It’s international Guide Dog Day! Today we celebrate the work of guide dogs from all around the world – and to also raise awareness of just how important the guide dog services are in helping blind people live life on their terms. Here we’ve shared a story about Milly Elliot and her guide dog Libby…
Milly Elliott now attends college, socialises with friends in town, and trains at the gym, all thanks to her guide dog, Libby. Joanne Bednall finds out more about this special partnership.
Libby the Golden Retriever is much, much more than a guide dog to teenager Milly Elliott. She is her “best friend”. In fact, 18-year-old Milly says she loved Libby right from the moment they first met three years ago at the Guide Dogs National Centre, near Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. Then aged just 15, Milly, who suffers from a genetic condition that causes her eyesight to gradually deteriorate, was one of the youngest people in the country to be partnered with a guide dog.
Although Libby was the first dog Milly was paired with, she knew immediately that the Golden Retriever was ‘the one’. “Libby wasn’t shy at all and came straight up to us,” recalled Milly, who’s from near Ebbw Vale, Blaenau Gwent, in South Wales. “She struck me as being very happy, active, and curious — in fact, she’s the dog version of me as we have very similar personalities!”
After being matched, Milly says their training went really well and their bond has strengthened and deepened further over time. But she admits it wasn’t always plain sailing initially.
“At first, I loved the idea of getting a guide dog and was so excited, but I soon realised what a big responsibility it was — a bit like having a child,” continued Milly, whose supportive, dog-loving family has previously owned a Golden Retriever and Rottweiler X Dobermann, while one-year-old Bichon Frise X Corgi, Charlie, is their most recent addition.
The benefits of having a guide dog were instant for Milly, whose condition is unpredictable and further complicated by cataracts, a bleed in one eye, and night blindness.
“Libby made such a massive difference to me at school,” she said. “Before, I had to use a white cane to get around, which I found quite difficult and didn’t like — it was nowhere near as fashionable as a Golden Retriever! It was a big, busy school and Libby gave me the confidence to get around more easily. Before, I was a bit of a loner but after I had Libby, I made new friends and soon had more people to hang out with.” As well as boosting Milly’s confidence and social life, Libby has helped the student develop her independence.
“My family used to worry about me if I ever travelled anywhere by myself,” continued Milly, who was diagnosed aged eight. Doctors initially feared she would only have another six months of vision, but today there’s still some central vision remaining in her left eye. Now my mum can relax when I venture out on my own, knowing Libby is right there by my side.”
Milly loves being independent and says having a guide dog means she can travel more, often venturing as far as Cardiff and even Birmingham to meet friends.
“Without Libby, I would be petrified,” continued Milly, who admits to suffering bouts of anxiety. “She gives me reassurance if I get lost, as it helps to have something familiar with me.”
But probably the biggest difference Libby has made to Milly’s life is enabling her to work towards her ambition of becoming a sports physiotherapist and, ultimately, fulfilling her dream of competing at the Paralympics.
Currently, the teenager is in her final year at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, studying for diplomas in sport and complementary therapies. Leaving home at 16, moving to another area of the country, and making new friends is a daunting enough task for any school-leaver, let alone one with the additional responsibility of caring for a guide dog.
Milly says having to look after both herself and Libby made her mature more quickly. “When I first went to college, bringing something from home away with me, in the shape of Libby, also meant I settled in quicker,” recalled Milly. “It was like living with another family member. Libby gave me the confidence to explore my new home and campus and make friends — she was a great conversation starter as lots of people came up asking about her and the Guide Dogs application process and training.
“During my first year, there were eight of us with guide dogs, which not only was a good friendship starting point but meant we always had someone to go to for advice and support. Four of the dogs were Golden Retrievers and we used to exercise them off-lead together. At first, we couldn’t figure out whose dog was whose — they have probably played a massive trick on us and I may not even have Libby!” laughed Milly, who describes her “sassy, gentle, and attention-loving” dog as calm and well-behaved on-harness, but the life and soul of the party when off duty.
Libby has also been a great support when Milly is at the gym, training towards her goal of hopefully one day competing in shot put and discus at the Paralympics. Already the youngster has competed internationally in Holland and Germany, when she was 13 and 15. But due to delays caused by COVID-19, it looks like her preparations for this summer’s Commonwealth Games, Birmingham 2022, may have to take a back seat, with the 2023 World Para Athletics Championships in Paris looking the more likely target.
“Libby gets me safely to and from the gym in Cardiff and lies patiently next to the equipment while I train,” explained Milly, whose journey involves a one-and-a-half hour train and coach ride each way.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it without her.” Milly, who was extra-grateful for Libby’s presence, cuddles, and slobbery kisses recently when she was in bed, struck down by COVID-19, added: “Libby truly is my best friend and soulmate. She makes everything so much easier and I am so thankful for having her in my life.”
- Libby was part of Guide Dogs’ Sponsor A Puppy scheme. You can sponsor a guide dog puppy from just £1 per week and follow his or her unique journey from a six-week-old bundle of fur to a fully qualified guide dog. Visit www.guidedogs.org.uk/puppy to find out more.