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Story of the Month - March 2007    



Several weeks into the Summer of 2003, my friend Carol, who heads a Rescue Group began telling me about a Jack Russell Terrier who was being boarded in a local kennel until she was to find a home. “She's blind” she told me. “If you get a chance, please go visit her, she needs some extra attention”. At the time I was preoccupied with the terminal illness of my beloved poodle, Rusty. Needless to say, as much as I wanted too, I was unable to go visit the little dog in the kennel.

One short week after Rusty passed, Carol was visiting. She told me since she was in the area, she was going to go visit the little terrier. She asked if I would like to come. I knew as well as she did, that there were ulterior motives to that question. I agreed to the visit, but not before calling my mother (the voice of reason) and asking her to come too. I knew that I would not be able to make any sound decisions as it was so soon after Rusty’'s death. My mother agreed to come and we met her at the kennel. Once at the kennel, an attendant brought the little Jack Russell from the back. Being a special education teacher, I was prepared for the fact that this dog had no eyes; I honestly had not given it too much thought. After all, everyone is special in their own way. Carol took the dog into her arms and we went outside.

Once outside, the little dog immediately sat down in the grass. Right away, I noticed that this dog seemed very depressed and sad. The sun was shining, a warm breeze was blowing, and the Jack Russell named ‘Jackie’ tilted her sightless face to the sun, tipped up her nose and let out the biggest sigh a dog her size could muster. My mother (the voice of reason) pointed to the parking lot and very firmly, as only a mother can do; said, “Get in the car. Take that dog home, right now!”; and so began Jackie’'s new life. It just felt right.

Given my teaching experience, it came very naturally to me to make accommodations for my new friend. I put plastic runners on the carpet in strategic walkways, laid out rugs of various textures leading to the back door, put an outdoor carpet in the yard leading back to the door from the outside, and easily began the habit of not moving furniture, not leaving shoes or other items in the middle of the floor, not allowing others to do so either, and when on walks with Jackie; I began wearing a bracelet of bells around my ankle so she would be able to hear me wherever I went.

I soon discovered what an amazing dog Jackie truly is. Being a protective mother, I watched Jackie closely and always told her, “Watch out!” or “Be careful” as Jackie would walk toward objects in her path. Little did I realize, she was actually learning from my warnings. She quickly began to understand that when I said those words, something was in front of her. Jackie also quickly learned that when she feels the grass end and touches the cement under her feet, the curb drops off, sending her stumbling. Very rarely now does Jackie ever fall off the curb and I no longer have to tell her to “Watch out!”.

There were many times when I watched in wonder as Jackie approached and easily avoided obstacles she had never encountered before. “How did she know that street sign was there? We have never been here before.” It was almost as if she began to somehow sense that things were in front of her before I could even tell her. One day I was reading an article that noted that people with visual impairments can be taught to ‘echolocate’' to help them navigate around obstacles; such as a bat or dolphin uses its sonar. It was then that I realized that Jackie must be using this ‘extra sense’' to maneuver through her environment.

When I take Jackie to a new environment, it is obvious how carefully she moves about to map out the territory. Jackie slowly explores using her ears, nose, echolocation, and her body in space; and within minutes discovers where furniture and walls are located. After a few careful bumps with her body, after she learns the layout of the room, she rarely, if ever runs into anything. I can take Jackie to places she has not been in months, or that she has only been once, and she always seems to remember where she is and where obstacles are located.

Many parts of Jackie’'s history are a mystery to me, but I have a few details of her past. She grew up with horses and was kicked by one, possibly the cause of the need to remove her eyes. The accident with the horse however, is more likely the cause of Jackie’'s back and hip deformities.

After her first owner was going to have her euthanized after the accident with the horse, Jackie had several homes. A kind person heard of her plight and offered to take her in. After being told, “No Pets Allowed” Another neighbor who could not bear to see her put out took her in. It was this neighbor’'s friend, who, out of the kindness of her heart, offered to pay for Jackie’'s eye surgery. I was told her eyes looked shriveled like raisins and were very painful for her.

Since she was already blind, it made sense to remove her eyes to help ease the pain and stop the infections associated with her eye disease. Pets were also not permitted in her third owner's home and she was almost evicted due to Jackie presence there. After trying to find her a new home, her owner contacted a rescue group who took her in, boarded her at the kennel, and contacted Carol in hopes of finding Jackie a new home.

Like other owners of blind dogs, in my years with Jackie, I have encountered many people curious about her blindness. I am often asked, “Are you sure she can’'t see?”. Over time I have learned that people ask this question because they somehow do not think a blind dog can get around as well as she does. People always seem to be amazed when I tell them, “She has no eyes. Yes, I am sure she cannot see,” as if they themselves could not see her face. I once had a person ask me the infamous question and after my standard reply, the woman proceeded to tell me, and demonstrate; that if she herself closed her eyes, she could still see shadows and light. I gently explained to her that during her surgery, Jackie’'s optic nerves were severed, her eyes were removed, and therefore, she has no eyeballs, no lenses, no corneas and no other eye structures. So, no, unlike you, she cannot see light and shadows.

Recently, at the veterinarian’'s office, a man asked, “Does she know where she is?” Given that Jackie, like many other pets is not happy about going to the doctor, “Oh, yes” I replied, “she is very aware of where she is.

Living with Jackie is not without its challenges. Due to Jackie’'s true Jack Russell nature, combined with her difficult and painful history; after three years, Jackie continues to startle easily when she is asleep, often snapping and occasionally biting me or anything else in her path. Due to her sensitive hearing skills, Jackie also barks at things I neither hear nor see. While outside on walks, Jackie often begins barking for reasons unknown to me. It isn’'t long before I then see someone coming around the corner or down the street. Jackie often senses these things long before they are brought to my attention. It is also difficult to watch television with Jackie, as she barks at all animal sounds; especially those of dogs and horses. Jackie is also aggressive toward other animals so, after the passing of my other dog, she continues to be an only child.

Jackie also now suffers from medical concerns associated with old age, her long standing orthopedic issues and multiple metabolic issues. Jackie has also lost the use of her back legs. It appears as if Jackie suffers from a problem with a disk in her back. At this time, Jackie’'s knees have deteriorated so badly that even if her back is alright, her knees could not hold up her body. Jackie is most likely permanently paralyzed. Jackie’'s many doctors work closely with me to monitor her pain levels, and Jackie continues to be a strong girl and a true fighter! Jackie now has a wheeled cart so that she can regain some of the freedom she has lost due to the paralysis. She just might be the only blind dog on wheels!! As she continues to get used to her wheels, I suspect she’'ll love them more and more as her mobility increases and may be even better than how she was before she lost the use of her legs.

Many good things have come from having Jackie in my life. I have met and become friends with many wonderful people because of Jackie. I have remained in touch, and now volunteer with Jan, the person who first rescued Jackie and alerted Carol to her need for a stable home. I am also friends with Jackie’'s doctors who have taken the time to understand her emotional needs and to befriend her; as well as work so hard to care for her as if she is their own. I have met other owners of blind dogs and those with disk disease, emailed and chatted on the internet with still others, shared stories with still more people at rescue events who have blind dogs, and have had the opportunity to consult with and educate others about the joys and challenges of living with a dog with a disability.

My family and friends no longer see Jackie as a dog with a disability, often forgetting she has no eyes. After discussing the possibility of purchasing a carrier for Jackie to ride in on outings, a friend of mine inquired as to how Jackie would do if she saw another dog through the mesh sides of the basket. She caught herself mid-thought, realizing what she had just said. Jackie has taught others to see beyond her differences, to celebrate her unique nature, and to be more aware that pets and people with disabilities are just like everyone else.

Despite all of Jackie's issues, I love her very much and as each day passes, I am more and more amazed at her strength and will to overcome her daily challenges. Besides, who needs eyes? After all, what they say is true, “"Blind dogs see with their hearts!"”

                                                                                                                                                                    Tanya Lichterman



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