Unfortunately there has been a longer than usual gap since my last blog post. This is because my best friend and companion of 13 years went to sleep for the final time early last week and I have needed a little head space. I’m struggling to focus on anything for very long, let alone talking and writing about food. Therefore, I thought it might help to write about Libby instead. We had an incredible life together and writing about all those special memories will give me something to do and ensure that her memory will never really be forgotten. I’m going to try and briefly tell our story, focusing on the highlights. It might end up being a little longer than normal and I’m sorry if I ramble, but I’m hoping it will help me come to terms with my loss and the fact my life will go on without her.
Libby, Lib, Libs, Libster, Tank, Tigger, even sometimes Smelly Breath or Poo Machine, came in to my life on the 5th July 2006. This was the day I was to be matched with my first Guide Dog. Her trainer came to the house to meet me and I went out to the van to be introduced to a dog that she thought would be a good match. The words she said to me before opening the door were “Now, I must warn you, this dog is a little lively and she may jump.” The door opened and this thing flew out of the back of the van and began to bounce up and down repeatedly at me wagging her tail and licking my hand. I strongly believe that she knew instantly that she was mine. She chose me. I would never claim to own Libby, she owned herself, but we were partners. She was my first love, first child and sister all rolled into one.
From that first day, we were inseparable. Our first walk together was supposed to be well supported by her trainer. As the dog has still not completed all its training it is usual for there to be 2 leads for the matching walk, one for the blind person to hold and one for the dog’s trainer to hold and give gentle support in this new and strange environment. Within 5 minutes of mine and Libby’s first walk, unknown to me at the time, her trainer Tina detached her lead and left us to it. All I knew was that it felt amazing, a little strange, but just so natural. I just knew that this was going to be the dog for me. After, when Tina asked me if I wished to proceed, I sat on the floor with my arm around my best friend and I grinned from ear to ear. She didn’t even need an answer. I couldn’t wait to get started on this new chapter of my life with Libby by my side. I had big plans and Libby was going to help me fulfil them.
From that day on Libby became untrainable. She refused to work or guide for anyone else. As she still had over a month of training to complete before we could proceed together, this became a real concern. Two weeks before I was due to go on what is called class with Libby, where we train together, build a bond and learn how to be a successful Guide Dog partnership, Tina called me to explain her concerns that Libby might be broken. They really worried that she might not make it. I agreed to try anyway and to just play it by ear and I am so glad I did. As soon as we started to train together in earnest her work picked right back up. She was back by my side, where she wanted to be and where we both felt she belonged. Our training was pretty uneventful to be honest and we qualified on the 8th of September, I handed over 50 pence, received her harness and the freedom and independence to start our adventure together. 50 pence is a laughably small price to pay for something so life changing.
I was 17 at the time of training with Libby. In fact I had my 18th birthday just before we qualified. It was the best birthday present I will ever get. It is traditional to get a key for your 18th birthday to signify adulthood, maturity and independence. Libby gave me all of this and so much more. I still had a final year of school to complete to sit my A-levels before going to university to hopefully study physiotherapy. Libby came with me everyday. She would sleep through most of my lessons. I used to use her as an excuse to get out of lessons early as I would claim she didn’t like the crowds of school children, when in fact it was Libby’s favourite environment to work. The busier it was, the harder it was and Libby loved a challenge. The harder she needed to work, the better she was. The mundane, regular, easy jobs were boring and didn’t warrant Libby’s full attention. One of my funniest memories of Libby at school was in a French lesson when the teacher asked us a question in French. There was complete silence while we all tried to translate and work out the answer and then Libby spoke up. She was dreaming and began to woof really loudly. Her timing was impeccable.
Once school was finished it was time to move to Birmingham together and become students. Looking back, I’m not sure this was Libby’s favourite time. I couldn’t of done it without her as she gave me the confidence to move away from home and live on my own in a new city surrounded by people I didn’t know. We used to get lost so many times at university, especially in our first year there, but when we did I knew I could just let her take control and she would always find the train station. I think it was her way of saying “Can’t we just go back home? Liverpool is where we belong.” The first time we went back home to Liverpool for the weekend, when we got off the train in Lime Street Station and she realised where she was, she got so excited that she ran all the way to the bus stop and then to our house once we got off the bus. I’ve never seen her move so fast. On the bus she could barely sit still
Libby was a brilliant ice-breaker though, she helped me make so many new friends as people would always be drawn to her and we would get chatting. She became a bit of a mascot for my group of physio friends, attending all my lectures and completing all my clinical hours with me. It only seemed right that she would also graduate as well. We tried to get her to hold the scroll at graduation in her mouth but she refused. You could never make Libby do something she didn’t want to do. One of my favourite university memories of Libby is another lesson based one. We were sat in a practical lecture watching a demonstration. Libby was lay on the floor asleep and rolled over, getting herself tangled up in the model skeleton that was behind the lecturer. The skeleton began to wobble and look like it was dancing but no-one could see it was Libby that had made it move so everyone got a little freaked out.
Two other classic Libby memories from this time are of her almost falling in the canal while guiding me. She got distracted and her back legs slid off the edge and in to the water. Fortunately I was able to react quick enough to haul her out before too much damage could be done. The other is of us walking back to my halls from a lecture past the lake and encountering a goose. It wasn’t a very friendly goose and was stood in the middle of the foot path hissing. Libby misinterpreted this and thought it was trying to make friends, but got the message when she went closer and the hissing got louder. There became a stand off as the goose wasn’t moving and I didn’t know how to get round it. Fortunately after 10 minutes someone else came along and was able to rescue us.
I started cycling in my second year of uni. I’m not sure Libby was ever really impressed by my cycling. From early on when she came too close to me when training on my static bike and got a pedal to the head, to her frequent refusals to go to the velodrome through the centre of Manchester, she was always unimpressed but tolerated it, for me. I wish Libby had been able to accompany me more on my training and racing trips away with cycling as I used to miss her terribly. However if it hadn’t have been for the need to find someone to look after her for me while abroad, then I wouldn’t have added a second “Manchester” Mum and Dad to my family. Chris and Keith took the best care of Libby possible and she loved them to bits. She was always the best at showing you who she loved and who she didn’t, at least you always knew where you stood with her. Whenever Chris came to collect her for me, Libby would get so excited, bouncing up and down and wagging her tail. Often Chris would stop for a cup of tea and a chat before leaving, which Libby would never be impressed by. She would stand by the front door looking at her lead, always anxious to be off. At least I knew she was happy to be with Chris and having a great time, but I admit, sometimes it hurt a little that she wasn’t sad to be leaving me.
It was also while at uni that I met Neil, as it was through a contact with him that I got in to cycling in the first place. At first Libby really wasn’t a fan of Neil. I think it was because she sensed he was a threat to mine and her relationship. She didn’t want to have to share my love. When I would get the train from Birmingham to Manchester to train at the velodrome and to see Neil, he would always come to meet me at the station. She would spot him as we got off the train and deliberately walk off in the wrong direction. Poor Neil was left chasing us down the platform. Also, one time early on in our relationship, we were sat on the sofa in Neil’s flat watching a film when Libby climbed up on the sofa, something she never did. She shuffled her bum round in to the middle of us and sat up straight so that she was right between us and in front of me. It was the biggest statement Libby ever made, she never really needed words to communicate to me. The day Libby accepted Neil as a friend was the day I knew we had a life together. She really made him work for her acceptance, but fortunately he got there in the end.
After uni we lived in Manchester for a few months. I don’t think me nor Libby really enjoyed that time. We lived in a flat in Fallowfield that had floor to ceiling windows in the living area. She would stand watching and bark at people she didn’t like the look of as they walked past. These people were always of a specific ethnicity, but I never really got to the bottom of as to why. Like I say, Libby only liked certain people and definitely didn’t like others and she always let you know how she felt.
After around 9 months we both moved in with Neil. This house backed on to a canal and we would often take her for walks along it. I have two funny memories from this time. One in the winter when it was so cold that the whole canal froze over. She was so intrigued by this that she kept trying to walk on it. Neil was concerned that it might break under her weight so we desperately tried to keep her away from it. The problem with Libby was that if she got an idea in her head, there was no arguing with her. She, like myself, is very stubborn and determined, so if she wanted to do something, she did it. She was clever though and waited until Neil was distracted by something and had his back to her. When he looked round again, there she was strolling down the middle of the canal with not a care in the world. The other was in the summer on a really warm day when we decided to go for a nice walk. On our way back she was getting tired and was walking behind us. The next minute we heard a loud splash and looked back to find Libby flailing around in the canal not able to get out. She had fallen in. She wasn’t the biggest fan of water, preferring puddles and shallow water where she could keep her feet firmly on the ground. Neil had to come to the rescue and fish her out. They were both soaked.
It was while we were in this house that Libby, for the second time in her life, alerted us to the fact the bathroom was in danger of flooding. The first was in the Manchester flats where I accidentially left the tap on in my bathroom sink when there was no water in the pipes for some reason, so when they came back on it sent water everywhere. Libby came running out of my bedroom and in to the living room to get my attention and then kept going backwards and forwards to my bathroom to try and get me to follow her. She knew that something was wrong. This time, the water pipe had developed a crack and water was leaking from under our sink. She again did her trick of getting our attention and then running backwards and forwards to the bottom of the stairs to get us to follow her. She had an incredible way of indicating to you what she wanted and when. She would also adopt this behaviour later in life when she believed it was time for her to go for a walk. Getting your attention by head butting you and then pointing her body in the direction she wanted to go. The thing with Libby was that she was so forceful you didn’t stand a chance of refusal.
In 2013 myself and Neil bought a house together. I truly believe that this was the happiest Libby has ever been. I don’t know how she sensed it, but she seemed to feel at home. However she did manage to get lost the first week we were living here. She decided one day to go off on her own and explore her new area. She was one for wandering off without us noticing. Many times i’ve lost her when she has snuck out or drifted off on a walk without me being aware. The majority of the time she found her own way back home or to me in the end, but a couple of times I’ve had a phone call from Guide Dogs informing me not to panic anymore as my Guide Dog has been located. Most embarrassing, especially when I hadn’t even realised I had lost her in the first place. This time however, she needed to be rescued, again by Neil. When we realised she was no longer in the house we went outside and started calling her. I could hear her moving around out the back of our house but she couldn’t seem to get back in to our garden, I could hear her getting more and more frantic and started to worry myself. Neil eventually tracked her down to a back garden in the street behind ours. It was gated so we couldn’t get her out of it and there was no one in. Exploring a little further we figured out that she had climbed through a hole in the hedge in to another persons back garden. We could get straight in to this garden but first checked if the owners were in. They didn’t answer the door so Neil just went round to try and coax her back through. Just as she was appearing, so did the house owner. It took a lot of explaining and was not the best way to introduce ourselves to the local neighbourhood, but a good story anyway.
When I first got Libby she liked to give off the aura that she was strong and independent. She didn’t need anyone else and only looked for affection on rare occasions. The first time I really felt she loved me I was lay on my bedroom floor back home in Liverpool listening to an audio book. She crept up and curled in to a ball in the curve of my legs while I lay on my side, her chin on my hip. As we both got older I think we both got better at showing our affection. At University she generally slept in one of two places. Either right in front of my bedroom door to make sure no one came in, or on my single bed, curled up together. Once settled in to our life in our house together she became her most affectionate. She would often come up for a cuddle, only her cuddles were unique. She would bury her head in to your body and rub it against you while you rubbed her ears. All her weight would go in to her head and she would lean right in to you. They were truly the best thing ever and the thing I’m going to miss the most. Her cuddles or smooshes as we called them, really made me feel special.
Libby had the hardest head ever. She would often smash it in to things like table tops and never seem to feel a thing. She used to use her head to plough through closed over doors like she was a bulldozer, not stopping or slowing down to check whether it was open or not. Regularly we would hear a crash as she shoved open the kitchen door when coming back in from the garden. However this would sometimes backfire and we would hear a loud thud as she tried to open our bedroom door in the mornings, but this one wouldn’t open in the same way. It would never seem to deter her though as she would just keep trying. She was incredibly stubborn was my Libby and had an amazing way of locking out all four paws and refusing to move if she didn’t want to go somewhere. This would regularly be in the middle of busy Manchester when I would need her to go left to the bus stop to the velodrome and she would want to go right to the train station and Liverpool. I have lost track of the times I have been asked ‘Are you training that dog?’ Or ‘Do you need any help with that dog?’ If there is one thing Libby taught me it is how to be forceful and stand my ground because if I hadn’t I would never have got to the places I needed to go. She did however ensure that I got wherever I needed to go with a smile on my face and a story to tell.
Retiring libby was one of the hardest and scariest decisions of my life. I was terrified that I wouldn’t find another dog to fill her shoes and that there wouldn’t be enough space in my heart to love another dog as much as I loved Libby. Fortunately it seems hearts are ever expanding and there will always be enough space, as when little Tai came along I had absolutely no trouble. Libby on the other hand was not so sure. The first week I brought Tai home was the naughtiest I’ve ever seen Libby. The highlight being one afternoon when I took Tai for a walk, Libby snuck upstairs, climbed in to my suitcase that I hadn’t yet got round to unpacking, chewed a hole through my jacket pocket that was in there and ate all the treats that were in it, left over from training rewards for Tai. It was very unLibbylike, but again made a statement. It was in her retirement that she became her most cheekiest. I think it was because she was an incredibly intelligent dog and was used to using her brain so much when guiding. In retirement she needed to find something else to test her mental ability. Like me, Libby’s biggest passion in life was food. She lived for her next meal and would often try to sneak extra meals and snacks in whenever possible. So, once retired, when being left on her own in the house more, she quickly worked out a system of how to open the kitchen cupboard door where her food was kept and help herself. We spent a lot of time trying to Libby-proof that cupboard door, but it never took her long to work out a new way. Sometimes I would forget to double lock it and she would always make me pay. We would come home to a wide open cupboard door and another half eaten bag of her food. Strangely though, she never touched Tai’s, it was only ever her own.
Retired life for Libby was full of walks in the park. This was when she became closest to Neil I think because he would often take her. However even up until her last year when she could barely walk properly, she would come to the door when I picked up Tai’s harness, always showing willingness to guide me, making me feel so guilty for leaving her. However, coming back home to her meant I got the best welcomes ever. She was always so pleased to see me, ready and waiting with her smooshes.
I treasured the slow and steady walks we would both take together in the park when I would use my cane and she would be on her lead. Her company was always so calming and reassuring, A steady rock in my life. Wherever she was, was my home, where I felt safest.
The hardest part about the last week of Libby’s life was that mentally, she was still there. Still her intelligent, calm, loving self. Her body had just deserted her and she could no longer stand. I hated seeing this strong, determined and brave girl struggle and be in pain. She always carried herself with such dignity, so to see her struggling broke my heart.
Libby loved apple cores. She would go daft for them. Whereever she was in the house, if I bit in to one I could guarantee she would instantly appear. This was until she started to lose her hearing that is, but even so, the smell would soon bring her. She has dragged me across a crowded room to get to someone eating an apple many a time. My favourite memory though is of her refusing to get on a tram one day because a complete stranger was stood on the platform eating an apple. I always jokingly said that the day Libby refuses an apple core is the day that something is drastically wrong. Sadly, that day came last Monday. I was devastated. To see her turn her head away from something she loved told me so much. I knew that I had to be strong and make the right decision for her. As I’ve said, she might not be able to speak, but Libby certainly knew how to communicate.
I’ve certainly shed a few tears writing this, but many of the memories have also made me laugh out loud. These are only a small selection and there are many more to keep me going. We have had an incredible life together and I’m very lucky she chose me. She has touched many lives not just my own and I hope the people who knew her best get something from reading this too. Feel free to post any of your favourite memories of my Libby below. I can’t claim to remember them all, so I would like that. She has gone from my side but not from my heart and will never be forgotten. Sleep well my super dog and thank you from the bottom of my heart for making the last 13 years so fun and all the better for having you in it. Surely your crowning moment though was the day you got given a treat from the Queen. Libby always knew the people who loved dogs and those were treated to an extra special Libby greeting of being jumped on. The day we met the Queen I was terrified she would do this, I had her on such a short lead just incase and as the Queen went to stroke her I could feel Libby twitching, but fortunately, for a change, Libby listened to me and didn’t embarrass me. She did however make an impression on the Queen, afterwards she was sent a treat as the Queen claimed Libby was looking rather bored. Always manipulative, Libby knew how to play every situation to get the best outcome for her.
At the weekend I went to see the Spice Girls, the first album I ever owned. While there some lyrics became very poignant and appropriate for me.
Goodbye my friendGoodbye, Spice Girls
I know you’re gone, you said you’re gone
But I can still feel you here
It’s not the end
Gotta keep it strong
Before the pain turns into fear
So glad we made it
Time will never ever change it.
Thank you for reading. I feel more ready now to get back to the other topic I love, food, so I’m sure there will be many more blog posts to come.