A MUM-OF-TWO whose guide dog has been the victim of four separate attacks in the space of just 18 months has likened each traumatic ordeal to being trapped in a horror film.
Emma Free was speaking about her horrific experiences involving out of control dogs attacking her guide dog as part of National Guide Dogs Week when she will be helping to promote the new Take the Lead campaign at a busy Ipswich shopping centre.
The 37-year-old, who has severe sight loss due to a degenerative disorder known as retinitis pigmentosa, will be with fellow members of the East and Mid-Suffolk branch of the Guide Dogs for the Blind at Sailmakers Shopping Centre this Thursday and Friday.
The key message of the charity’s Take the Lead campaign is for pet owners to be responsible by putting their dogs on a lead when they see a guide dog, which is of particularly relevance in Ipswich due to it seeing the highest number of attacks in the UK.
Emma, who lives in Ipswich and has two sons aged 13 and 11, says her guide dog Ivy has been on the receiving end of four attacks between March 2017 and as recent as August this year while she was walking to and from town.
Each time the Labrador Cross Golden Retriever has had to receive treatment at the vets for bruising, soreness and ripped fur to areas including her legs, back and neck.
Thankfully Ivy, who has been by Emma’s side for the past two years, has avoided serious injury and not had to withdraw from service.
Emma, whose condition affects around 1 in 4,000 people, said: “I’ve experienced attacks with both my retired dog Jazz and my current dog Ivy due to pet dog owners being irresponsible and not having control of them.
“It’s a horrible, traumatic situation because you don’t know what’s going on or what damage an aggressive dog has done.
“You’re relying on members of the public to step in and let you know if there is blood or an injury.
“When it’s happening you feel like you’re stuck in a horror movie. You’re spun around for what feels like an eternity.
“I’m very, very lucky to still have Ivy in full blown working mode. She loves playing with dogs in her free time and has that air of confidence about her. She’s very resilient.
“But she does sometimes stop and wait for a dog to go past now and I can sometimes sense her relief.
“At one time I could pass dogs with Ivy and she wouldn’t react so I didn’t even know they were there unless they were being vocal.”
Mike Sorhaindo, Manager is Sailmakers Shopping Centre, said: “We’re delighted to have the East and Mid-Suffolk branch of the Guide Dogs for the Blind with us again this year.
“Hopefully the team can raise lots of money for what is a brilliant charity and one we are always keen to support ourselves here at Sailmakers.
“This year they are promoting a very important new campaign and we urge shoppers to get behind it and spread the message to ‘Take the Lead’.”
Emma, who got her first guide dog Jazz in 2011 and has since kept her as a pet, will also be at Sailmakers helping to fundraise for a charity which has helped give her a new lease of life.
She explained: “I’ve never had good, useful vision and the disease is not treatable hence my decision to get a guide dog.
“I was originally a long cane user but I was never confident using it and relied heavily on family and friends.
“Having a guide dog gave me a whole new lease of life. My husband could remain in full time work and I could be the mum I wanted to be.
“It’s given me independence and the positive impact isn’t just on myself but also family and friends.”
Sailmakers, which is a popular spot for guide dog training, has played host to the East and Mid-Suffolk branch fundraising team – led by organiser Penny Parker – for the last few years.
The shopping centre also has a permanent Guide Dog resident in the form of a Labrador statue collection affectionately known as ‘Big Fred’.
Penny said: “We love fundraising at Sailmakers. The staff are brilliant and we feel safe.
“It’s vital that we have fundraising events like this and to try and attract more volunteers because the lifetime cost of a guide dog is £58,000.”
Penny is also keen to use the two days as an opportunity to spread awareness of the new Take the Lead campaign.
She said: “This year we’ve had 13 attacks in Ipswich alone. The average number for the UK is 4% and ours is at 45%.
“We’re not a big town. We believe a couple of attacks may have involved the same dog but it’s hard to pinpoint why it’s so high here.
“We will be promoting the campaign for responsible dog ownership and also appealing to people to be our eyes.
“The victims are blind so can’t give a description of the dog or owner. Speak to a visually impaired person, get evidence on your phone and be prepared to talk to police.
“People don’t understand what consequences an attack can have. The dog is working and even if there is no physical injuries the emotional injuries can be enough to make it no longer work.
“If a guide dog owner has a job they can’t get to work or take their kids to school – things people take for granted.”