Fifteen years ago, I made the decision to rescue a feisty, six-year-old Bichon Frise named Chance who was in need of a quiet, patient, adult-only home. Growing up in New York, I didn’t know many people who had dogs, but I had this vision of training Chance as a “comfort pet” to support residents at the HIV/AIDS facility where I was chaplain. Chance, despite the difficult life he’d had before I adopted him, grew into both my life and his work, offering unfettered love to innumerable people surviving a stigmatizing illness.
“Then I came along,” says my daughter, Madison, and that caveat in the rescue—that Chance was not child-friendly—was tested. When Madison was eight months old, Chance took a bite out of her cheek. A senior citizen by that point, Chance’s journey with us ended when we resettled him on a farm in Vermont, where he lived out his days with other senior animals. “It’s my love bite,” says now 12-year-old Madison, running her fingers over the faint teeth marks in her right cheek. We came to understand that Chance, like us, had a complicated and layered story, and he loved as best he could.
I’m now the mom of two girls, and an unforeseen pandemic afforded us time to reacquaint ourselves with interests that had been lost between late-night ballet and the bane of our existence: algebra. We swapped playdates for online birthday parties, and Zoomed yoga. We purged our home of unneeded things. Dinner was no longer crunched between a never-ending list of activities and commitments. In short, we finally felt life slowing down.
Covid-19 also gave us time to build up our readiness for the kid-friendly puppy we’d always wanted. “I think I knew every detail about every rescue dog within 100 miles of our house,” my 10-year-old, Brook, recalls. “Because of Covid-19, fewer dogs were being flown in from other states, and the pool of available dogs seemed to get smaller every day.” Moreover, the number of dogs for whom we were not a fit was daunting. “We didn’t have a fenced yard. We aren’t an adult-only home. And we didn’t have other dogs. That eliminated 75 percent of the options,” Brook laments.
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By July, Brook and Madison had made a full-time career of finding a family dog. If you said the name of a dog on a website within driving distance of our home, they could recite all the dog’s specs: “Oh, Muffin in Brooklyn. She has to be adopted with her brother.”
It was in this increasingly determined and desperate state that we clicked on an adorable 10-pound Maltipoo named Ray who seemed perfect: loving; trained; sweet; good with kids; and, like Mom, a city slicker. And he was blind.
Initially, we were not all-in for Ray. We didn’t quite know what we would do with a blind dog. “I didn’t know if I could get used to a dog with no eyes,” Madison says. What about all of our imaginings of a “traditional” dog experience? Could we let them go? What would we be signing up for instead? Doubts in tow, we started researching how we would outfit our home for a special-needs puppy. We scoured the internet for information about blind dogs, and the more we read, the more the idea appealed to us.
With our application pending, we threw caution to the wind and fell in love with Ray. But weeks went by before a follow-up email confirmed that our wait had been in vain: Ray had gone to another family. We were despondent—Who took our blind dog?!?!—and there was no dog talk for days as we licked our human wounds.
But soon after, a lightbulb clicked on for Brook: “There are other blind dogs looking for homes. We should take a look at them.” Really, what she’d made apparent to us in that moment was that we had come to appreciate the sensory gifts and special attributes of blind dogs and, just as we could meet a blind dog’s needs, a blind dog would meet ours as well.
We are not a hiking and camping sort of crew, and like us, blind dogs appreciate staying close to home base. Blind dogs like relatively quiet, or at least predictable, spaces, which describes our home to a tee. They are well-adapted to semi-urban enclaves, and are smart, quick studies. Check. Check. And, a blind dog would support our aspirations to achieve an even more minimalist lifestyle and an uncluttered living space. Check again.
When we first saw three-year-old Mindy—now Tula—she had huge scabs across her eyes. “Kind of like a stuffed animal,” Brook says, “whose eyes had been sewn by a child.” She’d clearly suffered some neglect, and endured both the death of her owner and the painful, debilitating glaucoma that had led to her ocular enucleation (eye removal). The fact that she’d lost her sight, survived difficulties and still managed to navigate the world with what seemed to be an optimistic disposition deeply endeared her to us.
This time, on the receiving end of good fortune, we were quickly approved by Monkey’s Pack Animal Rescue, based in Manchester, Conn., to become Tula’s forever home. Upon her arrival at our home, she cried mournfully, got the hiccups and shivered unceasingly. She bumped into walls, even with her halo on, and suffered with an unrelenting kennel cough, acquired after back-to-back surgeries. Still, it took very little time to discover her remarkable intelligence, and how resourceful, observant and centered this little pup could be.
“The key is sticking to a routine,” Madison says. “She stayed in her restricted area, and we walked her around the house on her leash every hour for the first two days. Her food bowl doesn’t move. Her water bowl doesn’t move. We keep things put away, and push in our chairs after we eat.” (For which Mom owes Tula much gratitude.)
She was a quick study. In four days, Tula was walking around with impeccable precision, trotting behind us and snuggling at our feet adoringly. Though day-to-day life with an unsighted dog is unremarkable, Tula, we all agree, is wonderfully remarkable in so many ways.
Best of all, my daughters, in their budding commitment to a green planet, were seeing the connective tissue between rescuing a blind dog and corresponding issues of sustainability. Providing a home for a blind dog revives the dog’s inherent value, incrementally weakens the footprint of puppy mills and reduces the rate of euthanasia (the fate of many blind dogs who cannot find homes). Tula plays her part too: her ravenous snacking on scraps of carrots, zucchini and squash as treats (“Flavored with bacon, of course,” as Brook notes) helps minimize food waste in our home. Most of all, the empathy she evokes in us will have, we hope, residual effects on the way those who read this essay think about rescuing a blind dog.
As we three write this, Tula is sitting on the floor by our feet. The girls wonder when she will have a sense that she is here to stay. They wonder if she knows definitively that there are three of us. We don’t get to know every part of this ongoing story. But never mind that. Her tail is wagging, and in this moment, her soul seems happy.