The extraordinary story of four guide dogs and their owners

Film-maker Olivia Lichtenstein discovers what life is like with a guide dog, and how that special bond changes lives


For Mahomed khatri, Steve Cunningham, Mark Gaffey and Claire Johnson getting a guide dog meant many different things and opened up more experiences than they could have believed… 


The dog with a fatwa

While many guide dogs quickly become an integral part of the family with whom they’re housed, Vargo’s road to acceptance was rockier. “No one who’s Asian really has a dog, no one who’s Asian really has any form of pet,” says Mahomed Khatri, 22, who lives in Leicester and is studying for his masters’ degree in philosophy. Mahomed lost his sight six years ago.

“Needless to say, I was pretty depressed. I couldn’t even walk from my house to my friend’s across the street without help.” The only way to regain some independence lay in getting a guide dog. “When I got Vargo it was quite a shock and I was scared for a week or two. But then I thought, how can I be scared of something that’s looking after me?’

If Vargo’s arrival was frightening for Mahomed, it was even more so for his mother, Shabnam. “The first time they brought him I burst into tears,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to have a dog in the house?’” But when Mahomed offered to relinquish Vargo, Shabnam had to overcome her fears. “For a few weeks I was really upset and really scared, but now it’s fine and Vargo’s part of our family.”

However, there was still a major hurdle to overcome; a guide dog made it difficult for Mahomed to practise his Muslim faith. “The problem lies with their saliva, which is deemed unclean,” explains Mahomed. He couldn’t take Vargo into the mosque and was unable to attend prayers without a sighted guide. After consultation with Islamic scholars, a legal decree – or fatwa – was issued that made Vargo the first dog ever allowed in a British mosque.

Vargo now has his own area under the stairs in the mosque’s hallway. “In his own eyes, Mahomed was useless because he couldn’t go anywhere, but now he’s useful because of using a guide dog,” says Hafiz Rehman, head imam at Mahomed’s mosque. 

Foster the Ferrari of guide dogs

Steve Cunningham stands in his kitchen in Warwickshire expertly chopping onions with a sharp knife. Next to him is his constant companion Foster, a German Shepherd. So far, so commonplace. “I always get the job of cutting up the onions,” says Steve cheerfully, “because I have two artifical eyes.”

Most guide dogs are a cross breed of labrador and golden retriever, combining the labrador’s intelligence with the retriever’s eagerness to please. But Foster is, according to 50-year-old Steve, the Ferrari of guide dogs.

“A little labrador bitch might be your Renault Clio that does your work for you, and there’s nothing wrong with that” Steve says, but he needs something different. As a boy, he loved fast cars and was a budding footballer. But his world grew cloudy and disappeared and by the age of 12, he found himself totally blind.

His school told him the only thing he was fit for was making baskets and tuning pianos. Steve had other ideas and, in 1999, became the fastest blind man in the world, driving racing cars at speeds of up to 176mph (with a navigator beside him acting as his eyes).

“A lot of my life, people have made decisions for me based on my blindness,” he says, “but their decisions were more a reflection of themselves. My greatest strength is the passion and the confidence that I have and I’ve got a dog that supports that. If I wasn’t like that maybe I would be a Renault Clio man with a labrador, but I’m not.”

A doggy love story

When 51-year-old Mark Gaffey, from Stoke-on-Trent, was paired with his guide dog, Rodd, and attended a ten-day residential training course last year, he knew that his life was going to change significantly, but he didn’t anticipate to what degree. On the course, Rodd developed a very strong attraction to a bitch called Venice, whose new owner was 50-year-old Claire Johnson.

The dogs got on so well that on discovering that they lived only a mile and half away from each other, Mark and Claire decided to meet up after the course. “Coffee led to lunches and eventually we ended up going for a curry without the dogs. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, he’s a nice fellow,”’ says Claire.

“Without sight your eyes can’t meet across a room,” says Mark, “so it’s difficult to meet people and form relationships.”

Mark and Claire are now engaged. Claire says: “Our dogs helped me find my true love.”


Olivia Lichtenstein is executive producer of Me and My Guide Dog which you can see Wednesday at 8:00pm on ITV