Tootsie gazes lovingly at Ed, who rescued her from the streets—except that Tootsie cannot see. Yet she has made her way happily into the family’s pack of dogs. .
What I Learned From My Blind Dog
(as it appeared in the "Bosque Beast")
Keen vision is one 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 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 communication with dogs is often visual—we nod, shake our heads, scowl, or smile; they 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 are 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 greatly enlightened about the amazing resources of sightless pooches.
It was almost a year ago when I was shocked to hear that a dog had been cruelly abandoned on my street in Corrales. According to eyewitnesses, the terrified animal ran up and down the street, 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 the rescue group CARMA (Corrales Animal Rescue and Medical Assistance). Jade, which is what they called her, appeared to be a middle-aged, medium-size, multicolored mix; a truly beautiful mutt.
Expecting a frightened and anxious dog who would cower at unknown noises and smells, I instead encountered a handsome, happy, 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 like 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, ever-buoyant personality. Honestly, it was sometimes hard to believe she was blind.
Several weeks passed and no one had inquired about adopting Jade, perhaps because anyone 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? 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, that the other dogs might view her blindness as a weakness. Would Jade become withdrawn, bullied, and frightened, unable to cope with things she could not anticipate? Such thoughts weighed heavily on my mind.
But with a leap of faith, my partner Ennio and I adopted Jade, changing her name to Tootsie, which seemed more befitting her brassy and ascendant personality. To my surprise, Tootsie quickly fit into our pack, adapting to the constant movement and activity. The other dogs, meanwhile, soon realized Tootsie couldn’t see, and not only offered her a wide berth when she came charging through the house, they also 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. (What other dog would look under dirty laundry?)
Even though she was once fully sighted, retinal atrophy gradually took all of Tootsie’s sight. I am continually amazed by how well she has taken this in stride, never looking back, determined to find a way to make it all work. She remains unfazed by her unsuccessful launches onto a bed or couch, and after running head first into a wall, she will simply back up and try a new direction.
I knew that blind dogs compensate for their lack of sight by relying more on their senses of hearing and smell. Tootsie could probably find a hotdog in Carlsbad Caverns, or hear a Stealth jet flying over Texas. I have also discovered that blind dogs develop a keen tactile sense. Tootsie has memorized the dimensions of the concrete patio, the grassy yard, the paved road, the brick floors, and the soft rugs. She quickly cast into memory the steps to the door, how furniture was placed, and can reliably locate her water dish and bed. When the other dogs bark riotously (and far too often) at a crow or squirrel outside, Tootsie joins in, even though she has no idea what disturbed them. She also contributes to our household security by relentlessly chasing noisy birds from their roost in the lilac bush.
It seems that Tootsie, to my surprise, 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 her much-anticipated car rides, Tootsie doesn’t worry about the loud rumbling of nearby trucks or getting smacked in the face with a stray branch; she sticks her head as far out the window as possible, tongue and ears flapping, nose trying to pull in every stray scent.
At home, if Tootsie hears a familiar human voice nearby, she will often roll on her back reflexively in the hope that a belly rub will ensue. In short, she seems determined to live fully—not as an impaired dog or a pampered, overprotected dog, but 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.
As a human, 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.
No longer like 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 can suddenly become forgetful and tongue-tied. No doubt about it, multiple sclerosis sucks.
For far too long, I chose to think of 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 is the epitome of happiness and contentment. I persuaded myself to follow suit, and try to focus less on what I have lost and more on things that remain to me. I can’t go for long bike rides, and Tootsie can’t go running through an empty patch of land. I can’t get through a day without napping, and Tootsie can’t get through more than a 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 still get frustrated by MS, as I’m sure Tootsie gets puzzled by her blindness. But living with a dog who sees no barriers, who fears no limits, who pushes endlessly onward without regrets or worries 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 hold pleasant surprises.
A wide-eyed, high-stepping, tongue-lolling, unseeing Tootsie—a mongrel with no sight and no sadness, 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.