I Think of You by Rodriguez
Bella is a neurotic diva, the byproduct of would-be show dog training. Happily, six years after we rescued her from rejection she has settled into a typical sunny golden who loves to frolic on the hillsides, roll in cow patties on the trails, and carry slippers around on our heels.
And then there’s Edgar.
Eddie is a soulful retriever who howls at the Downton Abbey theme song and croons along with Rodriguez and Eddie Vedder ballads. He’s a conundrum, the Benjamin Button of canines, a wizened old man who suddenly found himself in a puppy’s body saying, “What the hell – I’m a dog?” At times he romps around like a goofy pup sporting a red rocket and other times he frumps along a la Eeyore. He charges into the dog park with relish, then proceeds to stand on the sidelines, a wallflower curiously eyeing the frivolous dog play. Eddie is certainly not an alpha dog, but neither is he submissive. You’ll never see him roll over to expose his belly, except when he thinks no one is watching him scratch his back on a sunny patch of grass. He’s a bit cautious and slightly aloof, unless a treat-bearing human is within sniffing distance, at which he turns on his “I’m a good boy” charm. He’s always been a perfectly healthy, quirky old-soul-of -a-dog.
But now that our kids are grown and the coast should be clear for freedom, Eddie has become the bane of our nighttime existence and travel dreams. Our seven-year-old goldie is suddenly going blind on us. In truth, his blindness wasn’t sudden at all. For a few years we noticed that he had trouble seeing in dim light. We started leaving on a chandelier in the hall so he could find his way upstairs at night. Then we flipped on the light outside the kitchen door every night so he could wander in and out of the doggie door. We felt slightly sheepish when we bought a little lamp for his downstairs bedside and named it Eduardo’s Light, but hey – anything for a good night’s sleep. We’ve finally resorted to leaving on the kitchen lights when we go to bed to give him a little extra oomph. The neighbors must think we’re paranoid insomniacs with our house lit up like the Las Vegas strip all night long.
Looking back on Eddie’s quirkiness, it’s apparent that much of it can be attributed to his waning vision. His depth perception was one of the first things to go, so stairs and inclines have long been daunting for him. What looked like sheer laziness on hilly hikes was actually his way of maneuvering along the trails with limited eyesight. The comical gait that he’s always run with – a bit like a prancing filly – developed into a head-wagging toddle up the driveway with the morning newspaper in his mouth as his peripheral vision narrowed.
And then the dogshit hit the windmill in a hurricane.
Eddie banged his head into a hard, rough obstacle that gave him an infected lump on his snout. A week later he accompanied me to friend’s party but had to be carried out at the end by my friend and I because he was immobilized in the darkness, whimpering with the emasculating shame of it all. Two days later we were out of town and received the following text at 3:00 am from our daughter who was house sitting for us:
Problem is, Eddie hates the pool – a most unretrieverish trait – and never so much as pokes a paw in the water. Sammi heard his frantic barks in the middle of the night and found him poolside, soaking wet and shaking with fear. It was somewhat comforting to discover that he actually knows how to swim and more importantly can find his way out of the pool. But something drastic would need to be done to prevent a tragic outcome the next time.
Shortly after that stormy week, I ran into our trusty dog sitter on a walk and was bemoaning how unhelpful the vet had been in figuring out what Eddie’s problem was. “You know there’s a good animal ophthalmologist about 7 miles away,” she said. “Whoa – doggie eye doctors? I never heard of such a thing except in Doctor Doolittle. How does that even work?” I wondered.
Pretty simply as it turns out. I took Eddie to see Dr. Deborah Friedman, a veterinary ophthalmologist at Animal Eye Care in Pleasant Hill. After setting Eddie at ease, she explained how dogs’ eyes work. There are many facets of vision: perception of light and color, visual acuity, depth perception, the ability to detect motion, and the visual field of view. Dr. Friedman tested his side vision startle reaction and found there was virtually no response. She checked his visual tracking by dropping cotton balls in front of his face – again, no response. The pupillary reflex test to measure his pupils’ responses to light indicated a limited change. Finally, the vet conducted a visual inspection of Eddie’s eyes using a direct ophthalmoscope, a hand-held instrument that magnifies the eye up to fifteen times to evaluate the structures of the eye, and an indirect scope to give a wider view of the eye, enabling her to see deep in the posterior inner portion of the eye.
The diagnosis: Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)
PRA is an inherited disease that causes degeneration of the retina and leads to blindness. The retina is located in the back of the eye and is lined with photoreceptors, which are nerve cells that respond to light – hence, the loss of night vision is the first indication of the disease. The retina is like the film in the camera of the eye – the photos will be faulty if the film is damaged.
The prognosis: No Cure
Those two words incite tears and a brave face. “What can be done?” I asked with a trembly chin. “There’s always something to do, right? Does it hurt? How will Eddie feel? Do dogs get depressed? Can he still go for walks?” So many questions.
“Unfortunately, there is no treatment for any form of retinal degeneration,” Dr. Friedman informed me. “But I can assure you that this condition is painless and usually gradual, so dogs adjust to this handicap quite well.” We discussed how animals feel emotion, and she gently teased me that I will probably feel more depressed about this than Eddie. Dogs pick up on our emotions, so I didn’t want to get all weepy and dramatic about his encroaching blindness. Since pets are already dependent on their owners, loss of vision for them is not as much of a hindrance as it is for us humans. The best thing we can do as Eddie’s family is to make his living environment as safe as possible and help him live the same quality of life as his vision fades.
But I wanted specifics! After many conversations and much research, our game plan began to unfold.
- Slow the progression of the disease. All the vet could recommend was Ocu-Glo, a canine supplement targeting eye health. But Sammi works for a holistic health company and was able to give us some other valuable directives. First thing she said is that Eddie needs to get raw. What? Most dog food has been baked over 500 degrees, which saps the nutrients. Instead, choose grain-free organic kibble that is prepared at a lower heat. Better yet, put our dogs on a raw, whole-food diet full of hormone-free antibiotic-free animal proteins, fresh organic fruits and vegetables, cod liver oil, coconut oil, flaxseed, kelp and sea salt – formed and quick-frozen into patties and nuggets. Primal Pet Foods and Steve’s Real Food are two great raw diet dog food companies. For simplicity sake (and because they are dogs, for god sakes) we chose Acana dry dog food with lamb and apple. Standard Process offers hundreds of organic, plant-based whole food supplements for humans with amazing results, and many of them work wonders for canines too. We started Eddie on Canine Whole Body Support and I-Plex to enhance his eye health. These nutritious powders make a rich gravy when mixed into the kibble with warm water. And instead of prescribing anti-anxiety drugs for a dog who is stressed by failing eyesight, there is an SP supplement with calming properties that are highly effective for canines as well as humans. Lucky for us, Eddie is already pretty chill – aside from the barking he insists on using to communicate with us.
- Keep Eddie away from the pool. We enjoy our backyard too much to erect a kiddie fence around the pool and hot tub, so we needed to get creative. Because our goldies aren’t jumpers or diggers, we were able to block off the pool with low, unobstrusive pet fencing. A portion of the fence is free-standing, so we can remove it in 5 seconds. We’re also teaching Eddie to hug the house and grass as he mosies around the yard.
- Guard Eddie’s safety. The long walks we have been taking for years are now fraught with unseen perils, so we’re training ourselves to be Eddie’s seeing eye humans to help him navigate curbs and dodge potholes, sewer grates and light poles. Verbal cues are key: Step Up – Step Down for curbs, Up Up Up – Down Down Down for stairs, Right – Left, Back, Slow, Ready, Come, All Clear, and Leave It have become the commanding words that work for us. It’s all about teaching Eddie to completely trust us and to tap into his own natural instincts. But keeping him on-leash in unfamiliar surroundings is vital.
- Protect others’ safety. Fortunately Eddie is The Duardo, the chillest dog in the world. I simply can’t imagine him attacking a person or another dog, but what if he is startled by sudden contact in his blindness? Someone recommended tying an “I AM BLIND” bandana around his neck to warn strangers, but that seems superfluous to our unflappable Eduardo. We’ll just have to be conscious of telling those around him about his eyesight before they approach him.
- Preserve Eddie’s dignity. Our first inclination was to get rid of the doggie door to limit his mobility for safety’s safe, but we ultimately decided to keep it to maintain his sense of freedom and independence. Wandering around the yard is one of Eddie’s favorite things in life, and we’d hate to deprive him. Eddie also loves to be upstairs with us, but since the stairs are daunting, we have resorted to pushing his booty upstairs in a most undignifying manner – yet his wildly wagging tail shows us that he feels pride in making it up. Another inclination is to treat him with extra goodies out of sympathy, or use treats as a blind training tool. But he is far too food driven, so that would just be scurrilous with Eddie. He’d be blind AND fat.
- Learn a new way of communicating. With a blind dog, it’s all about touch and sound. I’ve always been a crazy dog lady who talks to her dogs like they’re people, but now it’s justified. Our voices help him keep his bearings, and snapping fingers is a good technique for pointing him in the right direction. Touch is vital – not only to show him where to go but also to reassure him and share the love.
- Create a comfortable home life for Eddie. They say scented oils help blind dogs find their way around – lemon for their food and water dishes, eucalyptus for the stairs, lavender for their dog bed, pine for the doggie door – although there hasn’t been a real need since Eddie seems to have mapped out his territory pretty well. They also say that aromatherapy can positively affect dogs’ moods. Doterra makes a great little diffuser that lightly emits a calming lavender scent. Another thing I learned is that music is great therapy for canine anxiety (felines too, but Gilbert the Cat is a whole different story). “Through a Dog’s Ears” has created BioAcoustic music: psychoacoustically designed classical arrangements with simple sounds that appeal to animals and sooth their nerves. iCalmDog 2.0 is a portable blue tooth player that provides up to 45 hours of continuous tranquil music. Maybe we’ll just turn our downstairs into a doggie spa.
- Restore our sleep and our freedom. Life with Eddie these days is like having a baby – up every few hours, not for feeding but for reassurance and a boost upstairs. I suspect that he has been training US – but we are finally turning the tables. He’s down to once a night now, around a civilized 5:00 am wakeup call. Life with a blind dog is a work in progress and a celebration of ordinary things often taken for granted.
While seeking bright spots in a darkening world, I came up with my list of The Ten Best Things About Having a Blind Dog:
#10 Eddie has simplified our life – we can’t mess up his mental territorial map by re-decorating or buying a new home.
#9 There has been plenty of time to adjust with the gradual onset of PRA, and it’s opened our eyes to a variety of things to make our pets’ lives more healthy and comfortable.
#8 Our patience has blossomed.
#7 We have become more compassionate humans.
#6 There is now a genetic test to determine if breeding dogs are carriers of the disease. But I can scarcely imagine life without Eddie, so I’m strangely grateful the test wasn’t around when he was conceived.
#5 Our bond with Eddie has strengthened as his reliance and trust in us grows.
#4 We’ve had a lot of laughs and entertaining stories at Eddie’s expense. It’s a balancing tradeoff for all the angst he’s given us.
#3 Eddie and Bella have always been good buddies, but it’s heartwarming to watch Bella’s devoted support and genuine companionship. She too has become more patient and compassionate.
#2 Once he’s fully blind, we can turn off all the lights and save on electricity.
#1 There’s hope that we might be able to sleep through the night again!
The doggie eye doc said that Eddie should be considered “low vision” until he becomes blind. And just how will we know when that happens? We thought it would be when he stopped barking for us to turn on the light. But now he barks even more, as if to ask, “What time is it? Day or night? Where is everyone? Is anybody home?” Lately we’ve witnessed Eddie bumping into all sorts of large obstacles, so for all intents and purposes our sweet Eddie is blind as blind can be, and we are learning to be his seeing eye humans.
Eddie’s world has changed, and yet it’s surprisingly the same. He still loves to bring in the morning newspaper – and even though he has to be led to the paper, shreds the front page picking it up, drops it rounding the corner, and knocks over a pot or two on the way in he feels the same sense of pride in doing his job. It’s rewarding to watch his confidence grow even as his sight fades away. As long as he can do the things he’s always loved to do, then of course his life is well worth living and there is brightness in the blinding darkness.
There have been exasperating times when Eddie’s piercing bark has tried my patience to the point of tears and yelling, which of course only caused him to bark more incessantly. Eddie’s blindness has made us better people as we tap into our humorous zen mode to deal with his confusion, frustration, and safety. The least we can give our loyal companion who showers us with his unconditional love is our clear-eyed devotion.
And maybe a crash helmet.