The 28th of March 2014 is a date forever etched in Leo Murphy’s mind. That was the he started training with his four-legged life-changer, Mike.
Leo (61) from Holywood was born with cataracts but was determined not to let sight loss hold him back in life. He enjoyed working and socialising, especially playing music, and used a long cane to navigate his way around.
However, as his vision deteriorated in recent years, he was finding it more and more difficult to get out independently – particularly in bad weather or at night time.
He applied for a guide dog and, after undergoing assessment, was placed on the waiting list. When he was eventually matched with black Labrador Mike, the connection was instant.
“It’s been life-changing,” he says. “As soon as he sees me lift the harness he’s ready to go. He knows when he is working and is very focused but when he’s at home he’s so settled and lovely company.
“We walk about five miles a day together and everyone around here knows us! Before, my wife Josie would have worried about me going out on my own but now she knows I’m safe with Mike by my side.”
Their most recent adventure was a trip to IKEA – somewhere Leo says he would never have attempted to visit alone with his cane. He says other shoppers looked on in amazement as Leo guided him around various obstacles, like shopping trollies.
He adds: “People just love him and we get lots of compliments when we’re out. When he’s not working, I’m happy for people to talk to him and stroke him – I always tell them that it costs more than £50,000 to support a guide dog from birth to retirement which they’re usually very surprised about!”
With 28th March fast approaching, Leo and Josie are planning their annual celebration – dinner at the hotel in Belfast where Leo and Mike underwent their intensive training together.
Josie says: “The day he got Mike the old Leo walked out the door and the new Leo came back in. That dog is a lifesaver and worth his weight in gold.”
To find out more and support the work of Guide Dogs, please visit www.guidedogs.org.uk.