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‘This is the way: walk in it’

Stephne Van der Toorn describes how a rural priest serves her parishes with the aid of a guide dog

‘This is the way: walk in it’ ISTOCK / JOOP VAN DER TOORN

COCO IS MY GUIDE DOG. Guide dogs are not pets, they are working dogs. We have been working together for nearly six years. She is very good for my self-esteem. People keep coming up and saying, “Hello, gorgeous!” She has made me more confident as I move about my rural benefice where pavements either don’t exist, or move mysteriously from one side of the road to another. She never forgets a house, pausing every time we pass to ask if we are going in there again today. If I am not concentrating, I can find myself visiting someone I hadn’t intended to visit! My work as a parish priest routinely brings me into situations where people are experiencing emotional highs and lows. A nervous flower girl at a wedding can be persuaded to walk down the aisle knowing that there is a friendly wag awaiting her on arrival at the chancel arch. At the crematorium one day, Coco rose and went to console the grieving widow at the end of the service. She had not done that before or since. The woman was very appreciative as she came from a dog-loving family whose loss had been a long journey of suffering and slow grief.

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