NB Sola Gratia - Cruising and Ministry
Oakley is Tracey’s life-changer. He is a little black Labrador with a huge personality! He was born 8 January 2011 to a Guide Dog Breeder in Alrewas, Staffordshire, going on to his Puppy Walker in Portsmouth at the age of 7 weeks. He graduated from Guide Dogs School, Redbridge, and went on to advanced training in Brighton and finally was matched with Tracey in October 2012.
Tracey and Oakley started their partnership with a nine-day stay in a hotel in Bognor Regis. This was a time of intensive bonding and training. Oakley was, by this stage a very competent Guide Dog, but Tracey needed to learn how to allow him to look after her! A very humbling and exhausting process!
After that, it was time for Oakley to move to his working home, in Sompting, West Sussex, and for him and Tracey to begin life as a fully qualified Guide Dog Partnership.
This really was life-changing for Tracey. Previously, due to her failing eyesight, she had lost all confidence in herself and seldom left the house alone. Because of her limited field of vision, coupled with a diminished perception of perspective, she walked, head down, looking intensely at the pavement for fear of tripping or missing her footing. Consequently, she often bumped painfully into all sorts of obstacles above and beside her; street signs, wheelie-bins, overhanging branches, lamp-posts, other pedestrians… All very unpleasant and embarrassing. Her first ever walk with Oakley in his harness left her in tears of joy as she realised that she had been walking with her head held high and hadn’t bumped into a single thing! Oakley had expertly guided her around them all!
Since then, their partnership has grown and developed. They steadily built up their excursions to a regular minimum of four miles a day. Often much more! Oakley has not only enabled Tracey to regain her freedom and independence, but has rebuilt her confidence and self-esteem. Beyond even that, he has saved her life on several occasions: He has stepped in to prevent her crossing roads in front of oncoming vehicles that she had not detected.
When on duty (when he is wearing his iconic white and yellow harness) Oakley is incredible! He knows his job and he gets on with it. Off duty, Oakley is a regular dog; part of the family, full of mischief, (perhaps arguably somewhat delinquent!), loving, caring, playful – but with rules! The team of staff and volunteers that breed and train these amazing creatures put in a huge amount of work to enable them to do their fantastic job. It is important that this level of care, discipline and training is maintained.
Health, hygiene, fitness and appropriate manners are all essential if the dogs are to be expected to be allowed in to all the places their human partners need and want to go. (Hotels, restaurants, cafés, bars, cinemas, theatres, shops…..indeed just about everywhere!). When on duty, Oakley is generally the epitome of the perfect gentleman. He knows his job and he does it extremely well. Off duty, however, he can be a bit of a pickle, especially when food is around! He is a typical Labrador!
Since moving out of the house and aboard Narrowboat Sola Gratia, Oakley has not just adapted to the new way of life, he has positively embraced it! He is the first and, thus far, only Guide Dog living a nomadic lifestyle on a narrowboat on the UK’s inland waterways. Guide Dogs are trained to guide their human partners on set familiar routes. Oakley has to guide Tracey on new routes every day. He has risen to the challenge and proved that he is incredibly intelligent and capable. His ability to memorise a route and find the way back to the boat each time is phenomenal.
He and Tracey have adapted their work to the towpath environment. This can often be rough, hazardous terrain, but Oakley has learned to guide her around all the obstacles such as mooring pins & rings, bollards, tree roots, overhanging branches, crumbling banks, even muddy puddles! He often gallantly wades through water on the towpath in order to guide Tracey around the edge if possible. He guides her to the lock tops and then waits patiently while she works the paddles and beams. He does all this happily for the reward of a tiny treat and a lot of love and praise!
Without Oakley, Tracey would most certainly not be able to enjoy this new lifestyle, if any! We certainly could not be involved in our cruising ministry.
Sadly, Oakley had to retire at the beginning of 2019. This was a heartbreaking time for us, but we had to do what was best for him. The owners of Dixon, his doggy Daddy, were able to take him for his retirement, for which we are very grateful. Apart from the fact that he is enjoying the "Life of Riley", we are still in touch and able to meet up with him occasionally. His retirement home owners still update his Facebook blog now ang again.
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For more information about Guide Dogs UK visit www.guidedogs.org.uk
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Guide Dog: Oakley