Meet Willmott - Nick's Guide Dog

Nick Mulryan was born with multiple sensory impairments (sight and hearing) and as a result, the Guide Dogs community has played a key role in his life, and even led to him discovering his calling to become a Sports Therapist*. Nick founded No.1 Pain Relief Clinic in Buxton in 2011 and he is the Lead Therapist at the practice.

Nick is also a Member of The Society of Sports Therapist's Communications Group and has previously given insights on how to make the  Society’s communications more accessible to all Members.

Below is an extract from an interview Nick did for the society on how he navigates the world with the help of his Guide Dog, Willmott:

Nick with his guide dog

Tell us a little about your disability and the importance of having a guide dog for you personally

Willmott provides greater independence with my mobility, safely negotiating me around potential hazards such as pedestrianised obstacles and traffic – particularly electric vehicles that can be difficult to hear. Willmott also enables me to get up and go, swiftly assisting me to locate shops, navigating medical seminar venues as well as working in the field of sport behind the scenes, by locating the treatment room and walking to and from work. He has a very good memory for returning to previous locations.

Your last guide dog Comfort passed away suddenly. How were you supported afterwards?

I was supported by ‘Guide Dogs’ through this ordeal, with counselling if I felt I needed it. Although COVID-19 was a devastating period for many people due to work and lockdown restrictions, on reflection, I felt I had more quality time with Comfort – we had some fabulous walks in and around the Peak District. It reminded me how precious life is and what we can do as therapists to improve the quality of life for others. Comfort kept wanting to help and please me, even at the end when her health prevented her from performing properly.

Tell us about Willmott

Willmott is a two years old cross between a Golden Retriever and German Shepherd – ‘Guide Dogs’ like to interbreed complimenting qualities: a  Retriever is calm and a Shepherd is driven and hardworking. He loves playing catch with a frisbee (a somewhat haphazard activity with a visually impaired person!)

What does the training with a guide dog involve? How long does it usually take for it to be able to fully support you?

It takes about two years to train a guide dog – from puppy onwards. Each dog is chosen for its suitability, it has to have the right temperament. There is a great deal of both basic and advanced training (dealing with obstacles and kerbs etc), the final part is tailored to the client’s needs. For example, Willmott and I have had training on the London underground as a specific task.

What are a Willmott’s main duties?

He helps me find places I visit regularly and locate entrances and exits to shops, pedestrian crossings and of course his free run area. He helps me avoid obstacles enroute and centrally walk across crossings and along the pavements, stopping at kerbs and steps.

He will also be aware of obstacles above or to the side, such as overhanging branches, vehicle tailgates, he’s even trained to give my right shoulder extra space to pass obstacles (I hold him with my left hand).

What does Willmott help you with on a day when you’re not at work?

Willmott provides me with greater independence and companionship when we’re both ‘off duty’. I don’t have to always rely on other people to go places. Willmott enables me to get up and exercise every day. He enjoys going for a regular free-run where he is allowed to chase a frisbee and enjoy some unleashed fun. He’s also great at barking when the doorbell rings.

What’s the biggest challenge of having a guide dog?

People distracting the guide dog by petting or fussing without your consent, it’s especially troublesome when crossing the road or working in a shop (particularly when trying to maintain social distancing). Although sighted motorists think it’s a nice gesture to let you cross the road, stopping their vehicle only confuses the dog as it is waiting for a clear gap in the road.

Is Willmott allowed to interact with other people around you and vice-versa?

Willmott is permitted to socialise and interact with other people providing he’s out of harness. If a guide dog is wearing a harness, the dog is working and therefore shouldn’t be distracted.

Did the pandemic restrictions impact your guide dogs’ behaviour in any way?

The pandemic limited the amount of time spent training in public places such as shops and public transport.

It also limited the time Willmott could be brought up to train with me. Luckily, he is well cared for by various volunteers and instructors who continued with his advanced outdoor training.

When treating a patient, is there anything Members can do to help guide dogs and their owners?

When guiding a visually impaired person, stand on the opposite side to the guide dog, it often helps if you let them hold your elbow.

Ask the owner for permission to pet the dog but really, it is best to ignore the dog entirely.

Refer to the patient by name, and describe the process as clearly as possible (be aware they possibly can’t read body language), explaining where the head end of the table is for example. If describing an exercise, no matter how trivial, inform them where you are placing your hands to avoid any embarrassment.

Be aware of the tone of your voice too – try and sound interesting, not monotone and boring.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about guide dogs and their owners?

Guide dogs are working animals, it doesn’t help to offer them treats or special attention as this will distract them from their task and cause extra work for the visually impaired person.

Below is Nick with his previous guide dog, Comfort.
Blind man walking marathon