Belfast Telegraph

Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks

By Frances Burscough

It has taken five years from first diagnosis, but now Bailey my beloved 12-year-old dog has gone completely and irrevocably blind.

Finn first noticed something was up in the summer of 2011 as we walked the dogs down on the beach at night. Shining a torch at an animal in the dark would normally result in both its eyes gleaming an eerie fluorescent green, like a cat's eye on the motorway or a startled fox caught in a headlight's beam.

But on that night, Bailey glanced over towards us and only one eye flashed. The other one didn't reflect at all and instead seemed to absorb all light like a black hole in space. I knew straight away that something was quite wrong and, right enough, when we got home and looked closer into the affected eye it was lifeless, as though its pilot light had been blown out.

A trip to the vet confirmed the worst. It was a cataract, something which is quite common in his particular breed. Unless I could afford costly surgery (I couldn't) he would lose his sight gradually over the next five or so years.

Sadly, she got that prediction spot on. Almost five years to the day, he finally lost his last flicker of light. It had happened so slowly and gradually that there had been plenty of time to adjust but still there was a distinct moment when the last quivering light in his eyes was extinguished forever.

Instead of following directly behind me down the stairs one morning, he stopped still at the top and refused to budge. When I called to him, he started to whimper. It's finally happened, I thought, as I looked into his eyes and there was just confusion staring back at me.

It may have been a gradual process, but the finality of total blindness brought with it some new problems. Although he knew his way around the house and garden by its smell and feel, even knowing when to stop for a step or to swerve for a table leg, he no longer wanted to jump or leap or run anywhere. Whereas before he would unceremoniously leap up onto the sofa or bed, he now stood there hesitating, waiting to be lifted up. In the past he'd always settle himself down for the evening under the coffee table or on his favourite armchair, but now he stayed firmly at my feet, reluctant to stray more than a few feet away from his new comfort zone. But it was during walks that I noticed the biggest difference.

Like most dogs, he used to leap up and down and jump for joy whenever we were going for a walk. It was the absolute highlight of every day. He'd pull and pull on the lead until I finally unfastened him, then he'd run fast and hard until he became a tiny dot on the horizon. But now in this dark new world he seemed to fear walkies more than anything. His tail no longer wagged, he dragged on the lead and sometimes just downed tools completely, squatting on the ground and refusing to budge. Meanwhile the two other dogs, Heidi and Walter, just carried on as normal leaping and bounding over hill and dale, full of their normal joie de vivre and completely oblivious to poor Bailey's plight.

It was on one of these difficult trips that I decided something had to be done to help Bailey come out of his shell and to start enjoying life again. So last week I went on a trawl of the local charity shops and found the perfect thing - a small, perfectly-formed, dog-sized baby buggy .

It took me a while to get him to sit still while I strapped him in, but once we were off down the road towards the beach and he could feel the breeze flapping through his ears and the salt in the air, he started to pant with excitement.

And now one week later I can happily say that my brainwave turned out to be the perfect solution. Instead of fearing the unknown in front of him, Bailey has started to enjoy letting the walk come to him. I even tried running along the promenade with him yesterday and he did what dogs do in a moving car, stuck his face out of the pram and let his ears and tongue flap in the wind. But the best bit was when I looked down and could see his wee tail was wagging again, for the first time in months That, for me, was the greatest reward of all.

Belfast Telegraph

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