A Camel—The Perfect Pet

Opening the Gainesville Sun one Sunday morning, I glanced at the “Pets for Sale” section. Not that I need any more pets.

To my amazement, I find that someone is selling a female camel for $3200. Right here in Gainesville! How exciting!

Let’s see, I have an area about 50 by 20 feet in my side yard. A perfect place for a camel. I just have to buy a bunch of straw and a truckload of camel feed, and I’m in business. What do camels eat? Hell, I don’t know. I’ll find out from the person who’s selling the camel.r964423_10400496

Think of it, I can ride my camel all over Gainesville, to the wonder and amazement of all. I will be a celebrity. The $3200 is no problem. I’m making enough money in my freelance business. What better way to spend it than on a camel? (I have to admit, this notion might never have occurred to me after I quit drinking a year later.)

Thwarted

I call the camel owner. No answer. Drat.

An hour later, I call again. What’s the matter with her? Doesn’t she want to sell her stupid camel?

I’m so excited that I call my 40-year-old daughter to tell her about the camel. “You’ll never guess what, Julie!”

“What, Mom?”

“I’m going to buy a camel.”

“What did you say? A camel?”

 “Yeah, I found one in this morning’s paper, and I’m going to buy it and keep it in my side yard and ride it around Gainesville.”

Long pause.

“I hate to tell you, Mom, but you can’t do that.”

“And why not?”

“Don’t you know that camels’ feet are ruined on cement? They have to walk on soft ground, like sand in the desert.”

I am crestfallen. “Well, rats. I guess I can’t buy the camel then.”

“Probably not, Mom.”

Well, there goes one great idea out the window.

Tricky Daughter

A year later, the subject of the camel comes up in a phone conversation. We are both laughing at my folly. I say, “Good thing you knew that about camels’ feet, Julie, or I might actually have gone out and bought the thing.”

Julie smirks. “I just made that up, Mom. To talk you out of buying the camel.”

Blind Dog–Happy Dog after SARDS

In 2011, my 7-year-old dog Trudy lost her sight from SARDS (sudden acute retinal degeneration syndrome). I took her to veterinary specialists frantically seeking a cure for her blindness but there was none.

At first, Trudy bumped into walls trying to find her way around the house. She got anxious and confused easily. I thought our good life was over. I forgot that dogs don’t feel sorry for themselves. They don’t think about the future. They figure things out the best they can and get on with it.

Online experts agree that blind dogs shouldn’t be treated with pity. This makes them think that something really bad is happening. The experts say, “Don’t rush to help your dog because his blindness makes you sad.”

I followed their advice even though it was hard. When Trudy couldn’t find the door, I’d stand there and say in a cheerful voice, “Over here, Trudy,” until she found her way. If she missed a treat I’d thrown her, I’d let her sniff around until she found it. Like dogs everywhere, she has a great sense of smell.

Over the last two years, Trudy and I have grown closer and happier. Strange as it sounds, Trudy is more full of life than ever. She’s become more obedient, probably because I take more time with her. I never thought I could teach this crazy dog to “sit” and “stay,” but I did.

Since she became blind, Trudy—an escape artist—has found her way out of the yard at least four times. Her sight may be gone, but her love of adventure isn’t. After she ran off six months ago, I decided to paint the words “I am blind” on her harness. Since then, neighbors have either called or brought her home within an hour or two.

If you have a blind dog, here are some suggestions:

• Teach your dog to recognize words and phrases such as “Watch it!” or “Over here!” and important commands such as “Sit” and “Stay.” Trainers say that dogs can understand over 20 words and phrases.  One blind border collie has been reported to understand more than 200 words.

• Spend more time walking your dog, going places, and playing games. Trudy likes to hunt for her supper outdoors. I make a ball of dry and wet dog food and throw it across the backyard. Her tail wags until she’s found the last crumb. Dogs love scent games.

• Buy a Kong and other toys that hold treats. Dogs enjoy working for their food. It keeps them busy and happy for long periods.

• Be sure your dog has plenty of water. Dogs with SARDS-related adrenal problems tend to be abnormally thirsty. They pee often and their urine is dilute.

• Install at least one doggie door in your house. Many dogs get upset when they can’t wait and have an accident in the house.

• If your dog has trouble getting to the doggie door in time, put down carpet runners or other cues that lead to the door.

• If your dog has an accident in the house, don’t scold. Just clean it up.

• Don’t leave your dog in places where it’s too warm. When dogs with adrenal problems get hot, they pant more than healthy dogs and are more prone to heat exhaustion.

• Don’t move furniture around or leave large objects on the floor that might confuse your dog. Blind dogs make mental maps of their environment and depend on them.

• Keep a collar or harness with an ID tag on your dog at all times. A microchip is a good idea, too. Many owners find harnesses more effective than collars, because they offer better support and give the owner more control in tricky situations.

• Label the harness “I am blind.” People will treat your dog with understanding without your having to explain. Also, it almost guarantees that some dog lover will bring your dog back if she wanders off.

• If your dog is older and can’t get around easily, use a sturdy harness with a handle when you’re going someplace he’s not familiar with. You can give him a lift when needed.  These harnesses are made for dogs with arthritis and other mobility problems.

• Keep a short hand leash—12 to18 inches—attached to the dog’s collar to help guide her in confusing or upsetting situations when she’s too anxious to obey commands.

• When walking your dog, look for grates in the pavement or other things that might make him stumble. Get him used to words of warning such as “Watch it.”.

• When you approach a strange dog, take a slight detour. Your dog can’t see the stranger and doesn’t respond like a sighted dog. The other dog doesn’t understand why yours is acting funny. Dogs meeting each other send signals about who’s going to be dominant, and misunderstandings can cause trouble.

• If you have a pool, put a fence around it. Trudy fell in my pool twice until I put a barrier up. Luckily I was there to fish her out.

• Buy a pet gate and/or collapsible exercise pen to keep your dog away from dangerous areas.

• If your dog spends time outside in a fenced yard, be sure it’s escape-proof. Inspect it carefully for loose boards, gaps, and tempting openings between the fence and ground. If your dog likes to dig, install chicken wire from the bottom of the fence into the ground. This requires digging a trench for anchoring the chicken wire.

• Keep an eye on your cat, if you have one. Some cats take advantage of a blind dog and swat its face with sharp claws, causing painful damage to the cornea.  (My cat has tried.)

• When your dog has to stay at a kennel or with a friend for a few days, leave her bed or blanket and perhaps an unwashed personal garment for comfort.

Two excellent internet forums for owners of blind dogs are http://www.blinddog.info and http://www.blinddogs.net. The highly rated book Living with Blind Dogs by Caryn Levin RN gives owners detailed practical advice about helping blind dogs adjust (2004, 188 pages).

BeaconStreetUSA.com blogs from 2011 describing Trudy’s and my early experience with SARDS appear at http://beaconstreetusa.com/wp/?s=sards&submit=Go.

If your dog has lost his or her vision from SARDS, you might be as heartbroken as I was. Hang in there. You and your dog can have a happy life together again. It will just be a little different. Blind dogs take advantage of their sharp senses and smell and hearing to make up for their lost sight. You’ll be amazed.

My Three Monkeys—Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary

I don’t actually own three monkeys. I sponsor them at Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary, just north of Gainesville. It all started in 1998 when I visited the sanctuary and met Kari Bagnall, the founder. She’d opened Jungle Friends a year earlier after a successful career as a decorator in Las Vegas. She brought 13 rescued monkeys with her to central Florida and intended to to devote her life to primate rescue.

Two weeks before I met my first monkey, Cappy—a capuchin in his thirties—Kari found him an outdoor crate near Las Vegas, where he’d been exposed to all weather.  He was near death. Formerly, he’d been the long-time pet of an elderly woman who had been put in a nursing home. Cappy was lucky to survive the plane trip to Florida.

The day I met Cappy, he screamed with delight as I approached his mesh enclosure.  Perhaps I reminded him of his former owner.  He extended his little hand toward me through the wire, wanting to touch me. I was smitten. Our friendship grew over the years. As soon as Cappy spotted me crossing the property and walking toward his habitat, he began making happy cries and reaching through the mesh.  While I always brought his favorite treats, his first priority was our greeting ritual.  Only when he settled down to soft, sweet “woo-woo” sounds would he accept the grapes, bananas, or peanuts I brought.

Cappy was later joined by Puchi, another capuchin. Puchi had been picked up by police on a freeway outside Chicago—badly burned and in need of medical care. Apparently he’d escaped from a residential fire.  Unable to locate his owners, wildlife authorities made arrangements for his transfer to Jungle Friends in Florida. When I met Puchi, he was pretty banged up.  Besides his other problems, he had an infected eye that eventually had to be removed.

Cappy and Puchi were a good match. Cappy, the big brother, doted on Puchi—grooming him so much that most of the hair not burned off in the fire was plucked off. Cappy taught Puchi to treat me like a VIP, so now I had two monkeys greeting me with joyful screams. Because I worried that Puchi’s disfigurement might discourage other sponsors, he became my second adopted monkey.

A year later Cappy and Puchi welcomed a third capuchin, Lucy.  Suffering from advanced cancer, Lucy was frail and very sick. But at Cappy’s side, she glowed with pleasure as he groomed her, picking through her hair for whatever it is monkeys find there. Now I had Lucy to consider, too.  Who is going to sponsor a monkey dying of cancer?  I decided it would be me.

One morning after the trio had been together for several months, Kari called me with a heavy voice.  Lucy had a seizure, she said, and died suddenly.  Not only that—Cappy died about an hour later of a heart attack. The stress of Lucy’s last throes must have been fatal for him. I was prepared for Lucy’s death but not Cappy’s. I went through my days stunned for a long time.

The deaths of Cappy and Lucy were much harder for Puchi, who’d lost his monkey family in the space of a few hours.  During the weeks of finding himself alone, Puchi poked around his habitat listlessly.  The Jungle Friends staff went out of their way to cheer him up and I visited more often, bringing his favorite treats. Puchi’s spirits remained low until Kari placed him with two other capuchins—Chi-Chi, a former circus monkey, and Wendell, a refugee from a sanctuary unable to treat his severe medical problems.  Currently all three monkeys, in their thirties, live together happily and in good health.

Becoming a sponsor has allowed me to make friends with monkeys without owning them as pets—a move that almost always ends in tragedy. Visiting Cappy, Puchi and Lucy and following their lives, they became part of mine. Every time I visit the sanctuary, I walk around the beautiful habitats that house more than one hundred healthy, happy capuchins and other monkey species. They scamper through trees and shrubs, swing on ropes, and run through overhead passages from one habitat to the other. These happy monkeys once led miserable lives of confinement and ill treatment as circus performers, breeding stock for exotic pet traders, laboratory subjects, and pets of disenchanted owners.

Monkey sponsorship costs as little as ten dollars a month. Information about how to join the Jungle Friends community of sponsors is available at http://www.junglefriends.org.

*   *   *

Dholes–The Asian Wild Dog

Dhole, Wild Dog

Dhole, Asian Wild Dog

Dholes, a handsome breed of wild dog native to Asia, are divided into subspecies. One type has white fur around the muzzle, on its chest and in its ears. The other is reddish brown all over .  Dholes weigh about the same as border collies but their bodies are leaner and their legs longer.  The dhole is a trim, muscular dog.

Dhole of Asia

Dhole Dozing Near Den Entrance

Also known as the Asian Wild Dog, the dhole prefers to live in dense scrub or forests.  The dogs make their homes in dens—often holes vacated by hyenas and porcupines.  They improve the construction, digging tunnels and adding one or more entrances.  The dens may be located under or between rocks, in heavy underbrush, or on the banks of dry rivers or creeks.

The front door of the den is usually almost vertical. The tunnel behind it takes a sharp turn after three or four feet.  Some dens have several entrances and many connecting tunnels.  These dwellings become more elaborate over the years, as the dholes improve and enlarge them. Their living quarters are often the work of many generations, shared by the entire clan. Females give birth to their litters in the chambers of the den and raise them there.

Dholes have a complicated repertoire of sounds for communicating with each other.  Sometimes they whistle or make cooing noises to coordinate their movements through thick brush. Other sounds include whining for food, growling as sign of aggression, yapping, and chattering as a warning signal (for a video, click here). When dholes attack a prey animal, they make a screaming sound. Unlike many other wild dogs, dholes do not howl.

Dhole Couple

Dhole Pair

Their body language is complex, too. A friendly greeting involves pulling back the lips as though smiling, lowering the tail, and licking. The dogs show submission the same way. When dholes want to play, they assume a play bow. Angry or aggressive dholes open their jaws slightly while pulling their lips back and snarling. The hair on their backs stands up, as well.  When they’re afraid, they tuck their tails beneath their bodies and flatten their ears.

A dhole pack gets excited just before an early morning hunting trip, nuzzling each other and rubbing bodies. When they spot a prey animal, they work as a team—each with an assigned role.  One or more dholes lead the chase while the rest keep up a steadier pace behind. The dogs aren’t fast runners, but they have stamina and can keep going for hours.  When the lead dogs get tired, those trailing behind move up and take over. Dholes often drive prey animals to a body of water where their swimming skills and ability to leap high into the air give them the advantage.

Tien Shan Mountains

Tien Shan Mountain Range

While dholes prey on deer, wild boar, water buffalo and other large animals, they also eat plants and fruit.  They enjoy various kinds of grasses, herbs and leaves. One of their favorite foods is mountain rhubarb, found in the Tien Shan mountain range (photo).

(To watch dogs at a watering hole, click here)

On rare occasions, dholes attack tigers. Tigers—fearing these determined canines—climb a tree or stand with their backs to it.  If they maintain their defensive stance, the tigers have a good chance of survival. If they try to escape, they’re usually killed. While dholes will take on a tiger, they are cautious about it—knowing that the big cat has enough strength to kill one of them with a single paw strike.

The few people who have tried to raise dholes in captivity have found it difficult.  The dogs are nearly impossible to tame, although they may play with domestic dogs while they’re still pups. (To watch dhole pups at play click here). When captive dholes reach adulthood, they usually become too aggressive to trust around other animals.

Dholes live to be about ten years old in the wild, but may survive as long as sixteen years in captivity.Dhole Range Map

South American Bush Dog–Smallest of the Wild Dogs

The smallest of the wild dogs is the South American bush dog, weighing in at less than 15 pounds.  No bigger than a terrier, it has a solid little body and short legs. The bush dog is built low to the ground so it can dart through the underbrush of the rainforest without being seen.

The problem with their small stature is that bush dogs can’t even see each other in tall grass and thick bushes. They make up for this with a repertoire of grunts, squeaks, whines and growls that carry over long distances at ground level. They “talk” almost constantly, telling each other where they are and what they’re doing. Bush dogs also mark their paths of travel with frequent urine marking.

Bush dogs have soft, reddish brown fur.  With their short ears, round heads and blunt noses, they look more like weasels than dogs. When a bush dog jumps into the water, it looks like an otter, paddling with its webbed feet.  Bush dogs dive underwater like experts and swim with their eyes open to catch fish, turtles, and other water animals. Because of this ability, they usually live near rivers. To watch a video of bush dogs catching a turtle  click here.

Holes vacated by armadillos and other burrowing animals often become the homes of bush dogs. Others move into hollow logs. If they can’t find anything ready-made, bush dogs dig their own dens (photo).

Hunting together during the day, a pack of bush dogs fans out over the forest floor. Occasionally they hunt alone, listening and sniffing their way along. As a pack, they work together so intelligently that they can bring down prey as large as peccaries and tapirs—some weighing over 500 pounds.

When a bush dog pair has pups, other adults in the pack stop mating.  This allows the group to focus on one litter at a time. For several weeks, the babies stay hidden in their den.  The extended family makes sure no predators get close. When the pups finally emerge, pack members share the job of protecting and feeding them.  Their aunts and uncles carry them in their mouths just like their parents do.

As the pups outgrow nursing, pack members bring them food–chewing it first and then transferring it to the babies’ mouths.  The pups paw at the muzzles of the adults to them know they’re hungry.

Among the friendliest of the wild dogs, bush dogs greet each other joyfully after a separation, wagging their stubby tails. They sleep close to each other (click here), travel in an orderly way (single file), and rarely fight over anything. The packs have no clear ladder of dominance the way other wild dogs do. They treat each other as equals. It’s hard to say who’s running things in a bush dog pack.

Little is known about these secretive animals because they stay so well hidden in the rainforests of South America, mainly in Brazil. Much of our knowledge of their behavior comes from zoos helping to preserve the species in captivity. Zoo staff find them friendly and sociable, much like pet dogs. As of 2010, the American public could see bush dogs in only five city zoos—Oklahoma City, Palm Beach, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Little Rock.

The Dingo Dog–Wild Dog of Australia

Australians are proud of their dingo dogs. The species is unique to their homeland and is rarely, if ever, found elsewhere.

Normally, dingoes live in the Outback–a vast arid region covering most of inland Australia.  They avoid human settlements.  In times of drought, however, the dogs are forced to migrate in search of water and food, taking them into areas populated by humans. Since sheep and cattle ranches are so common in Australia, many dingoes end up on ranch land.  This has given them a taste for livestock, especially sheep.  Sheep are easy marks because they seldom run away. Instead, they huddle in groups, undefended.

Understandably, most sheep ranchers have zero tolerance for dingo dogs. Because the dogs also feed on dead livestock killed by other predators, they’re sometimes blamed for deaths they didn’t cause.  When dingoes are hungry enough to wander into towns and villages, they scavenge from garbage cans and even kill pets—a practice that earns them no friends, either.

On the other hand, some ranchers have befriended dingoes, using them as working dogs. Owners say they’re as tame as domestic dogs when raised by humans.  Dingoes are smart and friendly, though they can get touchy during breeding season. Sheep ranchers who use them for herding report that their dingoes never attack sheep. Dingoes take their jobs seriously and obey commands well. Some families keep dingoes in their homes and find them to be good pets. (The practice is illegal in some parts of Australia.)

The person lucky enough to spot a dingo in the wild usually sees the dog traveling alone. While they belong to small family groups, the members seldom meet unless it’s mating season. Then they spend most of their time together breeding and raising pups.

Dingo packs have clear territories and avoid the ranges of other dingoes.  Each pack is fierce about protecting its own range. An unfamiliar dingo who wanders into their territory is likely to be attacked and killed. This seldom happens, though, because unrelated groups are careful to avoid each other. Dingoes rarely fight with members of their own pack.

Dingoes are excellent hunters, working out their tactics ahead of time. At least two lead dogs are responsible for locating a target—a kangaroo, wallaby or smaller animal.  They chase their prey to a place where other pack members are waiting in ambush. With their agility and skill, they know how to steer a prey animal just where they want it.  Those lying in wait are good at cornering the animal by dodging this way and that.

Dingoes “talk” to each other by howling, whining, and sometimes growling.  (To watch a dingo howl click this link. They growl for the same reasons pet dogs to—as a warning. Unlike other dog species, they bark very little—and then only to indicate aggressive intent. Sometimes the bark is followed by a long howl that rises and falls. They also howl to show affection when they greet each other.

The government of Australia classified dingoes as an endangered species in 2004—a step toward protecting them as a form of wildlife found only in Australia. Some wildlife experts say that it’s impossible to preserve the species in purebred form because dingoes have already interbred too widely with pet dogs.  Interbreeding started as far back as the 1800s when immigrant families brought their dogs from Europe. Over the years, many of their pets escaped or were let go.  A large number joined dingo packs. As the dogs mated and raised litters, the numbers of dingo hybrids multiplied.

*   *   *

Raccoon Dogs–Wild Dogs of Asia

Doesn’t this look like a raccoon?

The animal in the photo isn’t even related to a raccoon.  It’s called–you guessed it–a raccoon dog.  It belongs to a species discovered in the cold regions of Asia more than two hundred years ago.

In the 1800s, Chinese trappers realized the economic potential of raccoon dogs. Their lush winter fur made great overcoats.  Traders began to hunt and trap the dogs, then export their fur. Soon, Russian entrepreneurs decided to obtain some raccoon dogs from Asia and breed them for the same purpose. Before long, other eastern European countries followed suit.

These wild dogs are about the same size as terriers but their weight fluctuates throughout the year.  In the spring, they’re at their lightest.  In summer, they start fattening up in preparation for winter—just as bears do.  Those still living in the wild spend the coldest months of the year dozing in dens and living off stored fat. Their fur thickens to help them conserve body heat.

Raccoon dogs are the only dogs that hibernate.  They don’t sleep as deeply as bears, but they slumber off and on when the snow is deep or the weather is particularly harsh.  As the skies clear and temperatures warm up, they leave their dens to hunt for food.

These little dogs are easy-going and seldom fight.  When a predator frightens them, they scream or play dead. Occasionally, male raccoon dogs courting the same female get into skirmishes, but they rarely do much damage.

They eat almost anything.  The protein in their diet comes from insects, rodents, frogs, birds, and even dead animals.  Because they swim well, fish are also on the menu.  Raccoon dogs living near water look for water bird eggs and chicks. The dogs like plant foods, too–fruit, pumpkins, tomatoes, nuts, and grain.  In Japan they’ve been seen climbing trees with their curved claws and picking fruit.  They often raid gardens, vineyards, and grain fields. Click on this link to watch a raccoon dog feeding in the wild. (free dinner).

Although raccoon dogs aren’t allowed in the U.S., many Europeans keep them as pets. They find the dogs easy to live with and safe with children. However, they can’t be trusted around gerbils or other small animals.  Feeding them is cheap as they eat almost anything.

When householders are at work, the dogs seldom get into mischief around the house, because they sleep most of the day. However, families who allow the dogs outside must take precautions to make their yards escape-proof. Raccoon dogs are expert diggers and make holes under fences.

The only thing owners complain of is how much raccoon dogs shed every spring.  As the weather warms up, the dogs get rid of their thick winter fur—which collects in large tufts around the house.

*   *   *

More on Blind Dogs

A few weeks ago, my 9-year-old beagle-chihuahua mix, Trudy, went blind from sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome (SARDS)—(see my earlier blogs). Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time on internet message boards such as blinddogs.net and blinddog.info.

Recently, a woman posted a message about her 5-year-old pug with SARDS.  She wrote: “He went from being extremely active and playful to very lethargic, frightened and since it has been about 3 months, some days navigates (slowly) his way around with caution and others, is completely discombobulated and will stay in a corner someplace. Sometimes when I carry him and put him down every so gently, he seems unfrightened and other times he stiffens up and is terrified. I did buy endless black rounded foam rubber that is put on pipes for insulation, and covered every single leg of all furniture, including outdoors. This has helped his poor little head a great deal…I can’t stop crying for my little guy.”

When Trudy lost her sight, I did endless research online about about the causes, symptoms and treatment of SARDS. I took her to the Dept of Ophthalmology, University of Florida vet school, for confirmation of my primary veterinarian’s findings, and then to the Internal Medicine Department for endocrine testing. I learned that most dogs afflicted with SARDS also have the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome (excessive thirst, lots of peeing and accidents in the house, bloated abdomen, panting, etc.)

When I’d found all I could about the disease and had taken Trudy on the rounds of veterinary experts, I still had a lot to learn about adjustment to Trudy’s vision loss.  I learned to avoid being solicitous and pitying. I didn’t jump to do the things she was having trouble with. If she couldn’t find the door, I’d say, “Over here, Trudy,” and let her follow the sound of my voice.  I didn’t point out a food scrap that had just fallen on the floor. I let her nose do its work.  The amazing thing is that Trudy is more energetic than I’ve seen her for years, and we’re a stronger team. Here are a few of the simple things I’ve done.

1) I take her outside out to pee every couple of hours so she doesn’t have to slink off in the house to do it in secret. I praise her lavishly when she “goes.” She looks quite pleased with herself.

2) Every morning I continue taking her on our usual run—me on my electric bike and her running alongside. We’ve traveled the same route for years–a stretch of 1/3 mile in my neighborhood where there’s almost no traffic. Now she seems to sense the distance between us by the sound of the bike motor.  If I see something on the road, I yell, “Watch it, Trudy!”—always using the same words and tone of voice. For a short video, go to Trudy’s morning run.

3) I play with her more often, my object being to get her to wag her tail.

4) When she sneaks up on the dining room table and I hear dishes clattering, I no longer yell, “Get off of there, Trudy!” at the top of my lungs. I think, but don’t say, “Well, yay for you, Trudy. You’ve still got the old spunk.” Then I clean up the mess, saying quietly, “No, Trudy.” Which, of course, she ignores.

5) Rather than feed her in the house from a bowl, I wrap a ball of canned dog food in chopped dry food. I call her, making a big deal of it, and say, “Hey Trude! “Meal-time, kiddo!” I roll the ball across the big wooden deck outside. Her nose finds its way to the food, her tail wags the whole time, and she eats it with relish. She loves this. What dog wouldn’t? Their DNA tells them that this is how REAL dogs find their food.

Trudy is a happy dog again. My advice to the owners of newly blind dogs is this–don’t show your sadness to your dog. If you have to cry, go off by yourself. Don’t let pity creep into your voice when you talk to the dog. Praise every little new accomplishment. Blind dogs can be exposed to interesting new experiences in a gentle way, without frightening them. Laugh and play. Dogs making the difficult passage into blindness need an upbeat view of life.

*   *   *

My Pet Memorial Garden

A pet memorial garden sits among the trees in my yard.  A sculpture of three happy old women on a wooden fence overlooks the gravestones of pets who have lived with me over the last thirty years.  The “Grandmothers” were created by Kirsten Engstrom, an artist from Hawthorne, Florida. She also made the monk that guards one of the graves.  I made polymer clay flowers and a Shambhala flag for the other memorial stones.

Prounce, a Siamese cat who came with me to Gainesville thirty years ago, got the first memorial in the garden. She’d been a birthday gift for my 6-year-old daughter Amy when we lived in Rochester, Minnesota.   When I started living alone in 1981, she became my shadow, seldom leaving my side. If I worked after eleven at night in my office, she complained in the doorway.   I turned off the lights and followed her to the bedroom.

Rosie, a Corgi mix, was my heart.  My daughter Amy rescued Rosie in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she was a senior at Oklahoma State vet school.  Knowing Rosie and I were probably a good match, she sent her to Gainesville by airplane. I had a cat, Charlie, at the time.  The minute Rosie walked in the back door, they were friends—taking turns chasing each other around the house.  Rosie went everywhere with me—on camping trips, on errands in town, and to meetings.  When she died unexpectedly at age fourteen, I felt as though the fabric of my life had been torn and I didn’t know how to put it back together.

My cat Charlie was one of a litter of six-week-old kittens offered for adoption by Gainesville Pet Rescue.  A vet friend suggested I get a yellow male tabby.  They were the best, she said.  Charlie did turn out to be the best.  He liked to watch nature specials on TV, especially documentaries about birds.  He sat at the foot of my bed with his full attention to the screen.  When birds flew out of camera range, he ran behind the TV looking for them.  Charlie taught himself to ring the front doorbell when he wanted to be let in.  He sat on the kitchen counter and pressed the lever on the electric can opener to tell me he was hungry. Once Rosie escaped from the yard and wandered off.  I panicked and stood in the drive yelling “Rosie! Rosie!”  In the distance I heard Charlie’s loud call.  He’d found her two blocks from home and was telling where to find her.

Tiny was a Boston Terrier I inherited from my daughter Julie who’d just had a baby and couldn’t handle the dog’s frenetic energy.  Julie’s husband didn’t like dogs anyhow, so Tiny moved in with Rosie and me. Soon she calmed down and assigned herself the role of protector.  Any unfamiliar men who entered the house or yard were at risk.  Over the three years I had her, she bit seven men who came to make household repairs or do landscaping.  Her preferred target was the butt (sneak attack), but she would settle for a thigh, arm, or hand.  At each incident, I apologized profusely and stuffed a twenty-dollar bill into the victim’s pocket.  I was never sued.

Tiny got a brain tumor when she was five.  A veterinary neurosurgeon in Jacksonville implanted a stent in her brain to drain off fluid that was collecting and causing symptoms.  The operation gave her five more months of normal life. At the end, she went quickly.

Savannah, an Australian shepherd, was ten when I adopted her from Gainesville Pet Rescue.  She had a genetic problem with her eyes that made her appear blind and unattractive to adopters.  She also had early signs of progressive arthritis.  Every time I visited Pet Rescue, there she was in a cage, waiting for a home.  I worried that no one would adopt her, so I did.

Savannah was a headstrong alpha dog—not mean, but clear about what she wanted.  As her arthritis got worse, I became her servant.  When she could no longer walk, she barked to summon me.  It was my job to figure out what she wanted.  Near the end, I had to carry her outdoors to relieve herself.  When her joint pain flared up badly, I lay next to her on the floor and massaged her back and hips—sometimes over an hour.  Finally, when she was fourteen, I took her to the vet to be euthanized.  I held her through the procedure, and she was brave and gracious as always.

Now I have a 9-year-old Chihuahua-Beagle mix, Trudy.  I’m 80 years old.  I don’t want to add a gravestone for her to the memorial garden.  It would please me to think we could both pass to the next level of existence at the same time.

*   *   *

When Dogs Go Blind

The good life isn’t over for dogs who go blind.  If they don’t have eye pain—which most don’t—and the disease that caused the blindness is treatable, they can lead happy lives.  For example, my blind dog Trudy has underlying Cushing’s disease, which can be controlled with drugs, although she’ll never get her sight back.  She lost her vision over a period of weeks from SARDS (sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome). Like most owners, I suffered from her rapid loss of eyesight more than she did.

Dogs don’t rely on their vision as much as we do. Even healthy dogs’ eyes don’t focus well on close objects. They’re color-blind compared with humans.  They don’t see details as well.  The one thing they do better is detect moving objects in dim light.  Nature gave them this ability to help them hunt at night.

The people who think it’s humane to put a blind dog to sleep don’t know much about dogs.  If you watch sightless dogs who have gotten used to their loss, you see happy, functional pets. They still have their wonderful noses and ears, which become their main sense organs. However, the adjustment may take a little while. Some dogs get depressed when they first lose their vision, acting listless and droopy.  They carry their heads low and seldom wag their tails. If this is true of your pet, resist sharing your sadness. Indulge in it  only when your dog’s not around.  When you’re together, stay upbeat. Find things to do that you both enjoy.

Other dogs get irritable.  They growl easily and may snap.  While you should discourage this behavior, stay calm when you correct the dog.  There’s no point in getting everyone more upset. Approach the dog gently and stroke his or her neck and back. You’ll both feel better when you enjoy close, loving contact.

Above all, don’t overdo the help you give. Avoid taking over your dog’s life. People with blind dogs agree that coddling is the worst thing an owner can do.  Instead of carrying a dog upstairs, for example, help the dog learn to do it alone.  He or she will take pride in the new skill.

When my dog Trudy recently lost her vision, I was devastated.  I worried that she’d no longer enjoy life.  Little did I know. Trudy still barks at the UPS man and tries to chase his truck down the street, her hackles raised.  She gets around the house without trouble as long as furniture hasn’t been moved or large objects aren’t left in her path.  She still delights in jumping up on kitchen counters when I’m not around and and running off with any tasty items she finds.  How she does it, I don’t know. Recently she started playing with her toys again, grabbing her hemp rope in her mouth and thrashing it around—going for the kill.

A friend has a blind dog named Radar—a Chinese crested.  Radar is a good name for him.  He’s so talented that, even without eyesight, he can jump up and catch a fly in his mouth.  Like Trudy, Radar is a happy camper.

*   *   *