‘How guide dog Dez saved my life’
His story makes tragic reading, a harsh upbringing, a descent into alcohol abuse and spells in custody not to mention a gang attack so savage it nearly killed him. Life was to deal one more cruel blow to Downend-born John Tovey - he went blind. He responded in the same way he had dealt with many of the problems thrown at him during his life, he reached for the bottle. But it would take a guide dog to put John on the straight and narrow and to make him happy for the first time in his life. Jayne Taylor meets the man whose story is both heart-rending and inspiring
His story makes tragic reading, a harsh upbringing, a descent into alcohol abuse and spells in custody not to mention a gang attack so savage it nearly killed him.
Life was to deal one more cruel blow to Downend-born John Tovey - he went blind.
He responded in the same way he had dealt with many of the problems thrown at him during his life, he reached for the bottle.
But it would take a guide dog to put John on the straight and narrow and to make him happy for the first time in his life. Jayne Taylor meets the man whose story is both heart-rending and inspiring
“I had a dysfunctional upbringing,” said 47-year-old John.
“It was very, very strict and I couldn’t deal with it at all so I went completely off the rails. I got into fights, knocked off school and started shoplifting. I progressed to solvent abuse which got me in a lot of trouble.
“I was first sent away when I was 12 but the place I went wasn’t secure so you could come and go. I took advantage of this and ended up in a secure unit.”
From there beckoned youth custody and then prison. John assumed this was just the way his life would be until he met his wife-to-be.
“I got my act together for a bit but once you’re set on that path, it’s very hard to change. I was getting involved with trouble at the football, drunken fights in the pubs and I just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see a way out of it.”
In 1991 John’s son James was born. He knew this should be the motivation to set him on the straight and narrow but John’s past came back to haunt him.
“It made me stop and take stock but my past was so vivid after he was born because I kept imagining the things which happened to me, happening to James. I couldn’t deal with it. I turned to the drink again which made me aggressive and this led to my marriage breaking down.”
Because of John’s criminal record, he found it hard to get a decent job which paid well so he moved to London to get work on the tunnels, including the London Underground and the Channel Tunnel. It was a good job and was well paid but - and this will sound familiar - John got into another fight and was put in prison again.
Ironically, it was when John was behaving himself he found himself the victim of a vicious ‘steaming’ gang who went on a two-week robbery rampage in the capital in 2003.
He was a passenger of an underground train coming home from work when the 20-strong gang attacked him, kicking him repeatedly in the skull.
“I thought I was going to die. It was a miracle I lived,” John said.
After John was told by police that on the same night the gang had attacked and sexually assaulted a woman, he found the strength to go to court and help convict members of the gang who were locked up for a total of 25 years.
“For the first time in my life I felt I had done the right thing,” John says.
It was a turning point in his life but a few years later John was to experience an even worse fate.
He had been diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 16 (John says if he had had a conventional upbringing, he would have been sent to the doctor and diagnosed at a much younger age) but failed to take care of his body which left him was vulnerable to the ravages of the disease.
One morning John woke up and couldn’t see.
“I had some blurred vision in my right eye but I’d put it down to the attack on the train. Then I woke up one day and could see large black blotches but they were joining together rapidly.”
The loss of his sight sent John spiralling out of control once again. He shut his friends and family out and turned to the familiarity of bottle.
“I was angry with myself for not having the guts to jump out of the window. But all I would do would be to wake up the next morning in a pool of vomit with a hangover, feeling even worse. I had given up.”
But a telephone call from his beloved seven-year-old niece during one particularly heavy drinking session acted as a wake up call.
He picked up the phone and talked to her but could hear his words were slurred. How could he inflict his behaviour on this young girl whom he idolised?
The next day he asked his friend to take him to the eye hospital and the RNIB who put John in touch with a counsellor who mentioned to him about getting a guide dog.
“I dismissed it immediately because I couldn’t even look after myself but it planted a seed.”
John knew if he was to stand a chance of getting a guide dog, he would have to quit the booze for once and for all. Against all odds that’s exactly what he did.
“I did some practice walks with other guide dogs but the walk with Dez was different. His tail was hitting me on the leg where it was wagging so much.”
The black Labrador made his mark on John’s life immediately.
“I stopped drinking overnight and haven’t touched a drink now for four years. The 29th of September 2011 was the last time I touched alcohol. I got Dez on the 30th.
“Dez stopped me drinking when no-one or nothing else could.
“He is just incredible. Before Dez I wouldn’t even bother getting out of bed some days unless I’d run out of booze. Dez likes to get up very early so he got me up and kept me up and got me back into a routine. He needs lots of exercise and playing with and as it’s just me and him I indulge him. Life revolves around keeping him happy and in return I get an absolutely fantastic top drawer guide dog - he’s just the best!”
John, who jokes dogs should be put on prescription, is proud of the fact Dez won Guide Dog of the Year in the life-changing category in 2012.
“That was the most incredible experience,” said John.
The floodgates opened and John and Dez were very much sought after by TV, radio and newspapers who all wanted to hear about their story. This led to John being asked to write his autobiography - with the help of ghost writer Veronica Clark - called A Dog Called Dez, which was published in 2013. The reviews were so good, a second book, this time aimed at schoolchildren and entitled A Puppy Called Dez, has just been published.
John, who now lives in Almondsbury after many years in Frampton Cotterell, doesn’t draw a penny from the books, all proceeds go to the charity Guide Dogs For the Blind.
Dez, who is now five-years-old, has not just given John hope but also confidence. As a way of raising money for the charity, he now travels and visits schools and businesses to talk about Dez. He also visits young offender units to tell his story in the hope it might deter young people from a life of crime.
“I know what’s in store for them. I just want to stop the system getting hold of them because once they’re in, it’s very hard to get out of. Convictions stick with you for ever. I’ve got to tell these youngster the facts and that, no matter how bad things are, there is a way out. I want to try to stop these lads and girls going through what I went through and totally ruining their lives.
“And, as long as I draw breath, I also want to carry on raising money for Guide Dogs for the Blind.”
Happily, John is on brilliant terms with his ex-wife. Her daughters with her new husband are referred to by John as “my nieces” such is his affection for the girls.
“My marriage ending was down to me. I couldn’t deal with the past, took to drink and withdrew from myself. We’re very close now and my former in-laws are like my mum and dad. They’ve always stuck by me. My nieces, along with my son James, are the most important people in my life.
“Whatever life I’ve got left I want to feel like I’m helping rather than taking. I want to raise money for guide dogs and stop young people getting into trouble.
“Since meeting Dez I’ve experienced the most calm, stable and happy period of my life. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone blind.
“My biggest fear is that Dez will be taken away from me - and that’s enough to keep me sober.”
Books of the Month, page 55