Waldo is a bright, curious Dalmatian with a propensity for adventure – even without the gift of sight. Thanks to his adopter, Joan Michaels, Waldo has never had a dull moment. And while his life is filled with excitement, Joan’s is filled with laughter, admiration and a deep, deep friendship thanks to this disabled dog who loves without impairment.
After watching Waldo perform task after task in socialization class, I was moved by his bravery and the trust he has in Joan. I often watched the two working with alternate forms of commands and interesting leash work but, until I asked Joan to share what life with Waldo is like, I never imagined the thought process that goes into training a blind dog.
Read on to understand the interesting challenges these two have encountered living their day to day lives.
How did you know that Waldo was the right dog for you?
Waldo had been available for adoption for more than a month before I discovered him. I have a feeling this 3-month-old Dalmatian was just a little too energetic and bouncy for the average family or first-time dog owner but for me, he was perfect – sweet and loving and, best of all, goofy. He made me laugh. I visited him every day for an entire month before I realized that he needed a permanent home and that home needed to be mine. I introduced him to my 13-year-old son, Adam, and instantly we became a family of three.
When did you suspect he was losing his sight?
I knew deafness was a common trait among Dalmatians, so I watched for any signs of this congenital flaw but it quickly became obvious that nothing was wrong with his hearing. I never suspected he would lose his vision within 6 years.
My first clue came one summer afternoon at a friend’s house when I watched Waldo, who hates rain and getting wet in general, walk straight into her swimming pool and sink completely beneath the surface. I coaxed my panicked dog toward the shallow end and onto dry land only to see him minutes later drop off the edge again. Something was not quite right.
He started to run into doors, a fence, people, the fridge, but I wasn’t too alarmed. I thought he was distracted and not watching where he was going. Then, one day I saw something in his eyes. I could tell he was looking at me but not seeing me. Sometimes, he would “feel” his way around unfamiliar territory or even crawl. Other people noticed. It was time. I made an appointment with our vet, and she tested his vision. She checked his retinas and found that they had atrophied completely. He could see nothing. The doctor said that he had Progressive Retinal Atrophy and had probably lost his sight over the course of a year. There is no cure.
What challenges does his blindness present?
At home, the challenges for Waldo are minimal since he has mapped out the house and yard in his mind and can walk and even run without difficulty. If I move furniture or leave the vacuum cleaner in the hallway, which I did once, he will collide with whatever is different. Even people. If I invite friends and family over, the extra bodies challenge his mental image of home and he stumbles a bit.
In public, the challenges are far greater. I have to be his seeing-eye person, which is more difficult than you might think. You need to be aware, watching and looking for obstacles at his eye level at all times, which means you need to prevent your mind from wandering. No small task. In the beginning, I let him run into a big rock, a tree, people, luckily without incident, but I have improved and can lead him around much better now. I keep him close to my side as we walk and talk to him often to let him know he is safe. That he can trust me.
I have noticed something recently that caught me by surprise. Sometimes as we approach another dog, particularly a dominant dog, Waldo unwittingly stares into the dog’s eyes, something that could get him into trouble. He doesn’t know he’s challenging the dog and, even worse, if he should ever trigger a fight, he is defenseless. Now that I realize this could possibly happen, I lead him a little off course and prevent him from walking straight toward dogs he doesn’t know.
I guess you could say that Waldo’s blindness presents challenges for both of us.
I’d like to thank Joan for her insight thus far. Obviously, there is much to learn in handling a blind dog. Truth be told, there is much to learn in handling a sighted dog too. It seems to me, while the amount of effort is nearly the same, only the focus changes, making it the new norm. Thankfully, for Waldo’s sake, Joan thinks so too.
COME BACK TOMORROW FOR PART 2!
Learn how Joan and Waldo overcome the challenges they’ve discovered and see Waldo in action on video!