Health

One man and his guide dog

Mike Brace and his guide dog Izzy
Image caption Izzy has given Mike more freedom of movement and more independence

When former Paralympic skier Mike Brace was blinded in a fireworks accident at the age of 10, no one told him to stop doing things.

He was expected to become as mobile as possible and lead as normal a life as he could.

"Those with good mobility used a white stick and those who didn't, used a guide dog," he explains.

"The white stick was a badge of honour."

Fifty years later, after representing Britain in cross-country skiing at six Paralympic Games and three World Championships, Mike found that using a cane was becoming more difficult.

He realised that a guide dog would be the solution to a world full of increasingly awkward obstacles for a blind person.

The answer came in the form of a black Labrador retriever cross, named Izzy.

"I wanted to expand my mobility ambitions rather than shrink them," he explains.

"The stick was great for knowing the environment I was in but the dog is good for going round the obstacles I kept encountering."

Cars encroaching on pavements, vans parked in odd places, an increase in street furniture all became frustrations for Mike in his daily life.

Three months on from their first meeting, Mike and Izzy are a team - thanks to some intensive training provided by an instructor from Guide Dogs.

Mike's busy lifestyle meant that Izzy had to be able to cope with regular journeys to central London from his home in Hornchurch, Essex, using all forms of public transport and even a trip on the London Eye.

'Maiden voyage'

It was no easy feat getting man and dog to bond and Mike recorded his thoughts on the training sessions in a regular phlog, the audio equivalent of a blog.

Listeners as far away as Australia listened to his experiences and his missives were downloaded 60,000 times.

In his phlog, Mike describes how he had an eventful maiden voyage with Izzy to the gym.

"Today is the first time I have been out of my home alone without my white cane for nearly 50 years.

"The route to the gym is difficult but she managed it with only one or two small problems.

"We missed the pavement leading to the sports centre but I soon realised Izzy was following two football players and got her back on the right path.

"We then nearly missed the path to the sports centre as Izzy was intent on getting into someone's car right by the entrance.

Once at the gym, Mike confesses to his emotions taking over.

"I had a tearful minute in the changing rooms on my own before pulling myself together," he says.

Mike says Izzy is now very clingy, very affectionate and likes nothing better than sitting on his feet when they are at home.

He feels like a grandparent with a new charge; a dad with a new baby.

And she has given him a new lease of life.

"Izzy has allowed me to do more and not shrink away from things. We went out in the snow, for example, and she was totally unfazed by it."

But of course sometimes things do go wrong.

"Ninety-five per cent of the time she gets it right. When I think she's got it wrong I have to take control, retrace our steps and find the correct route," he explains.

Mike worried that he wouldn't need to use the skills of navigation he'd learnt using his cane anymore. But he concedes that the reverse has been true.

"Izzy is a massive extension of my life. She gives me freedom of movement and independence. I can go anywhere with her and know that I will be able to find my way."

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