I recently had a great night out. Actually, it was better than great. In fact, I would almost go as far as saying it was the best night I’ve had for a long time. It wasn’t a particularly extravagant night out; dinner and tickets for the theatre on a rare date night with my husband.
Like most married couples of our age, after nearly 15 years of marriage and two children, everyday life sometimes gets in the way and spending quality time together regrettably doesn’t happen very often.
But here we were. After the kind of meticulous planning someone from MI5 would be proud of, we were happily sat enjoying our food at a restaurant. Just the two of us. And my husband’s guide dog Gibson. Noisily slurping from his bowl of water and if I’m honest, making a god awful mess.
As fabulous as Gibson is (and as much as I genuinely love him), three can sometimes be a crowd. The simplest of things that other people take for granted causes us a major headache. Walking in public places with a dog shouldn’t cause that much hysteria but it really does. Reactions tend to vary from strangers openly staring and pointing, overly petting and stroking Gibson while he is trying to work to the more extreme reaction of literally screaming and running away.
We all know the general public can be an ignorant bunch and this kind of extreme reaction can’t be prevented. However, I believe it’s a different story for the service industry. I have lost count of the number of times we have been turned away from shops, supermarkets and other various public places because of their ‘no dogs allowed’ policy. It’s particularly bad in restaurants and bars. It is fair to say that not all, but most allow us in once we’ve explained Gibson is a guide dog and legally is allowed anywhere. But why should we have to explain? Is there such a lack of disability awareness training in this country that restaurant staff don’t know what a guide dog’s harness looks like? Do they really think it’s some kind of trendy fashion accessory? ‘Oh look, our dog’s rocking the hi-vis jacket look’.
I’m usually on edge before we’ve even entered a restaurant because I know 9 times out of 10 we will be challenged. It kind of kills a romantic night out when we have to request to see the manager before we’ve even glanced at a menu.
Sometimes my husband decides not to take Gibson with us and this is usually fine. Over the years, I have perfected my role as his human guide dog. We hold hands. Not because we are desperately in love and can’t bear to be parted but so I can guide him. Sorry if this bombshell disappoints anyone. I gently steer him right and left and squeeze gently to make him slow down. Occasionally the gentle squeeze turns into a knuckle breaking clench when an unsuspecting pensioner or small child walks across his path. It may be unconventional to some but hey, it works for us!
This is all very well and good when we are walking around but when we go to a restaurant, I have a different issue altogether. Firstly, a lot of restaurants are not suitable for us because of atmospheric lighting (candles or dim lighting would be perfect for my husband if he had no interest in seeing what he was actually eating). Then there are other questions that need to be answered: ‘is there an accessible toilet or will my husband need to walk down hundreds of steps in the pitch darkness and then navigate through a badly lit corridor just to do a wee? And how about the general layout of the restaurant, are the tables so close together that he will knock over numerous plates and glasses of wine before he’s even reached the deadly stairs?’ I dread him saying on nights out that he needs the toilet; I am embarrassed to say I once asked him if he could not just ‘hold it in until he got home’.
Back to our date night. My husband had booked tickets to see a show at the Shaftsbury Theatre. We wouldn’t normally take Gibson on this kind of night out and in the past, have asked a family member or friend to look after him for the evening. However, most people we would normally ask already had plans. My husband decided the best option would be to take Gibson with us. I have to be honest, my heart sank a little when he said this, the feasibility of finding a suitable, well-lit restaurant with lots of space, accessible toilets, with staff who would understand we needed a table with a little extra space (and not just shove us in the corner so we are out of the way) in Covent Garden on a Saturday night seemed slim to say the least. And what the hell would we do with the dog during the show?
According to my husband, the theatre had been completely ‘on the ball’ when he booked the tickets and offered a service whereby they would look after Gibson during the performance. The sceptic in me imagined this to be utter bullshit and I had visions of us not being allowed into the theatre and me ‘dog-sitting’ Gibson while my husband relaxed and enjoyed the show.
The reality couldn’t be further from what I had imagined.
Firstly, we chose to go to the Central St Giles branch of Byron Burgers. This was mainly because the restaurant was bright, spacious and airy (big mental tick). I opened the door and prepared myself for the usual ‘no dogs allowed’ greeting. Imagine my surprise when the waitress looked at Gibson, looked at my husband and I and simply asked, ‘table for two?’ The staff had obviously had training because the service really was faultless.
After such a positive experience, it was then time to go to the show. Like at the restaurant, the staff at the Shaftsbury Theatre were incredible. The staff looked after Gibson during the performance and even took him out for a couple of walks while the performance was on. At the end, Gibson was waiting for us in the foyer, all harnessed up and ready to go.
During the drive home, I happily reflected on a fabulous night out. How amazing it was to have such a stress-free evening. To be treated like human beings and not to be made to feel like you are an inconvenience seems like such a simple thing to expect but people so often get it wrong. Just a little bit of awareness training really can make a world of difference.
So, to the staff of Byron Burgers and the Shaftesbury Theatre, a big thank you from me for getting it so right, I’m not sure if you realise it but you totally made our night.