Tarka helps transform teen's life
LIFE is sweet for 16-year-old Swansea girl Debbie Pye and her new, closest companion.
The teenager has just qualified as one of the youngest guide dog owners in Wales. And Tarka is giving her the independence, mobility and equality she wants.
Debbie, who has been profoundly deaf since birth, was 14 when she lost her sight suddenly due to a condition called Ushers Syndrome.
The shock, understandably, was huge, but she was determined to move forward.
And it wasn't long before she and another girl from Cardigan, with whom she has since become good friends, were the first under the age of 16 to be given guide dogs in Wales following the relaxation of rules.
Debbie came to Swansea in the summer when her father was appointed Vicar of Cockett and Fforestfach. And it did not take long for her dog to become popular among parishioners.
She has helped transform the teenager's life.
At first Debbie used a long cane to aid mobility, but finds a guide dog is far better for her needs.
"The cane did not pick up everything," she says. "Tarka has given me more confidence, plus she's a friend. I can talk to her and play with her."
Their unique partnership began last year when Debbie and her family were living in Beguildy, near Knighton in Powys, surrounded by fields and country lanes. Since the family has moved to Swansea, Debbie and Tarka have had to learn new routes, including the city streets, from scratch.
The pair travel on buses and trains, make trips to the cinema and even go bowling. Tarka occasionally has her own mischievous interpretation of Debbie's commands.
"I say: 'Take me to the door' and she sometimes finds the fire exit or the wrong toilet," says Debbie. "It's quite embarrassing, really!"
Both enjoy shopping, but for different reasons.
"I like going to Blue Banana, Republic and HMV," says Debbie. "But Tarka heads for the market because she can smell the fish, meat and doughnuts. Her favourite shop is Pets at Home, as if to say: 'You've done your shopping, now let's do mine."
The pair regularly attend Gower College in Gorseinon, where Debbie is studying forensic science.
"Tarka is part of the class," says Debbie. "The students are more mature than at school. The pupils there did not know how to react. But the college has had a guide dog before and people make a fuss of Tarka. I have to tell them not to feed her. That message is going on the college website or on posters."
Debbie is full of praise for the college's efforts to accommodate her study needs via braille sheets and raised paper. "They asked me if I wanted the periodic table in braille," she says.
Tarka, meanwhile, has been given a staff pass with her picture on it, which she wears around her neck along with a special "bling" collar Debbie bought her to celebrate their guide dog partnership.
Unlike ordinary guide dogs, Tarka works in a special red and white checked harness to indicate that Debbie has hearing implants.
"People look down to talk to the dog and Debbie can't hear them because the sound is travelling the wrong way," says her mother, Julia.
On a repeat visit to the Heath Hospital in Cardiff, they were impressed when Tarka remembered which direction to go in.
"Debbie was given hearing tests and Tarka was reacting too," says Julia. "The audiologist said the dog was the only one to ever get 100 per cent."
The dog fits well into Debbie's busy lifestyle, which also involves helping out at Brownies.
"I did worry whether Debbie would cope with a dog but there was no problem at all," says Julia. "It's Debbie's dog — she gets up at 7am to feed her, even on Saturdays when there's no college, but she does go back to bed."
And Tarka has become popular in church circles, with parishioners keen to make a fuss of her.
"They speak to the dog before Debbie and when it's time to take communion, Tarka puts her head through the rail and gets a blessing," says Julia.
During the summer, with a group from the National Deaf Children's Society, Debbie and Tarka took part in an exciting event in Bristol organised by conservation charity the John Muir Trust. Both earned a certificate for climbing a waterfall.
Julia says: "When I went to bring them home, all the talk was about Tarka. They thought she would just pull Debbie up, but the steps were uneven and she had to tread carefully. Tarka is the first Guide Dog to get the John Muir Award."
And the impact she has made to Debbie's life followed a change of policy within the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which has been around since 1934.
The charity has had a long and successful history of providing a guide dog for people aged 16 or over. In 2006, though, a three-year pilot project was established to assess the practicalities and benefits of providing a guide dog to people under the age of 16.
The youngsters who trained with a dog during the pilot phase made excellent progress and reported life-changing experiences.
That prompted the charity to remove the minimum age for guide dog ownership and to carefully roll out the a new programme for under-16s across the UK.
Guide Dogs Cymru, the Welsh arm of the association, was keen to get on board and Debbie and her friend were the first two to benefit.
"Guide dogs provides independence and freedom to thousands of blind and partially sighted people across the UK," says Guide Dogs Cymru spokeswoman Deborah Rees.
"The association campaigns passionately for the rights of those with visual impairments. We are working towards a society in which blind and partially sighted people enjoy the same freedom of movement as everyone else."
The branch's service delivery manager Caroline Viney was heavily involved in training Debbie and Tarka.
"Debbie was an absolute star to train and enjoyed every minute," she says. "She took on the responsibility of grooming and feeding the dog straight away — there was never any question of leaving it to her parents. Top of Debbie's list was to be able to go shopping for clothes independently, and she has finally got her wish."
Members of the public will have a chance to get up close to a guide dog outside Marks & Spencer in Oxford Street, Swansea, on the branch's fundraising day, October 20.