I lived with Sage for more than 11 years. The black and white, wispy-coated springer spaniel delighted all who knew her. She possessed a pleasant personality, a gentle spirit, and a flag-like tail—and she was blind.
My husband and I adopted Sage when she was about 1 ½ years of age. We were not aware of her condition for she was not yet completely blind. Her previous owner relinquished Sage to a small-town animal shelter because she would not be an accomplished game bird hunting dog like her father.
Upon meeting Sage, my husband and I became enchanted by her sweetness—and need for a home. We recognized she was “different” because she stared at the ceiling or at the floor for several moments. Thinking she may have a balance problem due to a gun being shot too close, we took her to our veterinarian. He diagnosed her with Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA). With his encouragement that Sage would adapt to the loss of her sight since the disease gradually affects the eyes, we prepared for living with a blind dog.
Training Produces Confidence
With the help of our veterinarian, a dog-training friend, and Sage herself, we overcame several challenges. One of our vet’s recommendations involved furniture: Place pieces where we wanted and not move them. We helped Sage learn the “lay of the land” by walking her on-leash through the various rooms of the house and allowing her fur to brush the furniture. We took her down the small hallway between the living room and bedrooms, walking on-leash again, and having her body feel the hallway walls.
We conducted the same type of awareness in the backyard, this time with shrubs, trees, and fences. On walks in the neighborhood, we took the same route daily. Our veterinarian told us blind dogs have the capability of “cognitive mapping:” – they learn the placement of things and where to turn right or left by repetition. By taking the same two routes on our walks, one in open space behind our home and the other along sidewalks in the neighborhood, by the time Sage became completely blind less than two years after her adoption, she was totally confident in the backyard, on walks, and in the house.
That confidence was put to the test about six years after we adopted Sage; we moved into a new house. The work of teaching her placement of rooms and furniture began again. Getting to this home’s backyard was more challenging due to the number of steps from the kitchen to the back porch then to the backyard. Implementing the “step-up” and “step-down” commands was even more necessary. My husband stood on the back patio while I held Sage’s leash. After he instructed, “Come, Sage!” I walked beside her down the stairs, commanding her “Step down, Sage” with each of the 12 steps we encountered. Then, I took her back up the steps to the porch, instructing, “Step up, Sage.” We went through this routine six times; by then, she navigated the steps completely on her own without the commands having to be given. That cognitive mapping kicked into high gear. We repeated the lesson with the five wide steps from the front yard to the front door. Sage conquered those stairs quickly.
Lessons Learned from One Another
Watching my special needs dog act like a “regular dog” was heartening. At first afraid and intimidated of the PRA diagnosis, implementing ideas from our vet and from reading books on helping blind dogs gave my husband and I assurance about being good guardians for Sage. Our spaniel’s instinct to please and her breed’s intelligence wove together. Repeated words with the necessary movement plus the treats given with those terms and actions helped her understand. As my husband and I worked with her at home and during outings, her trust in us grew, soon followed by confidence and courage. When Sage and I visited schools and libraries after the publication of my children’s book Sage’s Big Adventure: Living with Blindness, entering new buildings and meeting new people should have caused her fear – but did not. She adapted because she trusted me.
The decade-plus shared with Sage had challenges, but we met those head-on and enjoyed a wonderful life together.
I recognized I not only had been teaching Sage, but I’d also learned from her. A few things we taught and learned from one another included:
- Patience: I needed patience to work with Sage, teaching her commands, and I had to implement new tactics and new words. She needed patience with herself … and with me.
- Confidence: The more she learned and the more we practiced, the greater Sage’s confidence increased. I, too, needed confidence to teach her and to take her places with which neither of us were familiar. I also needed confidence to write and publish a book I believed would touch children’s hearts and lives.
- Trust: Sage trusted me to take care of her, not only with food, water, and shelter, but also during walks around the neighborhood and out-of-town travels. I needed to trust her to learn and obey.
- Courage: A blind dog needs courage, which can be instilled through the patience, confidence, and trust they develop. Sage’s courage kicked in when she became separated from my husband and me during a camping trip. I’m sure despite her fear, she used her acute senses of hearing and smell to locate shelter, for when we found her, she was in an area of several summer cabins. Life challenges take courage to endure, and my blind dog inspired me to tackle problems and setbacks with courage.
Good Arises from Challenges
Other books developed from those 11 years of teaching and learning. Walking in Trust: Lessons Learned With My Blind Dog published six months after Sage’s passing from cancer in 2012. The book’s entry into the world was bittersweet due to Sage’s exit. Although I couldn’t share book signings and readings with her alongside me, a photo of Sage sat on table next to the books. I also created an e-book to help other blind dog owners called Help! My Dog is Going Blind: Now What Do I Do? Sage still resides in my heart, and we continue encouraging people.
In the years since Sage passed, two other dogs have come into the home my husband and I share. Each one is unique, each one possesses special traits, and each one has captured my heart. Never, though, has one affected my life as much as my blind girl, Sage. Because of her, I became a book author and freelance writer. Because of her, I became more involved in pet rescue and adoption; I volunteer with groups, and I write and teach about the importance of rescue and the necessity—and joy—of adoption. Sage’s pawprints on my life and heart involved teaching and learning, and I continue doing both. Her impact on me and others will last forever.
Written by Gayle Irwin for Lincoln Pet Culture. A writer of inspirational pet stories, Gayle M. Irwin has been published in seven Chicken Soup for the Soul books, including the 2017 release The Dog Really Did That? She is the author of several animal books for children and adults. She also maintains a weekly pet blog, produces a monthly newsletter for pet parents, and supports various animal rescue and shelter organizations. Gayle, her husband, and their four rescue pets live in Wyoming. Visit her website: www.gaylemirwin.com. For tips on living with a blind dog, visit Gayle’s guest post on Keep the Tail Wagging: https://keepthetailwagging.com/10-tips-for-dog-parents-about-living-with-a-blind-dog-part-one/
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