Reporter MARION SAUVEBOIS experiences life as a blind person and takes a stroll with a guide dog...

JUST two minutes into our stroll Alan Fletcher hits his first hurdle. Unfazed, his watchful guide dog Nutmeg springs into action. She slows down, indicating to her master something is amiss.

“Oh, that’s a car, it happens all the time,” he says motioning forward to the three-door VW he cannot see but is indeed straddling the pavement a few paces in front of us.

Nutmeg pauses, gingerly circles the back of the VW – “Find the kerb,” Alan commands gently – and inspects the road for passing cars. When the coast is clear we step off the pavement and she leads us cautiously around the obstacle.

“Good girl!” coos the 68-year-old chairman of Swindon Guide Dogs. And off we are again.

Although he remains in control at all times, doling out instructions and keeping her in check, without Nutmeg’s help covering the few yards to the newsagent or steering him along their daily loop around the neighbourhood, he would simply be lost. Guide dogs have been a lifeline, he explains with emotion.

When he first lost his eyesight, he lived in a permanent state of confusion. Disorientated and frightened by the sudden unfamiliarity of his own home, he refused to so much as step out of the door alone.

“I was angry and scared. Even in your own home you didn’t know where you were. I used to fall over the table or trip on the rug. I would get disorientated. It was terrible,” recalls Alan, who was registered severely visually impaired in March 2005.

In 2009, an unrelated cancer was discovered behind his right eye. His only remaining vision is the odd faint flicker in his left eye.

He applied for a guide dog and in May 2006 his first dog Joy came into his life. Entrusting an animal, no matter how highly trained, with his safety was more daunting than he had imagined. Their first day alone was the ultimate test.

“I was a bit wary,” confides Alan, from Stratton St Margaret. “I didn’t know if I was giving her the commands wrong. I thought, ‘Can I really let the dog take control of where I’m going?’ You trust a dog with your life. It’s a dangerous environment out there at the best of times, let alone when you can’t see. We just went around the area in a circle. It was a relief getting back home. But after a couple of days, I realised she was there to keep me safe. I got my mobility, my independence and my freedom back.”

For safety reasons, guide dogs cannot be handled by anyone other than their master. But to give me a sense of the ordeal of losing his sight, Alan started off our walk with a little experiment, blindfolding me for 10 minutes and sending me on a brief ‘sighted guiding’ with his wife Shirley. Sighted guiding, she tells me later, is a handy alternative for blind or partially sighted people who feel more comfortable being accompanied into town by a volunteer than relying on an animal.

Frozen in place, digging my fingers into her arms for dear life, my legs refused to budge an inch. We (eventually) crossed the road, at snail’s pace – or so she insisted throughout; it felt to me like we had broken into a sprint – Shirley warning me before every curb, and me grinding to a halt only to tap the tip of my shoe around until I bumped the concrete edge for reassurance. After a single half turn, I was so disorientated and flustered, I panicked. When I removed the blindfold, beads of sweat prickling my neck, I was stunned to discover we were only a few metres outside Alan’s house.

When Joy passed away suddenly in 2013, Alan found himself “back to square one” – until he was matched with Nutmeg, a golden labrador and retriever cross, in 2014.

“At first with a new dog, you train with an instructor there for about four weeks, but Nutmeg was so good it actually only took two weeks. She settled in so well. It was unbelievable,” he continues, batting away low hanging brambles blocking his path. Four-and-a-half-year-old Nutmeg is remarkably vigilant throughout, but despite her best efforts to assess danger and circumvent obstacles, from the vantage point of her two short feet, she is not able to prevent drooping branches from scuffing her master’s cheek.

“She is a dog at the end of the day, there is only so much she can do. But she is very good,” he adds affectionately.

The words are barely out of his mouth when we reach another stumbling block. A shopkeeper has placed a hefty sandwich board in the middle of the pavement. Nutmeg, Alan and I squeeze into the tight opening to the left of the sign – avoiding walking into oncoming traffic on the busy road to our right. Only to be stopped in our tracks by a bollard. Negotiating yet another tricky roadblock, Alan bangs his hand on a wing mirror.

“I can come home with scratches on my hand,” he carries on unperturbed – it’s just another day muddling through in a society which too often overlooks the needs of people with disabilities.

“You know the route inside out but you can’t predict where a car will be parked, if the brambles are overgrown, if people have put something on the path.”

Training a dog like Nutmeg takes years and costs the national Guide Dogs charity tens of thousands of pounds.

The organisation breeds its own dogs, which are then placed with volunteer puppy walkers for their first round of training between eight and ten weeks old. Their role is to socialise the animals, teach them basic commands and expose them to noise and traffic as early as possible. They also attend weekly puppy classes to make sure their charges are on track.

“You’re really trying to teach them self-control,” explains puppy walker Andrew Cornick, 54, from Shrivenham.

Nine-month-old Ethel, his sixth Guide Dogs pooch, is curled up at his feet. “It’s not always easy, she is quite distracted by birds so that’s something we’re focusing on.”

Puppies must be eased into their training, adds fellow walker Anne Cole, and, crucially, enjoy it. At this early stage everything must be presented as a game and duly rewarded.

“We don’t want them at that age to feel it’s a job,” says the 63-year-old from Lydiard Millicent, feeding 10-month-old Waffle a treat. “You need them to work but not realise they’re doing it.”

she adds feeding 10-month-old Waffle a treat.When they turn 14 months, Ethel and Waffle will leave their temporary handlers to be put through their paces for up to eight months at the Guide Dogs charity’s training school.

If they are deemed suitably alert and unflappable – around 75 per cent make the cut – they will be matched with a blind person on the charity’s waiting list. Those that do not quite meet the standard or are too wilful are retrained as police or buddy dogs or adopted as regular pets.

“It’s a sad day when you have to say goodbye because they are part of the family,” admits Andrew, who works as a psychotherapist. “But you have the reward of knowing you’re part of the process of changing someone’s life.”

Anne adds: “She is not my dog, she is on loan and for the short time we have her, it’s a privilege to be trusted with this position. To know what they are going to be doing is sublime. You can’t put it into words.”

Guide dog owners like Alan do not pay a penny towards the training and support of their animal – whether it be food or vet bills. It is all taken care of by the charity. But it does not come cheap.

From the day it is born to the day it retires at 10 years old, a dog costs around £55,000.

In Swindon alone there are 20 guide dogs; all supported by the local branch of the charity at around £36,500 a year.

Back in Stratton, Alan and Nutmeg eventually make their way home, the dog clearly drained from not only watching over her master but his sidekick for the morning – my pesky habit of switching sides, occasionally zig-zagging, my nose buried in a notebook, truly unsettled her. And yet during our expedition, she remained stoic as a yappy terrier barked for attention, refrained from chasing a cat taunting her off her usual route and manoeuvred seamlessly around obstacles.

Off duty, she is relaxed, a playful pet eager for claps – but not for long. Within minutes she is sound asleep, recuperating ahead of her afternoon stroll.

“It can be stressful for them,” says Alan.” They’re fighting their instincts all the time and every day we’ve got something different to overcome. But I’ve got Nutmeg to help me through it,” he says fondly. “My life wouldn’t be the same without her.”

To make a donation or find out more about the national Guide Dogs charity go to To get in touch with Swindon Guide Dogs, go to the group’s Facebook page.