Working with a Guide Dog: Q&A with Claire Palmer

It’s International Guide Dogs Day and our web pages dedicated to Jacky the Guide Dog who works with lecturer Lizzie Miles are live!

In this interview, we spoke to Claire Palmer from Alan Berry about what it’s like to work with a guide dog and how we can promote community awareness in Coventry…

Willow, Claire’s guide dog 

Q: What is your dog’s name?

Claire: Willow!

Q: How did you come to meet her?

Claire: Through Lizzie and a conversation with her. I was not good at talking to animals and Lizzie said you don’t need to worry! For every negative I could think of, Lizzie had a positive!

Q: Obviously you work in Alan Berry, how has the University supported you in the time since you met Willow and started bringing her to work?
Claire Palmer and Lizzie Miles 

Claire: We’ve needed very, very little support to be quite honest with you. The most important thing was, […] I mentioned this to one of the heads, basically that the most important thing was people didn’t fuss with her. And he very kindly sent an email around.

The thing is, that’s more of a kindness to Willow, because Willow has no expectations. Because you can imagine, with a big office of people, a lot of them dog lovers, every morning coming in and going to greet Willow – all Willow would be doing would be looking, jumping, trying to get to them… Whereas people come in, I even have people doing inductions that have never come to the University before and Willow is sitting under my desk, they sit at my desk for an induction and Willow doesn’t bat an eyelid. She’s far happier and more settled because of it.

Q: What, if any, challenges do you face in getting from A to B on campus or in Coventry?

Claire: I struggle a little bit in the dark, but the thing is, at it stands on the way into work, I am so used to my route. If I had to move, it would take quite a bit of time to […] get my new route!

But you know, the whole thing with Willow – my biggest issues before I had her, even with my stick – were obstacles you know like these, [indicates stone balls on the floor around the cathedral] so many of them around. Whereas, she guides me around them now, so that solves my issues!

Lizzie Miles: The issue with the street furniture is it actually makes a guide dog’s life more complicated. Also, the other big one […] is the concept of street parking. So if people park their car up on the curb, then Willow has to make a decision as to how she can get around that. Because if the gap’s not big enough between the car, the wall or the hedge, for Willow to feel she can take that route… So I’m trying to educate our students and community about how they park in the local area.

Willow and Jacky

Claire: One of the things I would raise – it sort of beggars belief! You know we sort of learn, we develop, but it seems we’ve gone backwards: crossings. I’ve noticed new crossings now, firstly they’ve got a little light there, but there’s no sound, you know? And I struggle sometimes to think, “Well, where am I supposed to look? There’s nothing over there, oh I’ve found it!” But for anybody who is completely blind: how do they know when it’s time to cross? And then you’ve got, you know, these new ‘shared spaces’, but there are no curbs! How are guide dogs supposed to know where’s the end of the curb, to warn us really, from walking straight into the road?

Q. What could our students or members of the community do differently to make life easier for you and Willow and guide dog users generally? I’ve noticed a lot of people walking around looking at their phones…

Claire: Sometimes I can see people coming towards me and I’m thinking, “Can you see me?” I find on the bus, sometimes it’s very challenging. Very few people will get up. You know, people will fill up one seat, and someone will fill up another seat, but it’s a 2-seater! You know, if somebody sees you come on, often they won’t think, “I’ll get out of this seat”, and sometimes I’ve ended up scrambling down the back and it’s a nightmare because there’s no space for her [Willow]. I think people could just maybe be a bit more caring on buses.

Once, the only place I could find to sit was, you know where the pushchairs go? And I’d just sat down and this woman sort of got my arm and said “no you can’t sit here, there’s a pushchair coming on” and she just plonked me somewhere else, which was even worse.

Q. Have you had any issues with people petting Willow?

Claire: No, none of them touch. You’ll always get the odd person, some people say “can I touch?” and then I say, “sorry she’s working”. I think we should focus on the positive, she’s taken away a lot of my issues and problems, do you know what I mean? Then maybe it will make it easier for other areas to take on people with eyesight problems.

If you see Willow around uni, give her a smile, but remember she’s working!
If you would like to know more about issues connected to this interview, read student Holly Scott-Gardner’s ‘A Week in the Life‘ blog, or our interview with Lizzie Miles. Or you can check out our website to see what we’ve been up to, like raising £5000 for charity in the Faculty of Engineering, Electronics and Computing.
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