Jarrow Guide Dog owner tells of 'truly wonderful' times with new companion as charity looks for more volunteers

A Guide Dog owner whose life has been lifted by both canine and human companions has shared her story.

Thursday, 12th May 2022, 3:23 pm

Margaret Mowat, 76, from Jarrow, has been a guide dog owner since 1970, when she was partnered with her first helping hound at the age of 24.

More than five decades on, she is accompanied by her seventh guide dog Quella, a ruby-coloured yellow Labrador x Golden Retriever cross.

But more recently, she has been broadening her horizons thanks to a new scheme run by the Guide Dogs charity.

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Happy times together.

“I have been blind all my life,” said Margaret.

"From being very small, I always thought I’d get a guide dog, as people in my local community used to regularly support the charity.

“People learn a lot from a guide dog owner – I find that they want to speak to you and don’t feel as sorry for you.

"They treat you differently with a long cane – although there should definitely be more awareness around how to treat someone with sight loss, particularly etiquette around guide dogs and not distracting them when they’re working.

Debbie Walsh, Margaret Mowat and Quella enjoying time together in South Shields.

“Having a guide dog brings so much independence but it’s also great that Guide Dogs have expanded their services outside of dogs – sometimes guide dog owners might want to go out on their own, without their dog, and that’s why My Sighted Guide is so great.”

Five years ago, Margaret was partnered with Debbie Walsh from South Shields, through Guide Dogs’ My Sighted Guide service.

The scheme matches a volunteer with a visually impaired person to support them with getting out and about, their independence, and enabling them to take part in social and leisure activities they enjoy.

Debbie said: “I have always been a supporter of Guide Dogs with the odd bit fundraising, and we also rehomed a withdrawn guide dog a few years ago.

Margaret and Debbie say they have great times together.

“When I retired in 2015, I spotted an article about the Sighted Guide volunteer role and got in touch with Guide Dogs to find out more – roll forward to October 2016 and Margaret and I were paired up. We hit it off immediately and here we are today.

“For me, being a Sighted Guide makes me think outside of the box in every way, from the way things are said, to the way things are done – I’ve had to learn how to describe things in a way that Margaret can understand and to help build her own picture in her mind.

“I really enjoy the chats we have as we walk and give Margaret’s guide dog Quella a free run. Living near the beach is a godsend for dogs, plus not only is it one of my happy places, it's Margaret’s too, and to see her relax and breathe and chill out is so lovely.

“We always feel better after a walk, and a coffee of course. Just being out and about, walking and chatting, and knowing what a difference it has made to someone's day, is really rewarding.”

Debbie and Margaret at the beach.

At the start of their partnership, Margaret wanted to get more independence using public transport so that she could go out in her local community and feel confident, without the assistance of her husband.

Time together has been ‘truly wonderful’

Debbie supported Margaret with this initially and would accompany her on buses and the Metro into Newcastle and the town centre.

But as time went on, they found that they wanted to make the most of their time and now do all sorts of different activities together.

Debbie said: “By the time we got to our intended destination on the bus, it was almost time to turn round and come back again – it always felt rushed.

"So we have now made things more suited to ourselves. Margaret was always keen on giving Quella a free run, and between ourselves we tailor our outings around that - having a walk, maybe going to a charity shop for a poke around, and a coffee.

Margaret, Debbie and Quella enjoying time together in South Shields.

“We’ve been to an art group where I assisted Margaret in tactile art creations, jewellery making, sewing and knitting.

"We love the theatre and have been several times - when the acting is good, I only have to describe the scene changes and actors’ expressions to Margaret.

“We have been to craft fairs, coffee mornings, history talks, the local waterfowl park and wetlands centre, and museums.

“We like to try different things out. I am a keen gardener and now gardening has become a real interest to Margaret too and we have planted pots for her garden, enjoyed garden centres and we’re learning about the more scented and structural plants.

“I have also assisted Margaret when she has given talks to local schools about Guide Dogs. That’s always a laugh.

“Everything from the toddler-size chairs for us to sit on, to some of the questions the kids ask, and their faces when Margaret will write their names in Braille for them.

"As our partnership has progressed, the outings have evolved into what we need them to be for that time and moment.”

Margaret said: “Having a guide dog is amazing but you do have to concentrate and there are certain things like going for a walk, a coffee, or going to different places, where I felt like I wanted to relax a bit more. That’s where my partnership with Debbie has been truly wonderful.

“We go out every Thursday and Debbie always finds us different things to do – be it gardening, the theatre or crafting.

"Places are a lot more accessible with a Sighted Guide and not only that but she’s a lovely companion as well. It’s so nice to have someone to relax and chat with.

“Please do consider signing up as a volunteer – it’s not only the person with sight loss who gets something out of it, but you as well.”

Debbie added: “I think if someone is considering becoming a Sighted Guide, to give it a go.

"It gets you out and about, you learn so much about how sight loss affects people, and how much of a pleasure and privilege it is to become part of a person’s life, who puts their trust in you to guide them, explain, describe and be safe.

“I don't think of our partnership as a partnership, it’s more like a companionship.”

Can you volunteer?

Guide Dogs is looking for new My Sighted Guide volunteers to sign up to learn to safely guide someone with sight loss, navigating environments and building self-confidence – all whilst increasing social interaction with those who may not otherwise wish to leave their home.

David Ripley, My Sighted Guide Volunteer Experience Officer at Guide Dogs, said: “This service is here to provide support for people with sight loss – whether they have a guide dog or not. Visually impaired people are matched with a trained volunteer sighted guide with a view to retaining their independence in getting out and about on their own terms.

“This often leads to trusting companionships and Margaret and Debbie have found this in each other. It’s been a privilege to be involved in this wonderful partnership which has achieved everything that we would hope for within a match.

“We are in need of new volunteers across the North East to match with people on our waiting list and we’d encourage anyone to apply – it really is a very rewarding role.”

Debbie Walsh, Margaret Mowat and Quella enjoying time together in South Shields.
Debbie Walsh, Margaret Mowat and Quella enjoying time together in South Shields.