Keen vision is one important reason dogs are so much fun. A canine companion can fetch a skinny stick tossed far out onto the surface of a lake or leap high into the air to snatch a Frisbee soaring overhead. Some dogs can even dive to the bottom of a swimming pool to grab a tennis ball!
We marvel at dogs’ keen awareness of subtle human movements and facial expressions as well as their tendency to look us directly, and meaningfully, in the eyes. Our mutual communication with dogs is often visually cued… we nod, shake our head, scowl and smile; dogs offer paws, lift ears or wag tails. In fact, a simple look between a person and a dog can sometimes speak volumes. So, what happens when dogs go blind? Can they maintain their confidence when they cannot see what is around them? Will they continue to be curious and playful if they cannot visually track items of interest? Is the emotional bond between dogs and humans sustained without that meaningful and mutually reassuring gaze? I am happy to report that I have become duly enlightened about the amazing resources of sightless pooches.
Almost a year ago, I was shocked to hear that a dog had been cruelly abandoned on my own Corrales street. According to eyewitnesses, the terrified animal ran up and down the pavement, unable to understand where she was or what she should do. She was blind.
I was immediately drawn to the dog’s sad story and went to visit her at Corrales Kennel, where she had become a client of CARMA (Corrales Animal Rescue and Medical Assistance). Jade (her name at the time) appeared to be a middle-aged, medium-sized, multi-colored mix of any known number of different breeds; a truly beautiful mutt. Expecting a frightened and anxious dog, cowering at unknown noises and smells, I instead encountered a handsome, happy and spirited dog with large pointed ears and bold brown spots on a thick white coat. Jade had a wide toothy grin, a tail that moved like a metronome and an amusing tendency to march in the style of a drum majorette, her front legs majestically raised (which I later learned was her way to avoid tripping on obstacles). I began to visit Jade often and marveled at her upbeat and ever buoyant personality. To be honest, it was sometimes hard to believe she was blind.
After several weeks, no one had inquired about adopting Jade, perhaps because folks looking for a canine companion had the same reservations I did about living with a sightless dog. I wondered if Jade could navigate a house and yard, full of doorways, furniture and other dogs. Would she want to take walks or car rides when she was unable to see what was ahead and could she learn to trust those around her? With five sighted dogs at home, I also worried that our house might be too chaotic an environment for Jade; concerned that the other dogs might view her blindness as a weakness, not understanding that she could not see or respond to their non-verbal cues. Would Jade become withdrawn, bullied and frightened, unable to cope with things she could not anticipate? These issues weighed heavily on my mind.
Taking a leap of faith, my partner Ennio and I adopted Jade and changed her name to Tootsie, a name more befitting her brassy and ascendant personality. To my surprise, Tootsie quickly fit into the pack, adapting to the constant movement and activity. The other dogs, meanwhile, soon realized Tootsie was blind and not only offered her a wide berth when she came charging through the house, but gave her a pass when she tripped over them. Tootsie learned to wait patiently for her turn to go through the doggie door and discovered amazing hiding places for her chewies (I mean, what other dog would look under dirty laundry!?)
While she was once fully sighted, retinal atrophy has gradually taken away all of Tootsie’s sight. However, I continue to be amazed by how well she has taken her blindness in stride, never looking back, determined to find a way to make it all work. She remains remarkably unfazed by her unsuccessful launches onto a bed or couch and, after running headfirst into the wall, will simply back up and try a new direction.
I knew that blind dogs compensated for their lack of sight by relying more heavily on their hearing and smell and Tootsie is no exception. She could probably find a hotdog in Carlsbad Caverns or hear a stealth jet still flying in Texas airspace. But, I also discovered that blind dogs develop keen tactile senses. Tootsie taught herself that the concrete patio, the grassy yard, the paved road, the brick floors and the soft rugs felt differently on her feet and memorized their dimensions. She quickly located and cast into memory the steps to the door, recalled how the furniture was placed and reliably found her water dish and bed. When the other dogs’ bark riotously at a crow or squirrel outside (which happens far too often), Tootsie joins in, even though she has no idea what has disturbed them. She also contributes to our household security by relentlessly chasing noisy birds from their roost in the lilac bush.
To my surprise, Tootsie has simply put aside her blindness, ignoring her disability and using what skills she retains to foster her independence, socialize with her pack members, cultivate her curiosity and stimulate her playful nature. Even running headlong into a pillar or fencepost causes her only a moment of reflection. During much anticipated car rides, Tootsie doesn’t worry about the loud rumbling of nearby trucks or worry about getting smacked in the face with a stray branch; she just sticks her head as far out the window as possible, tongue and ears flapping, her nose trying to pull in every stray scent. When in the house, if Tootsie hears a familiar human voice nearby, she will often reflexively turn on her back in the hope a belly rub will ensue. In short, she seems determined to live fully, not as a sightless dog, not as an impaired dog and not as a pampered or overprotected dog…just as a dog, still in charge of her own destiny. Tootsie’s courage has humbled and moved me in ways I cannot fully explain.
I live with multiple sclerosis. As the disease has progressed in fits and jerks, I have often found myself becoming more depressed, withdrawn and, at times, furious at the course of my decline. Unlike the active person of my youth, I have witnessed my daily energy wane and my need for sleep grow. The summer heat makes me dizzy and nauseated and my legs often feel like bags of wet sand. I bump into things, I trip, I fumble. I am clumsy. I am sometimes in pain and I can suddenly become forgetful and tongue-tied. No doubt about it, multiple sclerosis sucks. And for far too long, I chose to perceive the disease as a suffocating box, a painful barrier, an unfair burden and an infuriating curse. MS represented a force beyond my control that was denuding my life of pleasure and robbing me of my freedom. I longed for the past and dreaded the future.
After Tootsie joyously entered our family, it began to dawn on me that, perhaps, I was perceiving things incorrectly. I looked closely at my blind dog, tromping happily through the yard or wading in the goldfish pond, tail wagging constantly. I was continually surprised that Tootsie appeared not to suffer from depression, frustration or fear—in fact, she has been the epitome of happiness and contentment. Pondering all this, I persuaded myself to follow suit, and to try to focus less about what I had lost and more about the things that remained. I can’t go for long bike rides and Tootsie can’t go running through an empty patch of land. I can’t go through a day without napping and Tootsie can’t get through more than few hours without running into a wall. Sometimes my legs don’t work right and sometimes Tootsie pees on the patio crabgrass thinking it’s the lawn! But we both know that what we have is good.
I admit I still get frustrated by MS, as I’m sure Tootsie is sometimes puzzled by her blindness. But living with a dog who sees no barriers, who fears no limits, who pushes endlessly onward, with no regrets about the past or worries about the future, has compelled me to become a different person; a happier person. I have so much and I can do a lot. I’m always learning. I now appreciate what a new day can offer and am hopeful the future will still hold some pleasant surprises.
A wide-eyed, high stepping, tongue lolling, unseeing Tootsie–a mongrel with no sight and no sadness, who was abandoned and unwanted– has presented me with the most precious gifts I have ever received; perspective, reflection and gratitude. Tootsie is not only my friend, but my inspiration and my teacher.
What can I say… blind dogs are wonderful!