It was one of those serendipitous moments. Martin Clunes was sitting in his Dorset farmhouse in November 2021, listening to BBC Radio 4’s series Life Changing. Jane Garvey was interviewing Jaina Mistry, a young Asian woman who overcame a lifelong phobia of dogs (due to a scary encounter as a child) to partner with a guide dog called Laura. Through Martin, Laura would find a happy retirement home and co-star with Jaina in a television show.  

In 2002, at the age of 17, Jaina, an active outgoing teenager from Leicester, had a rare and severe allergic reaction to penicillin which left her fighting for her life and robbed her of her eyesight. Jaina’s long road to recovery started at the Royal National Institute for the Blind in Loughborough, a residential college, where she spent two years adapting to life as a visually impaired person including learning to walk with a long cane, though she did not want to use a cane in the long term. Craving greater independence after leaving university, and meeting friends’ guide dogs, gave her the courage to conquer her fear.  

In 2012 Guide Dogs for the Blind partnered Jaina with Laura, a black Labrador retriever cross. This was an enormous leap of faith for Jaina and her family, but Guide Dogs were confident that this would work. This partnership proved to be life changing. ‘Laura opened up my world again,’ says Jaina, when I caught up with her on the phone. ‘She has been my superstar, my work mate and my companion.’  

However, guide dogs need to retire from work, usually between the ages of nine and 11. After 10½ years together Laura was, by the time of the Life Changing broadcast, ready to hand her harness onto the next guide dog to partner with Jaina. 

 ‘It’s important that people understand the life of a guide dog,’ says Jaina. ‘When they are in harness it’s like their uniform, this is a clear cue to focus on working. But at home, out of harness, they are like any normal family dog. They need downtime, like we do. For Laura, that involved bringing me her treat bone to fill with peanut butter and having lots of hugs.’  

At the end of their working life, there is a choice of keeping the dog, or rehoming them. It was a difficult decision for Jaina. ‘I could just imagine Laura’s big sad eyes watching as a new guide dog took over the role that she loved, I knew she would hate it. So, I wanted to find a great home for her to enjoy her retirement, she deserves it. After the broadcast, Martin Clunes was one of many people who offered to rehome Laura. Her happiness was my priority. So, it was important that we visited potential families personally to see if they would be the right fit, and this included Martin and Philippa. I could sense this would be a great place for her. I wanted Laura to have access to an outdoor life. And I had always imagined her settled in a family which had other dogs too,’ she adds.  

Great British Life: Laura the retired guide dog chilling out in Martin's Dorset gardenLaura the retired guide dog chilling out in Martin's Dorset garden (Image: Lucy Sewill)

‘It was an extraordinary story,’ Martin says, as we sit drinking coffee in his Dorset kitchen. ‘I called my wife Philippa and told her about the programme. I said I was going to offer Laura a home with us.  

‘We invited Jaina, her mum and sister to come for a trial sleep-over weekend with Laura to see how she got on with us and the rest of the pack,’ he sweeps his hand over the four snoozing canines scattered around the kitchen. Bob Jackson the golden cocker spaniel is loudly snoring at my feet, his mum Heidi May, who is recovering from an eye operation and wearing a protective plastic cone, is lying nearby. Jim (James Henry) the Jack Russell is sporting a rather snazzy collar. ‘It’s a ribbon from a Christmas Cake but he looks so damn fine we haven’t taken it off,’ says Martin. Penelope Jennifer, a Jack Russell chihuahua cross (from one of the Doc Martin production crew) is in leader of the pack position on Martin’s lap. ‘They all got on really well.’  

‘Where is Laura?’ I ask. ‘She often takes herself off into another room, she quite likes her own company,’ says Martin, calling for her. Seconds later a black dog with a lightly greying muzzle and eyebrows wanders into the room, tail wagging as she comes up to say hello to me. ‘This is Laura Jean.’ Like all the Clunes’ dogs she now has a middle name.  

Penny growls. ‘Rude!’ warns Martin. ‘Penny’s half Cornish, half Mexican. She likes to make her presence known. She thinks she’s top dog, but she isn’t.’  

Great British Life: Martin with Laura and his other dogs Bob, Jim and PennyMartin with Laura and his other dogs Bob, Jim and Penny (Image: Lucy Sewill)The Clunes’ adoption of Laura into their Dorset pack set in motion a television documentary to follow Laura and Jaina’s story and showcase the work of Guide Dogs. Presented by Martin, his wife Philippa is executive producer on it, filming has just finished. A Dog Called Laura with Martin Clunes: The Secret World of Guide Dogs is due to air on ITV in early October.  

‘We filmed Jaina as she tried out five potential new guide dogs in one day; imagine the mental strain of trying to work out which one is the best fit for you.’  

The perfect match was found with Kath, a two-year-old black Labrador retriever. Curiously, Jaina had sensed when working with Kath during their seven-weeks training together, similar traits to Laura. It turned out that Laura’s grandfather Truman, is Kath’s great great grandfather. They officially qualified in May 2023. Due to Covid, there had been a waiting list for trained guide dogs, so Jaina had to wait two years before Laura could finally pass her harness over to Kath.  

Great British Life:  Jaina Mistry with her new guide dog Kath Jaina Mistry with her new guide dog Kath (Image: Jaina Mistry)

‘The trainers at Guide Dogs are exceptional. They make a huge difference to people’s lives,’ Martin marvels. ‘One had put 500 dogs through the training programme, another 300. Once you’ve been matched with a dog you start training together at your regional Guide Dog Centre.’ In Jaina’s case this was at Leamington Spa. ‘The next stage is going to a hotel where both human and dog stay for another tranche of training. Then the dog comes home and starts to learn their companion’s commonly used routes.’  

Jaina qualified as the first blind female fitness instructor in the UK in 2014, so Kath had to learn the route to the gym where she worked. Now happily settled in her new home in Leicester, out of harness, Kath enjoys playing with her teddy bear, having her ‘treats’ snake filled by Jaina as well as lots of tummy rubs. 

‘There is also a whole area that deals with the retirement of guide dogs and finding suitable homes for them,’ Martin continues. ‘As well as fosterers who will take dogs on a temporary basis.’ A network of volunteers across the UK supports these remarkable dogs from early years to retirement. It starts with Breeding Dog Holder, where you look after a brood bitch and support her with her puppies. Puppy Raisers look after a puppy for 12-16 months, guiding them through training, socialisation, and the introduction of new environments and experiences.  

‘When they’re about a year old, they go to big school. They are dropped off for training in the morning and then picked up after school. It’s a bit like having kids,’ Martin chuckles.  

So, what makes a great guide dog? ‘Focus and not being distracted,’ he says. ‘Other dogs can be a big cause of guide dogs flunking, the instinct to go and check out another dog can be incredibly strong. In a new system, a guide dog that doesn’t pass its ‘final exams’ can be a Buddy Dog. These dogs go into families with children to get them used to a guide dog coming into their home.’ An extensive, well-researched worldwide breeding programme has ensured that the majority of dogs bred to become guide dogs are well adapted for their working life. These tend to be Labrador retriever crosses. There’s also the option of poodle crosses for people with allergies (as a poodles’ curly coat sheds much less.) 

 Laura, who joined the Clunes pack in late April, has settled into life in the country rather well. ‘She is completely bomb-proof,’ says Martin. ‘She is unfazed by the tractor and our horses, even the huge Clydesdales. I’ve had to get her a doggy mac as she wants to be outside with me all the time, whatever I am doing, even if it’s raining. Laura is my shadow!  

Great British Life: Martin and Jaina Mistry with all the dogs as she introduces Laura to her new forever home in DorsetMartin and Jaina Mistry with all the dogs as she introduces Laura to her new forever home in Dorset (Image: Jaina Mistry)

‘She is out running every day with the other dogs, there are squirrels, rabbits and pheasants to chase. She’s found her inner puppy,’ he ruffles Laura’s head. She is clearly basking in the attention and enjoying the type of retirement that Jaina had wanted for her. ‘Someone told me that when a guide dog retires it has its adolescence that it slightly missed out on as it was being trained.’  

Laura isn’t the only one enjoying a blissed-out retirement here. Martin’s famous Clydesdale horses, Bruce and Ronnie, are also enjoying a slower pace of life on this beautiful farm near Beaminster. ‘They’re 13 now, and not working any more so they’ve had their back shoes taken off.’ I raise an eyebrow, pondering euphemisms. ‘They just have shoes on their front hooves for posture’ he adds. I’m still none the wiser – maybe this is the horse equivalent of elasticated waistbands and slip-on shoes. ‘We’ve given them half the lambing shed as their bachelor pad which they can let themselves in and out.’  

Both horses and dogs remain an important part of the animal-loving Clunes family. Daughter Emily studied equine science at Hartpury Equine Academy and is working down the road at Chedington Equestrian. ‘She’s about to start a degree as an equine vet nurse, alongside competing as an eventer. I’m so proud of her, and thrilled because I know she will never starve! She will always get work.’ 

 Philippa has just returned from a three-day dressage boot camp. ‘Dressage is her thing,’ adds Martin. So, what about his own horse riding? ‘I’m currently on the lookout for a young Clydesdale,’ he tells me. ‘One that will see me into my seventies. I’m also planning to get a ladies cart.’ This is a rather dashing looking gig with two large wheels for a single Clydesdale to pull. ‘When I find the right horse, we will bimble round the farm in my ladies cart.’ No doubt Laura Jean will be sitting on the seat beside him, if Penelope Jennifer lets her!  

Great British Life: Martin Clunes with Laura Jean the retired guide dog he has adopted into his Dorset family Martin Clunes with Laura Jean the retired guide dog he has adopted into his Dorset family (Image: Lucy Sewill)

A Dog Called Laura with Martin Clunes: the Secret World of Guide Dogs is broadcast on ITV on October 5, 2023. Follow Kath and Laura’s story on Twitter @mistryjaina1; Instagram mistry_jaina; Facebook @dietflexuk and at 

This article was first published in Dorset Magazine in September 2023, its text and images are exclusively copyrighted to this publication only.