Those words from our veterinarian shook me to the core. My husband Greg and I had adopted Sage from a Montana animal shelter just a few months prior, and no one said anything about blindness in the a 1- ½ year old black and white Springer Spaniel. After coming to live with us, we noticed Sage stumbling on the porch steps and staring at the ceiling or floor for several minutes. These “quirks” prompted me to take her to the vet.
In addition to the traditional vaccinations, Dr. Johnson gave Sage a checkup and discovered Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), a genetic disease of the eye. Many dog breeds are prone to PRA, and those diagnosed are usually between the ages of three and five. Sage was much younger, and by age three, she was completely blind.
Through those additional 18 months, Sage endured two eye surgeries due to fluid build-up behind the eye as she also developed glaucoma. During these surgeries, her eyes literally “died”; the operations were performed because the fluid build-up became very painful.
Yet, through all of this, Sage endured. She did know the terms “timid” or “disabled”. She simply persevered. Although she could not fetch a ball, she played tug-of-war and also swam in a nearby creek. She walked proudly and happily on a leash, through the neighborhood or on a forest path. And, she chased squirrels and treed them in the backyard, listening for their chirping voices and pattering feet as well as smelling their small-creature scent.
As her eyesight dwindled, Sage’s other senses became increasingly acute. She could smell or hear a squirrel from inside the house as it ran across a telephone wire. She “sensed” when my husband or I drove into the driveway. She cocked her head to listen to birds singing from the trees. When strolling around the neighborhood or in the woods, not one scent, whether squirrel or rabbit or person or other dog, got past that spaniel nose. And her tail always wagged. Sage accepted her disability with grace and perseverance, and I found myself in awe of her courage and faith –courage to adjust and learn new things, and faith in herself and her caretakers.
With the help of a friend who had trained dogs in the past, Greg and I taught Sage the words “stop”, “step up”, “step down”, and “enough”. Eager to please and learn, Sage quickly caught on to the terms. “Step up” and “step down” helped her navigate stairs not only in our house but also in hotels when we traveled. Those words also came in handy when traversing the neighborhood on daily walks. “Stop” also helped on those walks to wait for traffic in order to safely cross the street. “Enough” was used to keep her from pulling on the leash and to shush her when she barked too much at squirrels in the backyard.
Sage lived without sight longer than she was sighted. She died in March from an aggressive cancer at the age of 12 ½ years old. Although she must have felt miserable for many weeks, once again that persevering spirit kicked in — my husband and I had no clue she even had cancer until the last week of her life. We had traveled with her and taken walks on a river path in our community, and she showed no signs of pain or faltering. That final week, however, she stopped eating and when we were able to coax her with broth and hamburger, she couldn’t keep the food down. We were in complete shock when the doctor, thinking she had a very bad virus that wasn’t getting better, asked permission to open her up for exploratory surgery and there found the giant monster disease attacking her spleen, kidneys and pancreas. Sage lived only a few more days.
The sadness remains. Yet, Sage leaves a legacy, lessons in courage, perseverance, love and loyalty. She and I traveled to schools, libraries and bookstores upon the publication of my first two books about this incredible, inspirational dog. In Sage’s Big Adventure her story of blindness teaches readers about disability, self-confidence and tenacity in the life of young Springer Spaniel. The book is enjoyed by both kids and adults. Sage Learns to Share relates to young children who learn valuable lessons about friendship, trust, and sharing, just like Sage did when an older Cocker Spaniel came to live with us. This color-illustrated picture book is intended for children pre-school to second grade. I also developed an e-book for blind dog owners, filled with information and encouraging tips.
Even though Sage has passed to happier trails, her story – and the valuable life lessons contained therein – continues as a new book reaches store shelves this fall. Walking in Trust: Lessons Learned with My Blind Dog is scheduled for publication in September. In this nonfiction work for adults, I relate lessons learned while sharing this earthly journey with Sage, lessons of faith in midst of bad circumstances; joy despite adversity; perseverance in spite of obstacles; courage in the midst of trials; friendship throughout a lifetime, and many other important life lessons. Sage is also featured in two Chicken Soup for the Soul books: one titled Lessons Learned from Our Dogs (2009), and the other an upcoming edition titled Finding My Faith, to be released in October 2012.
Sage was a very special blind canine companion. When that first shockwave hit upon hearing the news our dog was going blind, I wondered how I’d cope living with a blind dog. Little did I know the great lessons she would teach me and that together, we would teach others. Sage’s sweet spirit lives on in my heart and her life story endures in the pages of the books I’ve written and can share with others.
Gayle Mansfield Irwin is an author, writer and speaker with more than 25 years of writing and public relations experience. She has served as a humane and conservation educator as well and she volunteers with various animal welfare organizations. Learn more about her books about Sage and other writings at www.gaylemirwin.com and www.blinddogbook.com