By Neelima Choahan
Whenever photographer Andrew Follows ventured out with his camera and his guide dog Eamon, he would capture everyone’s attention. People would stop and talk to him, asking him questions.
“I mean, could you imagine meeting a guy with a guide dog and a camera? You’d be wondering what’s going on,” Mr Follows says.
“It’s challenging sighted people, that blind people can photograph.”
Born with a form of retinal degeneration, the 56-year-old’s sight has continued to deteriorate. Today, he can still see shapes, but has no vision in his left eye and only tunnel vision in the right. He can see only up to 3 metres.
Digital cameras and computers allow him to zoom in and see more. Photography has expanded his world, but it is his guide dog that helped him navigate it.
“Eamon gave me independence and freedom,” Mr Follows says.
“Freedom to get out and just explore and do more things instead of staying home.”
Last November, Eamon died.
“It was heart-wrenching,” Mr Follows says.
“For 10 years, we were basically joined at the hip … we were never separated. We were an identity in Eltham because they all knew me because of the dog. He was wonderful.”
Started in 1957, Guide Dogs Victoria has bred 8000 puppies, training them to help people navigate their world with confidence.
Mr Follows says losing Eamon slowed him down.
Guide Dogs Victoria chief executive Karen Hayes says it takes two years and more than $50,000 to breed, raise, train and match a suitable guide dog with a person with low vision.
Yet, she says, they only receive 10 per cent of their funding from government, depending on community support for the rest.
In June, after a long and complex matching process, Mr Follows was paired with another guide dog, Leo.
Puppies leave their litter when they are two months old. Last year, volunteers spent 1.26 million hours raising 140 puppies, teaching them basic obedience and getting them used to different environments like sounds, other dogs and people.
At 14 months the dog is assessed and, if it passes, starts a five-month intensive training program to become a fully fledged working guide dog.
Mr Follows says it is early days yet, but he thinks Leo too will become indispensable.
“I am still getting used to it, every now and then I still call him Eamon,” he says.
“He is turning out to be good. It will take a few more months before he really settles in with what I do, but the signs are there that he is going to be brilliant.
“… He is very lovable and always wanting to work.”
On Saturday, Leo will be one of the 93 guide dogs to qualify in what will be the organisation’s biggest cohort of graduates. He will be one of the 214 dogs working in the community. For Mr Follows it will be the start of another chapter.
“I think it means a whole new world is just about to begin. For me and Leo,” he says.
“Just the beginning of a new friendship and new journeys.”
To donate or volunteer visit www.guidedogsvictoria.com.au.
First appeared on The Age.