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Created on: 12 October 2018

Source: by Celia Melcus

Gaining independence with a guide dog – twice over

Get to know your dog, persevere and have patience

On a typical day, Michael Scerri, 57, wakes up at 4 a.m. He opens the door to the garden and its adjoining field and his two dogs, Pixie and Justy, go out to do their business, and have a drink of water, if they wish. He then gets ready, makes himself a coffee and has a smoke, then takes the dogs for a 45-minute walk.
Pixie, 10½, was Michael’s first guide dog. He got her from the Rehabilitation Centre Silver in Zagreb, Croatia, but had to be retired some two years ago when she started suffering from arthritis. She was already a slow, careful dog but the arthritis slowed her even further and this made Michael very frustrated. Still, since she was retired, she has remained a pet, a much loved member of the family.
Then, Michael got Justy, 4½, in April 2016. Justy was born at a guide dog breeding centre in France and brought to Malta to be puppy raised when he was eight weeks old. He spent his first year in Qui-Si-Sana with a family with two young boys and a third on the way. He was then sent to Messina, Sicily, to be trained and was successfully matched with Michael, who says that Justy has changed his life again completely.
He takes him everywhere, whether it is to go to Victoria or some other local village or abroad, going on trains and buses when needed.
Quite early in the morning, Michael and Justy arrive at work – a 10-minute walk from his house. He is a cleaner in charge of the public convenience in his home town, Xagħra, Gozo. He makes sure that everything is spick and span, and having done the family shop, returns home. He then feeds the two dogs and they have an hour or so to rest and relax.
When they are ready, he brushes Pixie and Justy and, when he is off duty, he goes for another walk. Otherwise, he will be up and down from the public convenience several times a day – always accompanied by Justy. He will spend as long as it takes to keep it clean, sometimes up to three hours at a stretch.
When I spoke to him, Xagħra was celebrating its summer feast, which meant more work for Michael. He would be on duty until 11 p.m. or midnight. People are amazed how he gets around, even with statues and other feast decorations causing obstacles in his path, and does his job. Still, he tells those who suggest his wife should help him that he is the one who does the cleaning at home, not his wife.
When he is off duty, in summer, the family go for a swim, although Justy is not keen on swimming. In Michael’s free time, he likes to go on long walks, especially in winter, and to look after the garden. In summer that includes watering for half an hour to 45 minutes a day. His winter walks will take him as far as Marsalforn, with the two dogs left to roam as Michael and his wife, Angela, take their time, have a coffee and walk back home.
Michael and Angela have two children, Oleg, 23, and Samantha, 11. Michael lost his eyesight aged 37 because of macular degeneration. This started at age 35 with reading, when he was working as an assistant clerk at the Gozo General Hospital. He first lost the sight of one eye when a retinal detachment operation failed. They second one then regressed until he went ‘dark’ – “no sunlight for me”, he says with a laugh.
So, he had to begin a new life, including learning to become independent, and changing his job. He used a white cane at first and then welcomed the opportunity to have a guide dog. “I wasn’t professionally trained in the use of the white cane. I’m not a good white cane user. “When you change to a guide dog, it’s a totally different life. You can imagine another world.
With a dog, it is a lot faster and you are more independent because you have to check with the white cane where things are, and the stick gets suck in the street, the footpath, the walls, etc.”
Walking with a guide dog needs training, and when Michael got Justy he needed fresh training since the guiding styles of the dogs differed. The transition between Pixie and Justy was not easy, especially because the two guide dogs, apart from their differences of size and behaviour, didn’t have the same training.
“For me, the training was like starting from scratch. It was hard, and I felt nervous and angry. It’s not a joke. The first week I was very, very nervous and stressed. I was thinking ‘it’s not easy to make it with this dog’. It’s easy for the trainer to tell you ‘Don’t worry. Walk, walk, quicker, faster, slow, stop. Rely on the dog.’ The reality is something else.
“For example, he (Justy) was so quick to show me that I didn’t understand. He showed me when I needed to stop and every time I had to tell him to stop or to tell him ‘pavement’. So, he stopped on my command. With Pixie it was different. She was slow, careful and robust, stopping by herself. Justie needs a light hand and will show you that something is coming, but you have to tell him ‘stop’. That was new for me it. It was something I was not thinking about.”
Visually impaired and blind people must always be careful and sensitive of their guide dog’s behaviour. They have to be prepared to accept a dog in their lives. “Some have never had a dog before. So, for them an animal at home is already something disturbing that they cannot handle. For example, I have two dogs. I have two problems of hair in the house. You have two problems of feeding, you have two problems of cleaning… for me it’s a normal day but for these people it’s not so.”
Sometimes, the guide dog will make mistakes, so it is important to check if all is normal and safe.  “Sometimes we make a lot of mistakes. In the area where I live, I don’t walk on a footpath too much (the pavement is narrow). I walk in the street. So, if I am in the middle of the road and I don’t know it, if I am not so sensitive, so careful, and paying so much attention, you end up in the middle of the street. You are in danger of being run over by crazy drivers whizzing up the street. You don’t know who you are going to meet.”
With time and practice, Michael and Justy got to know each other and manage to walk well together as a team. “With time you learn, because it is not you or the dog, it has to be you and the dog, the dog and you.
“There were, initially, a lot of arguments with Rita (Criminale, the Maltese Orientation and Mobility – OM – Instructor, who accompanied him to Messina for his initial training). I apologise to her. But in the end, we got the desired result.”