A widow who lost her husband after years spent battling a blood cancer diagnosis is now raising a Guide Dogs puppy named in memory of him.
Sandra Corben is raising a puppy called Corby, after her husband Neil’s last name. The puppy, who has already left a “pawprint on [her] heart”, was named through the Guide Dogs’ ‘Sponsor a Puppy’ scheme after Sandra’s late mother-in-law left a legacy gift to name a dog in his memory.
The 66-year-old from Porthcawl, Wales, applied to Guide Dogs just one month after the loss of her husband in June 2013.
It has been 10 years since her soulmate Neil passed but “it just seems like yesterday for me,” Sandra says. “It hasn’t got better for me; you just learn how to cope with it.
“I truly believe, if it had not been for Guide Dogs, that I probably would have gone on to develop PTSD, which the doctors thought I might develop, or died of a broken heart like my dad seriously thought might happen.
“My story would have been very different to what it is now. I now have happiness in my life, albeit a different type of happiness from my time with Neil, that I never thought I would have again, and this is all down to Guide Dogs.”
Sandra and Neil were inseparable. The couple married when Sandra was 20 and Neil was 21. The couple, who tied the knot in 1977, had their own printing business together, and spent every moment by each other’s side right up until Neil died.
Sandra says: “We just kept going all the time. Before Neil was ever ill, we always used to say, ‘I want to go before you’ because the other one didn’t want to be left.
“Towards the end when he was ill, he was in the University of Wales Hospital for three months. I visited every single day, except for a couple of days when I went down with a cold and had to stay away.
“I always say with great love, comes great sorrow and when he died, for a long time, I felt as though I was living in a bubble and life had stood still for me.”
To help overcome her grief, Sandra signed up to volunteer for Guide Dogs – something the couple had always wanted to do together.
Sandra and Neil previously owned a Golden Retriever, Bran. “When Bran died, it was very difficult, because it was another bit of my life that was gone,” Sandra says. After Bran passed in January 2014, Sandra met her first Guide Dogs puppy, Berry, in March, who she described as a “diva retriever – exactly what I needed” as a distraction.
Guide dog puppies stay with volunteer raisers for up to a year while following daily training routine during the week and attending Guide Dog puppy classes every few weeks. Volunteers also socialise their puppies to increase their confidence by introducing them to a variety of environments.
Since applying for Guide Dogs, Sandra has raised seven dogs so far, all of whom she loves “equally”. During her time raising puppies, Sandra experienced the loss of her father James. He passed away on December 31 2017 at 81, followed by her mother Margaret on June 2 2021 at 83.
Then in September 2021, her mother-in-law passed away at the age of 96. It was a traumatising time for Sandra, yet she knew that she had to keep busy.
Jean, who was a “great animal lover,” left a £5,000 legacy gift in her will to sponsor a Guide Dog puppy to be named in memory of her son Neil. Corby was named through the scheme and the money would go towards covering the first year of the puppy’s life.
“We decided that because Golden Retrievers were our breed [as a couple], that it would be a male Golden Retriever,” says Sandra. “The two of us thought about what the name would be, something suitable for a puppy. Neil’s nickname to friends and family was ‘Corby’”.
On September 21 2023, Sandra had an emotional meeting with the “gorgeous” Corby. Corby, who is “active” and playful, loves to nibble Sandra and the furniture of the house that she has fully refurbished to accommodate him and future puppies to come. His two nicknames are “chunky monkey” and “demolition man”. Sandra has even noticed similarities between him and Neil, describing them both as “cheeky”.
While all her Guide Dogs are special, Sandra said looking after Corby is “extra special because it is a memory of Neil” and feels the fact it has come in the 10th year marks a milestone.
“Hopefully Corby will go on to change someone’s life, or he could even turn out to be a stud dog, and then that legacy would keep going.
“Whatever happens, Corby will go on to be a life-changer in whatever way, and I hope that I can continue working with Guide Dogs for many years to come.”
She adds: “I feel now that I am starting a new journey myself. During the last 10 years I have lost five of my loved ones, which includes the last of mine and Neil’s pet dogs. I am really looking forward to the adventures with guide dog puppy Corby.
“I don’t want people to be grateful to me for puppy raising, I am just so glad that I have this in my life and it’s truly kept me going. I get more out of it than I give because I know how it has saved me.
“And now, with Corby, when people chat to me about Guide Dogs, I can tell them how Corby got his name and, not only promote puppy raising as I always do but, perhaps it will encourage more people to also leave a legacy in their wills.”
- To find out more about volunteering opportunities for Guide Dogs, call 0345 143 0191 or visit the website: guidedogs.org.uk/volunteer