Poet's guide dog changes her life

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 05:00 23/10/2011
poet
OLIVE BRANCH: Michele Leggott was losing her independence before she got Olive the golden retriever.

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A good day in Michele Leggott's life is when she doesn't have to think about going blind.

Olive, "a big drippy golden retriever with a look of `hi everybody' on her face", does that.

A former poet laureate and academic, Leggott's degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, is rapidly taking her sight.

She thought she could manage with a white stick but the "click over moment" came going up Shortland St toward Auckland University.

"I was thinking, 'oh God, it would be so much easier if I could take my husband', and I felt then I needed a dog, another sentient being," she says.

"I was losing independence."

It took nearly a year from applying to the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind before Olive came into her life, coinciding with the Pike River mine disaster, as noted in her poem, "Olive" – "the day of the explosion they postpone her arrival".

Olive transformed her life. "They hand over fully trained Rolls-Royce dogs to someone who cannot drive them," she says.

A trainer with a lead on the dog shared the walks, until, one day, he quietly slipped his lead off. Leggott says it was like a dad letting go of the bike carrier when teaching a child to ride.

"The labradors and retrievers and the labrador-retriever-cross are the kind of Toyota of the fleet," she says. "They are good, easy to train, incredibly reliable. The alsatians and the poodles are the sports cars – highly strung, wonderful – but high performance cars and dogs, they take a lot of training, they reward you but they are high maintenance."

Leggott worried a beautiful creature was turned into an automaton. "When you take the harness off, she is just a dog. There is another dog in there, there is herself. She makes the distinction between work and family.

"She's happy she is doing her job and doing it well."

Like the child bike ride, success with Olive came in a single moment or two. "I got this huge burst of happiness, I knew it was going to work and it is going to bring me this enormous amount of freedom."

The foundation is holding its Blind Week appeal from October 25-31. Details are at blindweek.org.nz or on facebook.com/RNZFB

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