FOR a blind person, a guide dog is not just a pet. The dog is their eyes, their confidence and most of all for Jill Allen-King, a trusted friend.
That is why Jill, from Westcliff, decided to pay tribute to all of her four-legged friends in her book Jill’s Leading Ladies – the Story of Jill’s Six Guide Dogs.
It tells the tales of the dogs she has had over the last 40 years.They include Topsy, Bunty, Brandy, Quella, Lady and her current dog, Amanda.
Jill has been an outspoken campaigner for the blind and voluntary worker for 40 years.
She was awarded the MBE in 1983 and the OBE in 2011 for her work raising awareness of the needs and rights of the disabled, particularly pushing for issues of access to public buildings to be considered by householders, businesses, councils and the Government.
She admits she couldn’t have done much of her work without the help of her dogs.
Jill says: “Having a guide dog gave me my life back after I went blind and gave me the confidence to do my campaign work.
“Each of them had their own personality and they were always so much more than pets, they were friends.”
Growing up partially sighted, Jill went blind on her wedding day at the age of 24 and was housebound for almost seven years.Once Jill had been trained to use a blind dog at 31, it changed her life.
Jill says: “My motivation to use a guide dog was originally to be able to take my young daughter Jacqueline to school. When I got my first dog Topsy, it meant I also got my freedom back.”
Once Jill had got her confidence, she started giving talks at churches and schools about being a blind person. She has given more than 1,000 in 40 years, including one year when she did 63.
It was while going through the meticulous notes she kept of the talks she had given that the idea of a book came to her.
Jill, 72, says: “I have kept notes of every single talk I have given over the years – what I spoke about, where it was, some including what I wore.
“Going through the notes brought back so many memories of my life and the dogs which were with me at the time.”
The book interweaves her campaign work and the guide dogs that helped Jill along the way. It follows her autobiography, Just Jill, which was published last year.
How would Jill describe the connection between a blind person and a guide dog?
She says: “When I go out with a guide dog we work as a unit and they are my eyes. I can’t function without them and they can’t function without me. I couldn’t go out alone, even now, without a dog, and one I am confident with.
“The need for guide dogs is even greater now because there are a lot more hazards around nowadays with things like electric cars, which you can’t hear.”
Every dog in Jill’s life holds different memories.
She says: “Brandy helped me through my divorce and so she will always be special to me. Sadly, she was attacked by a dog and it made her nervous and unpredictable, so I had to let her go.
“After her I kept every dog after they had retired. At one point we had Quella until she was 15 and a half, Lady until 13 and a half and my husband’s dog living with us at the same time.”
The dogs are trained to be able to switch on and be in working mode when they are needed. Jill says: “When they are indoors they behave just like normal dogs. When the harness is on and you lift it, they know they are working.
As she has got older Jill’s needs have changed. She says: “My life has changed completely from when I first had a guide dog. I had a young child and my priorities were different.
“I am lucky because Amanda can read my mind. She knows when I want to get up and comes in at 6.30am every morning. When the clocks went forward it only took one day for her to work it out – so I got a lie-in for one day!”
Jill lives in Westcliff with her second husband, Alvin, who is also blind. She has one daughter and two grandchildren.
She is public relations officer for the National Federation of the Blind, a trustee of Disability Essex and the charity Ricability, and is patron of Trust Links Southend.
After chairing the European Blind Union Commission for 15 years, Jill still represents the union on various committees.
She says: “I want to sit back and relax, but there is still so much to campaign for. The rights of blind people are continuing not to be considered, so I will keep working to fight that.”
Jill’s Leading Ladies – the Story of Jill’s Six Guide Dogs is on sale for £9.99. For further details, visit www.apexpublishing.co.uk