|I Learned New Tricks From My Old Dog
by Kim Cammarata
I must concede that my blind, 12-year-old dog looks pathetic at times. She walks slowly, haltingly, using her front legs as a blind person uses a cane, reaching out with each step to check the path ahead for obstacles. She appears to be decrepit, barely able to walk; yet she walks this way because she cannot see where she is going. Swaying her head back and forth to use her remaining peripheral vision gives the dog a slightly demented look as well. However, unlike my friends and neighbors who feel sorry for Schmoe, I feel only admiration for the way she has adapted to her disability, learning to use it to her advantage.
Embarrassing though it may be to confess, I did not notice when Schmoe began losing her sight. The bulk of her vision loss occurred within a few weeks, and I did not want to admit she had a problem. When she started walking into the walls and furniture, I could deny the evidence no longer. A visit to the veterinarian confirmed my suspicions. Except for a small amount of peripheral vision, macular degeneration had destroyed my dog's sight. Despite pleas to the vet that cost was no object, he said no medical procedure would restore her sight. Animals generally adjust to such a sensory loss with a minimum of trouble, he assured me.
So with a sad heart, I brought my friend home. As Schmoe quickly honed her other senses to make up for her lack of sight, I realized there was no need to feel sad for her. She now listens more carefully than ever before to all conversation and movement, so she is able to detect dozens of words and sounds that signal activities of interest. My dog also expects a verbal greeting from any human who enters our home. She sits and stares with a quizzical expression until she hears a hello.
Schmoe uses her sense of touch in new ways as well. She nudges my legs or my hand with her nose to get my attention or to ask for a morsel of food. Best of all, she will allow me to lie on the floor and hold her close. Since she would never permit this kind of affection before the vision loss, I believe this physical contact reassures Schmoe of her importance to our family.
With varying degrees of success, Schmoe uses her disability to her own advantage to better manipulate her human beings. She now knows her way around the house without fault; however, early in the adjustment period every collision garnered lavish attention and sympathy. Now when the dog is ready for her daily walk, she wanders around the house bumping loudly into walls and furniture, seeking my attention. I laugh and marvel at her ingenuity rather than get angry.
Schmoe's new attempts to beg at the dinner table have been less successful. The long-standing rule in our household is that she may be in the dining room during meals but must lie down. Standing or even sitting is considered begging and is not allowed. Since the vision loss, she virtually ignores her long-term training and my constant scolding. She stands as close as she can possibly get to the table. I think she believes that if she cannot see me, then I cannot see her and won't notice her transgression.
My pet has given me valuable lessons in living with a disability. As I age, I will strive to emulate my beloved Schmoe, not only adapting to a bad situation but using it to my advantage.
Editor's note: This was contributing writer Cammarata's first writing for Bay Weekly editor Sandra Martin - then her University of Maryland University College professor. Schmoe has since yielded her spirit to the universe, but we've recalled her wisdom many times, and more so lately with the aging of many dogs in our newspaper family.