Kerry Fielding spent Christmas missing her guide dog Barley.
The faithful pooch had been her companion since 2014, but ill health meant the German shepherd/golden retriever had to retire early.
Nine-year-old Barley underwent an operation on November 16, 2021, after being diagnosed with a chronic spinal condition. She was then placed in a foster home to give her the best chance to heal.
Then 48-year-old Kerry, a customer advisor from Thornton, got the news she’d been dreading; that Barley would never be able to work again.
She said: “I knew it was a possibility but to hear it out loud was just horrendous. I’d let go of other guide dogs and none of them were as hard to let go of as Barley. I’ve spent the last few months in tears, but at least I know she’s being cared for.”
But Mrs Fielding, who lives with her husband Mark, 51, and two daughters, Madison - 18 and Leah - 19, wasn’t instantly sold on the long-haired pup when she first arrived. Barley had issues with other dogs and walked very fast. She needed an experienced owner.
“She was a little whirlwind. She practically ran the test route, but her route memory was phenomenal. She slowed down with each walk, and my confidence grew.”
Music-mad Kerry soon bonded with the ‘complicated’ dog, and they started going out to events together. Kerry sings and plays the ukulele, and travelled to see friends around the country. “Nothing phased her. Even when I sang at the Royal Albert Hall with thousands of people watching, she just lapped it up.”
They even went for regular five mile walks during lockdown.
All was fine until October 27, 2021.
“She yelped as she was eating breakfast. She made the same sound the next day but I couldn’t see what was up.”
She asked Madison to look. Barley was dragging her back legs on the ground, so they went straight to the vets.
There was no sign of pain, but an MRI scan on November 4, revealed some issues with Barley’s spine, including disc compression.
She had an operation on November 16, but the vet said it was a chronic condition and would have to stop working.
Barley would also need ongoing treatment, including regular hydrotherapy sessions.
After an operation at Chestergate vets in Chester on November 16, 2021, Barley went to stay with foster carers, Harry and Val Evans. She would get the right care to help her recover after the surgery, but Kerry said she felt in limbo.
“I felt such grief over Christmas. My head was a mess, I didn’t feel like doing anything.”
Kerry sings in Capricorn Singers, a ladies’ choir in Cleveleys. “I tried to join in with the carols but I just fell to pieces every time. I was an emotional wreck.”
Having recovered from surgery, Barley stayed with Mrs Fielding from 4th - 14th January so that she could say goodbye.
“It was so hard waiting for her to go. I knew it was coming. It’s never been this hard to say goodbye. But at least I know he’s in a good home. She’s settled in with her new owners and that’s all I want now.”
She said it is hard on her hands, wrists and back, and takes a lot of concentration.
“It feels unnatural and I walk much slower. I’ll only go out if it’s something I need to do, I won’t go out for fun. There’s nothing enjoyable about walking with a cane, and I don’t feel confident in busy shopping areas.
“I’ve lost a lot of my independence.”
Kerry is now in the process of applying for a new guide dog but said it’s much harder than it used to be. After 28 years of guide dog ownership, she has to go through a thorough application and screening process before she is added to the waiting list. And then she expects a much longer waiting time than when she last applied in 2014.
The breeding and training program was paused for five months during the pandemic in 2020, which has led to a shortage of guide dogs that are ready to go to users.
Nick Muillineux, Head of Canine Assistant Services for the North West Guide Dogs, said: “Covid has hit us hard - and we’re still feeling the impact. We are taking significant long-term steps to address this. We are investing in staff and our centres to put us on a better footing in the future, and to meet our stated ambitions and goals for helping people with sight loss.”
When puppies are ready to leave their mums they go to live with puppy raisers who socialise the dogs and get them used to various settings. They return to the centre in Atherton, Manchester when they are around 14 - 18 months old.
Mr Muillineux said: “Now that our breeding programme has restarted we need to recruit 60 Puppy Raisers in Lancashire this year. These volunteers play a pivotal role in helping us get back on track, reduce the waiting list and increase the number of partnerships.”Find out how you can help at www.guidedogs.org.uk