THE FUTURE is bright for Wales’s youngest guide dog owner from Wrexham.

Emma Stead, aged 16, swept the board this summer with A* grades in all her GCSEs, plus an A in Maths.

She has now left St Joseph’s School in Wrexham for a place at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, where she will study for A-levels.

Emma lost her sight when she was 18 months old, due to a rare condition called sarcoidosis. Last November, she qualified as Wales’s youngest guide dog owner after training with Abbey, a two-year-old Labrador retriever.

Emma said: “Having Abbey has made me a lot more confident in myself. She gives me independence and responsibility. She has helped me emotionally and socially, too.

"She is a good conversation starter when I meet new people!”

Emma was in her final year at St Joseph’s when she started her guide dog training, which took place during the October half-term to minimise disruption to her studies.

Despite this, going back to school had its challenges. With Emma being in a mainstream school, it was not normal for dogs to be in the classroom.

Emma had to study from home for a week after qualifying with Abbey, while the school learnt how to adapt to welcome the dog without disrupting classmates.

Emma said: “People were worried that getting Abbey in my final year of GCSEs would be a distraction from my studies but actually, she helped calm me when I was stressed.

"When I did my mocks she was there with me and, if I got stressed in the exam, stroking her would help calm me.”

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Emma was unable to sit her final GCSE exams. However, she was delighted to be awarded an A in maths and an A* across all other subjects.

She said: “It was disappointing to not be able to sit the final exams as I had worked so hard for them. But, being in Wales, I sat some exams earlier in the year, meaning I took my three science exams as well as two English ones.”

As Emma was in her final GCSE year, she didn’t have any home schooling during lockdown. Her condition meant she had to shield and the restrictions on going out made it hard to work Abbey.

She said: “Usually she does a certain amount of exercise and activities a day, but that was hard to do in lockdown. We did have help from Guide Dogs, who would send brain-stimulating activities for us to do with her to keep her going. But it’s nice to be able to get out and about again.”

Emma has been looking forward to increased independence at college, where she plans to study A-level maths, biology, psychology, history and braille. She will also be working on her IT skills, mobility and cooking.

“I’m excited to start my new school,” Emma said. “I’m nervous too, as it is a boarding school, so I’m going to have to become even more independent but, as it is a specialist school for people with sight loss, I’m looking forward to being around people who understand what it is like to have a vision impairment.

“I’ve always been in a mainstream school and I’ve made great friends but when I went for a revision weekend at New College Worcester [a specialist school for vision-impaired children] I adored the social situation. It was the first time I have been in a social setting with only vision-impaired children.”

A Guide Dogs Mobility Instructor will visit Emma and Abbey at the college for an “orientation day” to ensure the pair can navigate the site confidently. The school is also creating “bubbles” of about 20 pupils, who will be in the same halls as each other.

Meanwhile, Emma has been practising social distancing with her friends since coming out of lockdown.

“I know how far two metres is, as it is double the distance I usually have from people, so I feel confident I will be OK on my first day,” she said.

To find out more about Guide Dogs’ work with children and young people, visit or ring 0800 781 1444.