotional Calm in the Office
The river called childhood cancer has cut deep throughout my life – infant patient to adult survivor, advocate and solo support worker.
I never intended to establish a retinoblastoma charity. In 2004, I responded to a single email, to the needs of an individual family. The snowball that followed brought best possible care possible to Rati and her family, a program in Kenya tackling many challenges that cause so many children like her to die, global effort to increase conversation and collaboration between professionals, parents and survivors, and a US non-profit aiming to address issues and needs in America.
Throughout, I continue to receive enquiries from families and their advocates in desperate need and seemingly hopeless situations. Lack of money, lack of access to medical care, incurable children, children who were curable before treatment abroad bankrupted the family… Responding with compassion, finding some way that each can feel supported amid the chaos and agony of their situation, is exhausting. Too often I feel so ill-equipped in this role I never intended to take.
Balancing the daily focus on retinoblastoma with my personal experience as a survivor can be gruelling. RB1 genetics and treatment late effects have run roughshod over my life. The last several years have been particularly intense. At times I wish I could walk away from childhood cancer, create a vast ocean of space to breathe into my own healing.
Annie has been delightful stress-relief at work. Not shackled by the burdens of retinoblastoma, she is peace and fun and love. Sensitive to mood, always ready to suggest a distracting tummy rub or game. Sitting with her for a few minutes can be acutely balancing, a meditative disconnection.
Annie doesn’t magic the challenges away. But she helps to daily ease tension that could build up and overwhelm. She relaxes body and mind, and fortifies the soul.
Annie snuggles with a giant hippo plush pillow, one of her favourite toys.
Annie is a very well-travelled guide dog. In her time with me, she has visited nine countries and 15 US states, taking a total of 38 flights. From weekend city breaks and relaxing holidays to complex working trips, we have had many memorable adventures together.
In 2015, Annie became the first guide dog to visit Kenya, before we attended the International Society of Paediatric Oncology World Congress in South Africa (one of 4 SIOP congresses we attended together). I could legally travel with Annie to both countries, and working in Nairobi and Cape Town only, I was determined to try to make it happen.
South Africa usually quarantines all dogs from Kenya, but Annie was granted an exemption due to living in the UK and travelling on an EU PETS passport. However, crucial documents lost in Pretoria just 10 days before our departure to Nairobi put the entire trip in jeopardy. Many brilliant people worked fast across five countries to ensure we could travel together as planned.
Travelling to Africa with Annie was a wonderful experience and accomplishment. One day, I will tell the full story of our adventure. Particularly our eventful journey from Nairobi to Cape Town.
Like all grand adventures, my partnership with Annie had to end. Her golden retirement is very much deserved. She was the best first guide dog I could ask for, and I’m so immensely proud of her, of all she’s achieved.
Annie’s retirement was long awaited. I finally matched in March, 26 months after Guide Dogs UK began looking for a new guide dog. The date of Annie’s formal retirement came just days after the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash killed three members of our Kenyan childhood cancer team – a very emotionally charged time.
Annie’s final working weekends were suitably busy and full of fun, a high end to a brilliant career. A London theatre break with a dear friend included three musicals in three nights. All West End theatres provide a guide-dog sitting service, and Annie revelled in the attention while my friend and I enjoyed the shows. The staff loved her just as much.
Two days before retirement, we joined fellow “woofers” (dog walking friends) from our local park for a car-share outing to the coast. A wonderful swansong for a delightful lady – a few sedate harness walks around Bournemouth pier and various restaurants / cafés, and hours of free-running fun with doggy friends on glorious wide sandy beach.
Annie has retired with me as a pet. After all I’ve experienced personally, and with her, I can’t imagine any other way. I do have a very reluctant Plan B ready if needed. I work from home, and I can walk Annie to the nearby park on her flexilead. This resolves many practicalities that often prevent retirement with the handler.
A retired guide dog should not be left alone for more than four hours. Their entire life has passed in human company, and they can quickly become depressed if left alone for long periods. Several friends and neighbours have committed to Annie-sitting or boarding if needed. They are the deeply valued critical difference in my ability to keep her with me.
Annie is settling well with my new dog, accepting that another girl wears the harness while she has a treat and quiet time to relax. Perhaps most importantly, my 17 year old cat, Tosca, has also been very accepting of our lively new arrival.
Annie’s long-term residence will be reviewed as we settle into new routines, and events test the practical boundaries. So far all signs are good for her future with me and around the WE C Hope office as a very much loved lady of leisure.