Atherton's Alan Roberts celebrates 50 years of guide dog ownership
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 January 2015 | UPDATED: 16:52 25 February 2016
Atherton's Alan Roberts lost his sight when he was just 22. Fifty years later he is still enjoying life thanks to a succession of guide dogs. Emily Rothery reports
For 80 years the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has been working to provide independence and freedom to thousands of blind and partially sighted people throughout the UK.
Alan Roberts, from Atherton, near Wigan, knows better than most how life enhancing it can be to be partnered with a trained guide dog. He got his first, Major, in 1964 and has just reached the remarkable milestone of half a century of guide dog ownership. Over the years he has owned eight, all German Shepherds, and he speaks fondly of every one – Major, Trixie, Janson, Casper, Edmund, Arthur, recently retired Seamus and his latest partner, four-year-old Oliver.
Alan began to lose his sight in his late teens and was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive condition. Alan recalls the challenge of coming to terms with his deteriorating eyesight. ‘I struggled at school although I tried to hide it and by the age of 18 I had to give up cycling. I had been a keen cyclist, visiting the Lake District and cycling on one occasion from Lands End to John O’Groats. By the time I was 22 I had lost my sight and was using a white stick and had to rely on friends to get me around. It was awful.’ Despite Alan’s loss of independence he began to focus on making the most of life. He took a college course and then began to work in a factory assembling hair-dryer motors before moving on to become an assistant to the plant inspector. It was around this time that Major came into his life. ‘Being teamed with Major really was a catalyst in my life. I could walk to and from work and gradually regained my independence.’
With a trusty guide dog by his side, Alan’s confidence grew. ‘My life was transformed. I swapped cycling for walking and in 1978 I began running my haulage firm which I expanded as a successful business until 1988.’ When the demand began to decline because of pit closures, Alan, in his characteristically irrepressible way, set up a recruitment agency, which provided work for 5,800 people until he retired three years ago.
Alongside running these thriving businesses, Alan and his wife, Angela, began to spend their time between Atherton and a smallholding in Portinscale near Keswick where the couple could enjoy time in the countryside.
Alan’s dogs have all been rigorously trained to keep Alan safe on busy pavements and roads but, in the Lake District, Alan loves nothing more than to head for the fells. ‘The dogs love it and steer me around hazards such as boulders or fallen trees. I fall over sometimes but so what? I’ve come home muddy a few times,’ he says with typical Lancashire pragmatism.
‘I always walk a new route with a sighted friend and then when I’m familiar with the terrain I will happily walk with just my dog for company. Seamus who is an OAP like me has just retired aged ten and can’t walk far now because of a back problem, but he loves the Lakes and we used to walk for miles together. He’s never put a paw wrong. I need an energetic dog because I walk fast. I’m like a tram,’ chuckles Alan.
His favourite valley is Borrowdale where he knows the paths and the good pubs and cafes where he can stop en route. He once would think nothing of walking ten miles and, on one occasion, completed a 16 mile trek around Derwent Water and surrounding tracks. However, at 73 he is a little less ambitious.
‘I love to walk away from roads and listen to the birdsong in the spring or smell wood smoke in autumn. Just to be able to walk to the nearby pub is a great pleasure. All of my dogs have given me such a sense of freedom.’
As Alan tells me about his remarkable life, Seamus settles on the rug, ready to pass the baton to young Oliver who is never far from his master’s side. Although a new recruit - Oliver has been with Alan for only two weeks - their strong bond is already clear for all to see.
The young dog has just completed the final stages of training with Alan under the watchful eye of an instructor from the Manchester Mobility Team.
‘Oliver has been leading me around the streets of Atherton, steering me round lampposts, people, prams. I’m a bit like a ballet dancer at times,’ he laughs. ‘But joking aside, we have really gelled and I can put my trust in him completely. Seamus is such a dependable old boy and has accepted his successor although sometimes I feel two noses slipping into one harness when I go out.’ Alan has nothing but praise for the Guide Dogs Association and for the volunteer puppy walkers who play a vital role in preparing the youngsters for their role.
‘Angela and I have done puppy walking ourselves and I still like to help by manning information stalls and collecting money for the organisation that has done so much for me. Of all the services available to people with disabilities , the partnership with a guide dog is simply the best.’
Alan’s love for his dogs shines through as he recalls 50 happy years with his constant companions. ‘My dogs have allowed me to lead a very full life and achieve things that I never thought I would. Although we’ve given up our Portinscale home now I’m already planning a weekend in Keswick with family, friends and dogs. It will be Oliver’s introduction to the Lake District countryside. I know that he’ll love it and I can’t wait to take him.’
North west leads the way
Two women from the north west were the pioneers of the guide dog movement. It started in 1931 with Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond, remarkable characters who organised the training of the first four British guide dogs from a lock-up garage in Wallasey.
The organisation has developed into the world’s largest breeder and trainer of working dogs. And thanks to dedicated staff and volunteers – and vitals donations – they’ve helped more than 29,000 people to achieve life-changing independence.
For more information go to www.guidedogs.org.uk/manchester or call 0845 372 7409.