Meet Summit and Gerrard
By Susan Prior
Late last year I was invited to meet Summit, a retired guide or Seeing Eye Dog, by his new owner Tegwen Howell, along with his former owner Gerrard Gosens. Sadly, since I caught up with them, Summit has passed away at the amazing age of 20. Most Labradors live between ten and 14 years.
Still, Summit’s is an interesting story and worth sharing; however, it is meshed with another, that of the inspirational Brisbane resident and blind man Gerrard, although I suspect Gerrard would baulk at being defined by his lack of sight.
So, in this article you get two stories for the price of one – a man and his dog.
Summit was Gerrard’s third guide dog. Gerrard was born blind, not that it stops him from doing what he wants to do, such is his determination and drive. He is an adventurer, a Paralympian, a mountain climber, an author, a businessman, a dancer, a motivator, a charity worker, a chocolate maker … the list goes on.
Summit got his name because when he was being trained to become Gerrard’s assistant, Gerrard was doing his own training – to climb Mount Everest. Unfortunately, Gerrard’s bid to summit the mountain failed because he fell down a crevasse. His specially trained Sherpa, Gori, got altitude sickness and had to return back to base, while his substitute Sherpa, Pemba, forgot Gerrard was blind and didn’t tell him about the crevasse. He was very lucky to survive.
Summit was by Gerrard’s side through some of his key sporting achievements, which include participating in three Paralympics, six World Championships, and multiple national and state titles. Gerrard’s favourite events were running in the 1500 m, and the marathon. He’s also run from Cairns to Brisbane five times.
‘I’ve always done it downhill, though,’ he quips. ‘I’ve never done Brisbane to Cairns.’
It quickly becomes obvious that Gerrard has a great sense of humour.
For the Cairns to Brisbane runs, a distance of some 2000 km, he had a support team supplied by the First Signal Regiment of the Australian Armed Forces, which used the event as a training exercise. Food was supplied by Woolworths. For that first event, back in 1989, the bill came to $25,000 for Gerrard and his 35-strong crew of army mates!
As Gerrard says, ‘When they say an army marches on its stomach, that is exactly what they mean’.
He ran an average of 154 km a day, with the soldiers taking it in turns to run with him.
It was also a fundraising event, and because it was so successful he did it four more times, with the First Signal Regiment each time.
As an aside, one of the run’s major sponsors in 1991 was Christopher Skase. Remember him? The night before the main event there was to be a presentation and cocktails in the ballroom of The Mirage Resort. But Skase was a no show. Having been declared bankrupt, he became Australia’s most-wanted fugitive, absconding that night, fleeing Australia for friendlier climes. He left his marketing team behind to face the music, looking very uncomfortable and unable to explain his absence.
Gerrard tells me another story, this one about the manager of the Clairview Caravan Park in Queensland. The team stopped there overnight, and the next day the manager kindly insisted on giving Gerrard 60 postcards to take back to Brisbane, but before he let Gerrard go, he made sure to help him run his finger over each one so Gerrard could ‘see’ the photograph on it!
I suspect Gerrard has quite a few more stories like that up his sleeve!
But for him, Gerrard says all these achievements pale when compared to Dancing with The Stars. Running backwards, dancing to a live band (rotten for pinpointing things), lights sitting proud around the edge of the floor, and a partner who became teary before each performance were just a few of the obstacles. As Gerrard says, he had no idea what was supposed to look good, what a rumba or cha cha looked like, or how to hold himself.
Gerrard fits all these feats into his life while holding down a full-time job and raising a family. His stamina is mind boggling.
Today, Gerrard still keeps fit and active, but he is also a businessman with his own chocolate company. His company, Chocolate Moments, runs two chocolate shops, called The Art of Fine Chocolate and World of Chocolate, in Brisbane (in the Myer Centre and in Albert Street), and he makes the chocolates himself. He is the only Belgian chocolatier in town, and certainly the only blind one. He also holds classes at a specialist cooking school in Kangaroo Point in chocolate making; he says that sometimes it takes his students a while to realise he is blind!
At 16 years’ old, Gerrard became Queensland’s youngest person to get a guide dog, and the first person to have a guide dog while he was at school. Gerrard grew up in Yeppoon, Queensland, and the difficulties there for Joey included snakes, ticks, the heat, and no kerbs on the road edges – which made it difficult for Joey to know where the road began and the path ended. Joey fitted into school life well and was loved by all the other students.
Gerrard had him for about ten years before Joey began to slow down. He says it is difficult to find a dog tall enough (Gerrard is 6’ 3”) and adaptable enough for his lifestyle. Gerrard is never consistently in one place for long, which makes an intelligent dog a necessity.
When Joey retired, he was followed by Anchor, and then Summit.
And it is old Summit whom I met this day. He was truly a character – a real old gent of the canine world. He retired from service ten years’ ago at ten years' old because of a cancer on his leg. At that time, there was no way of knowing how long Summit would live. Gerrard couldn’t afford to be without the assistance of a guide dog, and so Chief was trained in readiness to replace Summit.
Gerrard and Tegwen often run together, so when she heard that Summit might have to be put down she jumped in and offered him a home just down the road from Gerrard, in Chelmer. A trial weekend turned into a canine lifetime of love for the Howell family.
Gerrard is amazed at how long Summit kept going; clearly, Summit loved being at the Howells. Tegwen’s home was badly flooded in 2011, and had to be demolished and rebuilt. When the house came down Summit became visibly very depressed, so much so that their vet didn’t think he would survive. But he did, for another nearly seven years.
Gerrard’s latest Seeing Eye Dog is three-year-old Boss.
I ask Gerrard which dog was his best, or his favourite, but as he says, they are all different, a bit like children I guess. They have different strengths and weaknesses, and they have all helped him to achieve some amazing things.
Boss is Gerrard’s constant companion now, and he sits outside the front door of the chocolate shops in the city when Gerrard is inside. If you see Boss there, give him a pat.
Sadly, the week before Christmas, 2016, Summit died. He was such a beautiful, fine old lad. And I am so glad I met him.
Each guide dog costs $30,000 to train. For the people who need these dogs they are a lifeline. If you would like more information about Seeing Eye Dogs, or would like to donate to this worthy cause, visit the website here: Seeing Eye Dogs