There were lots of smiling faces and tails wagging at the 2022 Guide Dogs Association graduation ceremony on Friday morning, which was attended by hundreds of people.
Inside the Lighthouse Church, 19 seeing eye dogs and their handlers were presented with medallions and certificates to recognise they have successfully completed the program and can now confidently and independently head out into the community.
The ceremony also honoured the four Advanced Mobility graduates, three Assistive Technology Training graduates, two Foundations Mobility graduates, two Long Cane Skills graduates, and the two Orientation and Mobility Skills graduates.
Among the graduates was Fiona Charrington and her Guide Dog Fergus, from Brisbane.
In front of the packed auditorium, Fiona spoke about how her life changed when she was diagnosed in 2001 with retinitis pigmentosa – a group of rare eye diseases that affect the retina – and her long journey to graduating today with Fergus.
Fiona had been seeing “spots in her eyes and snake-like images floating through her eyes” for a number of years.
“My vison will not be returning to me. In fact, it will only get worse. Eventually I will lose all of my vision,” Fiona said.
“At the moment I have 0.1 per cent left in my right eye, and 5 per cent in my left eye.
“As you can imagine, when I got my diagnosis, that was a pretty scary thing…. and devastating at the very least.”
Fiona was referred to Guide Dogs through her optometrist and underwent Long Cane training, which she said “took a lot of mental and physical agility, patience and understanding”.
When she received a red camera ticket in the mail in 2006 , Fiona realised things with her vision had “gotten really bad”.
“I made an urgent appointment with my optometrist again where I underwent what they call a visual field test – where you put your head in a cylinder and you have to press a button every time you see a flash,” Fiona explained.
“That’s when I found out my vision had gone from 160 degrees to less than 10 degrees. That’s quite a lot in 10 years.
“The visual field test results I had gotten was a big change from my original one, so I decided maybe it was time to get a Guide Dog.
“I had been using my cane for over a year and I needed to add some change to my life.”
Fiona (pictured above) was then placed with her first Guide Dog Palace – who Fiona described as “a dog who did things her way”.
“We were an unlikely duo… but for whatever reason we clicked, and she gave me the independence and confidence I needed to attend work, move on public transport and generally improve my spirit.
“When she retired, that was like losing a loved one – you don’t think you are ever going to recover from it – and you don’t think any other kind of dog will be the same or replace the one that you have retired.
“This was true in the fact that it took me 10 years before I was ready to have another dog.
“Now my eyesight has deteriorated quite significantly since I had Palace, and therefore Fergus is a much different dog. Even his personality is a lot different.
“I waited two-and-a-half years for Fergus so as you can imagine, it’s not a straightforward and easy process, and there are lots of bumps and turns along the way.”
One of those bumps was when Fiona broke her ankle, and Fergus was returned back to Guide Dogs for nine weeks while she recovered.
“He would come and visit me, but when he was returned to me, he had a little trouble settling in, because he would think “is this the day they are going to take me away again?”
“But he now realises he is home for good and he is just fabulous…. Absolutely fabulous…. I couldn’t image my life without him now.
“Fergus came to me at a time when I was having a lot of falls and injuring myself quite often being out in the community, and it really did detract from my confidence to the point where I was becoming a hermit – I didn’t want to go and do things that I would normally do – and that’s just not me.
“People who know me always say I am very independent, but at that point in my life, I thought I had lost everything.
“But then Fergus came along and now I am back to being independent again and I am looking forward to going on a cruise in April.
“So, I would like to take the time to say thank you to everyone who has made this possible, not just for me, but for all the graduates, and those people who are the sponsors, trainers, puppy raisers, all the staff at Guide Dogs, the management and the board.
“It takes a village to raise these dogs to a point where they can make us independent and have a wonderful life.”
See the full gallery of pictures from this morning’s ceremony here.
Working hard to help others
Guide Dogs Queensland President, Richard Anderson OAM, praised the organisation for all their hard work and dedication over the past year, which he said led to some pleasing results.
“Over the past year, Guide Dogs has delivered more hours of support in this period than ever before, keeping the wellbeing of clients and their families at the forefront of all we do,” Richard said.
“Our dog programs in Queensland have also grown in quality and efficiency, with 123 active Guide Dog teams (dogs and their handlers) now working across the state, and an industry leading 43 per cent plus success rate from breeding to placement.
“This had led to a record low number of clients on the wait list for a Guide Dog and shows with the number of graduates here today.”
Queensland Governor Dr Jeannett Young, who is also Patron of Guide Dogs Queensland, was also in attendance at the ceremony.
“The bond between owner and any animal is very special, but the bond between a Guide Dog and their handler seems truly extraordinary,” she said.
“Guide Dogs are not only trusted companions but the embodiment of hope, new opportunities and adventure.”
Congratulations to all the graduates
Guide Dog graduates
Artemida Kanini and Denver
Barbara Clarke and Pixie
Dorothy Sparks and Quora
Fiona Charrington and Fergus
Jason Denton and Tyson
Jenny Jacobsen and Yarrow
Louise Meadows and Hector
Michael Ardenorff and Flynn
Roberta Wright and Stevie
Rowena Dowling and Lucy
Santiago Velasquez and Trey
Sharron Hodges and Zeplin
Shatha McKenzie and Violet
Yuma Decaux and Valiant
Andrew De Ambrosis and Cali
Brian Reckenberg and Zeke
Debbie Stessl and Wilma
Janice Holland and Sonny
Kylie Thompson and Yuri
Advanced Mobility graduates
Assistive Technology Training graduates
Foundations Mobility graduates
Long Cane Skills graduates
Orientation and Mobility Skills graduates
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