Reflecting on life without a vital canine companion

SADLY MISSED: Anne Cassin with a sympathy card she received from staff at Halifax Veterinary Clinic after her guide dog Peddie died.
SADLY MISSED: Anne Cassin with a sympathy card she received from staff at Halifax Veterinary Clinic after her guide dog Peddie died.

Nelson woman Anne Cassin has woven another strand of grief into the framework of a life stained by loss.

Once more, the coping mechanism she has deployed is leading her in a new direction.

Mrs Cassin, who is almost completely blind after suffering a stroke in 1998, lost her beloved companion and a vital lifeline this week with the death of her guide dog Peddie.

SADLY MISSED: Anne Cassin's guide dog Peddie.
SADLY MISSED: Anne Cassin's guide dog Peddie.

The six-year-old labrador had been her constant companion for four years. She became suddenly ill last Friday, and died in Mrs Cassin's arms on Monday with the assistance of a veterinarian, who put Peddie down when the pain she was in turned out to be acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Peddie was bounding along Tahunanui Beach and diving into the sea, so her death was difficult to comprehend, Mrs Cassin said.

"Peddie, the gentlest, placid golden labrador, was a wonderful guide dog," Mrs Cassin wrote in a tribute on her blog.

"She went everywhere with me. We travelled by plane, the Devonport ferry, the train and buses. She accompanied me in a cutter sailboat when I was at the helm being guided by a patient sailor.

"We explored the river valleys, where she steered me around the boulders. Cold mountain rivers did not daunt her. We dodged tree roots and rocks clambering up the Kaiteriteri bluff and many other narrow bush tracks."

Mrs Cassin said Peddie's city guiding skills never failed.

"She dodged dug-up footpaths, and steered me away from the rising Maitai River.

"Negotiating a path on market day I think was the most amazing. She guided me through Nelson's busy Saturday Market, taking me directly to my usual stalls for organic vegetables.

"She even took me to seasonal stalls that I had not been to since the previous season. Asparagus and berries were some she remembered."

Peddie was Mrs Cassin's third guide dog, after border collie Toby, a "failed" guide dog she took on as her farm dog while living in the Coromandel and then retrained as a guide dog when she lost her sight.

"Towards the end of his training, a truck backfired and Toby got a scare they could never train out of him, so he was a ‘reject'.

"He was the most gorgeous dog - I was sighted then, so I took him as a farm dog.

"Then I had the stroke and had to wait a year for a guide dog. I hated using the cane, so suggested to the local Blind Foundation, ‘Why not re-train Toby?'."

Because of the trust between them, Toby became a guide dog that would "walk on broken glass" for Mrs Cassin if he had to. He also died of cancer.

Next came Paddie, whose love of chasing cats eventually rendered her out of a job.

"Paddie was full of go. She never sat still. She was lovely, but wanted to seek and destroy cats. I would be on the end of the harness, being dragged through a hedge. It wasn't a good look."

Then along came Peddie, who became the perfect match.

Mrs Cassin finds it tough explaining the loss to people who ask when they see her out with her caregiver and not Peddie.

"My daughter said, ‘Mum, you're allowed to cry'.

"People's lives are transformed by guide dogs, and when you don't have one beside you, your life is transformed again.

"It's such a terrible loss of independence and companionship."

Mrs Cassin is a former pilot and flying instructor, whose career was struck down by the stroke. She is blind in the left side of each eye and has blurred vision through the right side.

She took up flying after she was widowed by the fatal 1979 Mr Erebus crash. Her husband Greg was co-pilot of the ill-fated Air New Zealand DC-10.

Their children were four, nine and 12 at the time, and Mrs Cassin needed a job to support them. She got her commercial pilot's licence and instructor's rating, and began working for the Waitemata Aero Club at Ardmore, Auckland. She later flew scheduled services with Mt Cook Airline while bringing up the children.

She said it was not possible to measure loss, and every tragedy was different.

"It's not possible to steel yourself against loss, but you can't constantly think of the worst things, because it gets you down.

"It's best just to live day by day and keep busy."

Mrs Cassin, 65, has another reason to keep busy. In the past two years she has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and to satisfy a constant need to learn new things and to refocus, she has taken up landscape painting and writing fiction. Her computer is another vital lifeline, and she has learned the fundamentals of painting via landscape tutorials on Youtube.

Mrs Cassin is now drawing on her strong memory of mountains and landscapes from her flying days, and an ability to construe bright colours, to create acrylic works which are distinctive for their vivid interpretation.

The Nelson Mail