She's Blind? Impossible!

One of our dogs just taught us a lesson.

Posted May 06, 2020

When we consider how her days are spent, we know she goes by sound and scent. And how her days in this dark world and wide, are spent in night, yet by our side, she walks, trots, follows in good stride. And never cries about her state, she longs to serve, not stand and wait. (Apologies to John Milton’s “On His Blindness.”)

We were aware that our Dutch shepherd, Rima, wasn’t seeing very well. In her tenth year, she had difficulty catching her beloved ball — indeed, she never caught it on the fly. But she always found it, and quickly. She navigated our house, our ten-acre horse property (running circles around the horses when given the opportunity), and ran with our pack: a 140 lb Anatolian Shepherd, an ornery boxer, and a young upstart Dutchie 7 years her junior, hence in the prime of doggie life, and 10 lbs heavier, but who she bested regularly and enthusiastically during their regular dyadic rough-housing.

We assumed that she had developed cataracts — her eyes seemed cloudy and with peculiarly dilated pupils — so we brought her to a veterinary ophthalmologist, prepared for eye-opening cataract surgery that we confidently anticipated would give her a new and brightened perspective. What we weren’t prepared for was the news that Rima was 100%, stone-cold blind, the result of progressive retinal atrophy, a genetically mediated disease that causes complete loss of vision and is irreversible.

We were devastated, not just at the news that she is blind, but because our expectation that we were about to hugely improve her quality of life was not to be. And yet, upon thinking it over, we recognize that she is no worse off now that we know her condition than she was before. She doubtless knew that she was blind, and if anything might be surprised that it took us so long to catch up.

Now, having metabolized the news, we aren’t treating her any differently, except for no longer allowing her to cavort with the horses. We have always loved and admired her — for her athleticism, devotedness, stalwart and quiet obedience, and remarkable social skills. (She has never been in a dog fight, always adroitly handling the most seemingly fraught situation.) But if anything, our admiration is greater now. She fooled us, giving no sign of her profound disability; actually, we shouldn’t see it as a disability at all. She doesn’t. Her canine colleagues don’t. She is a lesson and an inspiration to us all.

I began this meditation with my own inadequate revision of Milton’s great poem. I’ll end it with a direct quote from another fine poem, this one by Walt Whitman: “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”