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HEROES ALL - a personal view of Guide Dog of the Year
by Nick Mays, Chief Reporter

OKAY, SO there IS such a thing as a free lunch – it’s what us journos get invited to every now and again, invariably to promote some new all-singing, all-dancing product, like tinned sliced bread, or to listen to some pumped-up politician tell us how he or she is going to restrict our personal liberties. Just occasionally though, we get invited to a really worthwhile event that is a genuine pleasure to attend, and that was the happy position I found myself in earlier this month when I was invited to attend the award ceremony at the Guide Dog Of The Year Awards in London.

The event was arranged by Guide Dogs for the Blind and hosted by the Kennel Club in the boardroom of their prestigious Clarges Street HQ. I’ve been there a couple of times before as a visitor, but I’m always impressed when they actually let me through those hallowed portals, even if I am wearing a suit and tie at the time. I dutifully remained silent on the subject of begonias and free reporting, just in case I happened to bump into KC Chairman Mr Ronnie Irving, but the closest I came to him was a very nice portrait of him alongside other KC luminaries, past and present, adorning the walls of the boardroom.

Actually, it wasn’t a ‘free lunch’ - I had to work for it, as I was one of the judges for this year’s event. Okay, I’d done most of the ‘hard work’ beforehand by assessing the nominees and their dogs’ stories, but today required me to say a few words and make a presentation to ‘my’ candidate, Nicola Cockburn and her wonderful dog Vale, who won the Exceptional Working Guide Dog of the Year award.

As it happens, I’d met Nicola before, at Crufts in 2004, soon after she emerged victorious from taking a bigoted, anti-dog hotel owner to court after he’d refused to allow her to bring Vale to stay at his establishment, snarling at her that "he didn’t allow any dogs, even guide dogs". I loved the fact that this plucky youngster had taken on this bigot (who made Basil Fawlty look reasonable) and triumphed, being awarded £1,000 by the court, plus her costs. That’ll teach him!

However, I’d not had the pleasure of meeting Vale, as Nicola hadn’t taken her with her to Crufts, so now was my opportunity to put that right… and what a delightful dog Vale is! Okay, so I’m a sucker for Golden Retrievers anyway, but Vale is a real sweetie – a lovely dark, rich golden colour, with a distinguished greying muzzle as befits her nine years of age, a permanent ‘Goldie Grin’ and a happy-go-lucky disposition to boot.

I managed to make my presentation speech concise and to the point, and, I hope, slightly witty, by pointing out that I was doubly impressed with Vale’s ability to learn the layout of all the new towns she and Nicola visited as part of Nicola’s work for a travelling theatre company and also attending college, speaking as one who has difficulty just finding my way down to the shops at the best of times.

After the awards, which saw Guide dog Vaughan being named Guide Dog of the Year, after transforming the life of his owner Susan Jones with his exceptional work, we all decamped to nearby Green Park for a photo-shoot of the dogs and owners. The hardest part of that for me was keeping cool, as it was a very hot day, but I had to chuckle when several bemused foreign tourists came up and snapped photographs of their own, thinking that perhaps this was some quaint British ceremony they were hitherto unaware of, perhaps connected with that large royal establishment down the Mall… The Changing of the Dogs or somesuch. Personally, I think the GDBA’s PR Ace Vicky Bell missed a trick there – she should have charged them a donation to the GDBA to take the dogs’ photos!

After that, it was back to Clarges Street for a delicious buffet lunch and a chinwag with everybody – and it was nice to see my old mate Phil Buckley pop up from the Press Office to share a vol-au-vont and a friendly word. Sadly, all too soon it was time to say goodbye and head off to Kings Cross for my train back to Yorkshire (albeit via a nearby pub which, by coincidence, the GDBA’s Neil Ewart happened to know, as he seems to know every pub in every town), but I made a point of hugging everyone of those marvellous dogs before I left.

Susan Jones had called Vaughan her hero. She’s right. And you know what? ALL of those Guide Dogs are heroes, as is every working Guide Dog in service today. I considered myself immensely privileged to have been able to honour just four of them.