5 Things I’ve Learned Living with a Blind Dog

Zooey's life changed overnight, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped enjoying it.
By: Kelly Gartner
Kelly and Zooey

It started with a stumble.

Zooey and I were out on our usual walk around the neighborhood when he tripped on a twig and face planted on the sidewalk. Zooey’s center of gravity had never been the best, but tripping on a twig seemed out of the ordinary.

I leaned down to see if he was okay and picked his chin up to look into his eyes. I was used to looking into the soulful, dark eyes of the dog with whom I had shared so many knowing glances, but instead I was looking into eyes that appeared milky and fogged over. I thought to myself, “is he blind?”

I called Zooey’s vet, Dr. M, and I took him in that afternoon. We had become regulars at Dr. M’s after Zooey was diagnosed with canine diabetes at age 10.

After examining Zooey, Dr. M confirmed my fears. She explained that a common complication of diabetes in dogs is cataracts. 75 percent of dogs diagnosed with diabetes often go blind within nine months of the diagnosis, she said, and it can often happen overnight.

That afternoon, I became a seeing-eye person to a 19-pound Cairn Terrier. It was also the day Zooey began helping me see life in a completely different way.

Zooey in the car

Life May Change Suddenly, Roll with It

While I was reading about blindness in dogs and feeling bad for my little guy, Zooey was still living his life, perhaps just a little slower than before going blind. He went for walks, trotted around the apartment complex’s dog run, enjoyed carrots and took in long, deep sniffs of air to know what was going on around him.

Now, when something changes suddenly in my life, big or small, I think about how Zooey reacted to his sudden blindness. His life changed literally overnight, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped enjoying it.

You Learn by Failing

Despite the fact that Zooey was maneuvering life as a blind dog like a trooper, he still tripped every now and again, walked into a wall or stumbled on stairs. While I was fighting the urge to rush and help him—he had to learn how to live as a blind dog—he would shake off his misstep and keep going. He didn’t know what failure was.

Today, when I try something and do not succeed immediately, I am often glad I hit a bump. These bumps come in many forms—putting too much hope in a date that goes horribly wrong, bombing a job interview, or taking sailing lessons and tipping the boat—but by failing, I have learned how to avoid future bumps and have the satisfaction of continuing to try. I won’t stop dating because of one misadventure, I have a funny story to tell. I won’t be intimidated in an interview, I’ll continue presenting my work and smile. As for sailing lessons, we’ll see what happens next summer.

Challenge Yourself

After going blind, toys no longer held the same entertainment value for Zooey. He did not want to chase his favorite ball, and shaking a plush toy often resulted in bumping his head. It was up to me to challenge him. So, I made up a new game: Hunting for Carrots.

I stopped handing him baby carrots as treats and began scattering them on the floor of the kitchen and encouraging him to hunt out each carrot. Initially, he needed help and guidance, but after a week, the hunt was his favorite game.

When life seems dull, I try my own version of Hunting for Carrots. It could be as hard as learning a new skill or as easy as joining a book group—as long as it keeps me thinking.

One winter, I took an oil painting class. I learned to stretch the canvas, to blend colors and to forgive myself for not being perfect. My vision of my painting (a portrait of Zooey) never really came to fruition, but I hung it with pride in my office, because I challenged myself and because it reminds me of Zooey (from now on, though, I’m sticking to book groups).

Zooey in the yard

Trust Is an Honor

Letting Zooey fail may have been hard for me, however, I’m sure there are still times when trusting me to be his guide is hard for him. He does not always know if an object is in his way, so he relies on me to tell him to watch out. Going up a set of steps requires encouragement and patience, but he wants to do it on his own. He needs to be told to go left or go right.

We work through these obstacles every day. Sometimes, I fail and forget to tell him to watch, step, or go to the left or right. And he forgives me. Moreover, he still trusts me. I am honored by that.

Enjoy the Journey

Zooey no longer pulls me along the sidewalk in a mad rush to sniff every scent another dog has left on our way to the park. Instead, he walks carefully, nose to the ground, savoring every odor. Occasionally, he even lets out a robust snort. With me by his side, he knows we will get to the park and it will be there waiting for him.

At times, when I’m rushing from one place to another—be it in life or my day-to-day—I’ll wonder, “am I taking the time to savor my journey?” I’ll stop and look around me. I’ll take a moment to enjoy the beauty of a flower, breath in the aroma percolating out of a coffee shop or just slow down my pace and enjoy the day.

I’ll always wish my little pal could see again, even though he seems content sniffing his way through the world, but I’m grateful for the lessons he’s taught me along the way.

As for me, it’s on to the next challenge. Ax throwing, perhaps?