31-year-old Chrissy and her Guide Dog Lacey are united, in-sync and in it for the long haul.
"Lacey's not working right now," Chrissy Antonopoulos tells me down the line as she relaxes on the balcony of her NSW home. "She's in full dog mode!"
That means the harness is off for this three-year-old Labrador. A ball is being chewed, water hungrily lapped up, and naps snatched.
Lacey needs her time off, for she is no ordinary dog, and her work consists of far more than fetching a stick when the mood strikes. As a Guide Dog, “she is my brain, my legs, my arms, my eyes," Chrissy explains. "She is more than a partner; she is an extension of me."
Chrissy Antonopoulos with her Guide Dog Lacey
A moving statement to hear from anyone, but is particularly stunning considering the fact that Chrissy is only 31.
Less than a decade ago, her sight began to deteriorate during her final year of university. Shortly after, Chrissy was diagnosed with Stargardt's Disease, a form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration.
Today, the academic, teacher, counsellor and psychology student remembers that time and the subsequent deterioration of her sight with an element of disbelief.
When she could no longer drive herself and navigating her work and university became tricky, Chrissy connected with Guide Dogs NSW/ACT and began using a cane. "It was impersonal, and it made me feel like I stuck out at a time I just wanted to go unnoticed," she reflects. "I didn't feel supported or confident, yet I didn't believe my eyesight was poor enough for a Guide Dog."
This is a common misconception. But as Kerry Peirce, Guide Dog Program Manager for Guide Dogs NSW/ ACT clarifies, anyone interested in Guide Dog Mobility is eligible to apply for a Guide Dog.
Guide Dogs NSW/ACT does have certain criteria for applicants which helps to determine if a Guide Dog is a suitable and appropriate aid for the applicant. "Once we assess applicants, they join the waiting list - which is an average of four months - until we identify and match a suitable dog," says Kerry.
A friend’s encouragement - and a desire to prepare for a future now unknown - gave Chrissy the confidence to make the leap from cane to canine. She was assessed by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT to see what type of dog would suit her lifestyle, hobbies, personality and work situation. Several months later, she got the call, and Lacey walked into Chrissy's life. "It was love at first sight!" she laughs. The Labrador was snuggly and affectionate from the very first second, she recalls. "I knew then we were the perfect match!"
With Lacey having been trained on Guide Dog specific skills since she was 14 months old, four weeks of training began between the two at home.
"At the start, we were both hesitant," she reflects. "It took a while for me to trust her 100 per cent because it is a huge life change to allow something to be your eyes. I would often worry whether she was paying attention or if she understood what I was saying."
"I suppose you could liken it to having a toddler," Chrissy continues. "She was a big dog – not a newborn puppy – and she would cry at times which was challenging when I was also going through my emotional upheaval," she says. But with trust, respect and a shared dependence, the two soon realised their rhythm together.
Although today, Chrissy and Lacey are in relax mode with no errands to run, no lectures to take and no travel to navigate, once that harness slips around Lacey’s golden neck, and Chrissy grasps its grip, the two are united, in-sync and in it for the long haul.
Now that’s love!
This article is brought to you by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT