My little dog Charlo has gone blind. Something called SARDS—Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome. My wife says it’s the paint stripper I put on the landing, he probably got some on his paws. The doctor just says, it happens to some dogs as they age. They can go blind in as little as 2-3 days. He might have been blind for a while before we caught it. We took him on vacation and he started running into things. Perhaps he knew the lay of the land at home, but in a new space he was out of his element.
Now taking him out on walks is a whole new ballgame. He follows the scent trails on a completely empty sidewalk. They mosey here and there and he follows it like it’s gold. Nothing is there to the naked eye. Perhaps someone dropped a half-eaten McDonalds French Fry there in 1979. But he still smells it. My little white lapdog has become a rabid bloodhound.
They say dogs have an amazing sense of smell. Maybe it’s the 300 million olfactory receptors they have in their noses compared to our six million. Or the fact that the part of the dog’s brain that analyzes smells is 40 times greater than ours. They actually have a whole separate passageway for odors. We share ours with our mouth. Either way, his nose is now clearly his sense of choice. It leads him on.
Can he smell cement? He’s blind but somehow he knows the difference between the cement curb that is coming up vs. the asphalt road he is crossing. He steps up to the curb without missing a beat. How does he do that? Sometimes I think that maybe the bottom half of his retinas still work, but I know that makes no sense.
We are now more linked. Instead of just a curious dog on one end of a leash and his iphone zombie owner on the other, we are now focused on the task at hand, like one organism. And it is glorious. We find the sun, we find the dirt patches for pooping, we follow the most curious trails. How did our neighbor’s yard suddenly get so interesting? There’s a smell trail I can’t see that meanders over towards the rose bush, but if he gets that far, I have to pull him back so he doesn’t poke his nose.
I have taken to giving him instructions with the leash as if he is a horse: pull up to jump the curb when I worry that he doesn’t see it, pull left around that garbage can, since he can’t see that it is right in his path on the sidewalk, etc.
Charlo seems to have no distress or subconscious angst about being blind. In fact, I’m not sure he is fully aware of it. He still trots along, head held high, taking the lead down the sidewalk he can’t see. On the rare occasion that I’m not watching and he runs into a branch across the way, he simply does a doggy double take, realizes there’s something in his path, picks his way around it and moves on just as confidently.
This mid-winter morning it’s cold and naked and dead. We never walk the block from Prospect St. to Washington on Depew. It is filled with too many food bits and garbage. What is it about this block that makes people want to fling old overflowing refried beans containers from cars? Is there something about the hedges there that hide crap better than those higher or lower on the street? Maybe the neighbors just don’t care here and so are fine with leaving things to rot. If I had an entire happy meal shoved under my hedges, I would pick it up and put it in the trash.
But today, the sidewalk that leads to this block is better cleared of snow, so begrudgingly we turn up it. Of course, the first thing I spy is a full loaf of bread in a plastic bag and think oh my god, Charlo will have a field day. But he misses it entirely and goes nosing about two feet up from it. I want to tell him, Buddy, you’re missing the big bonanza, but he is super busy.
Then he finds something, he thinks. He is shaking with anticipation like a drug addict. It is on the grass strip under the snow. He buries his nose in it, digging beneath the slight snow cover into the soil. Noses here, noses there. I can’t pull him back from it, he uses all his energy to plunge his nose into the dirt hole he has created. “Come on, Charlo,” let’s go!” I’m dragging him by the leash.
Finally he unearths something, it might be…what is it? Yes, I think it is! He chews it and it crunches. A tiny year-old dog turd. Yechhh.
Since Charlo’s sense of smell has sharpened, so has mine. I lift my nose as we walk, wondering even in mid-winter, does this non-descript hedge bush with tiny leaves have a smell I somehow have been missing all these years? I long sometimes to get down on my knees and follow the invisible trail he is tracking right into the center of the road. He’s certainly a more dangerous companion blind. And I must play my part and be his seeing eye man.
He’s also gained a late yen for adventure. His nose will take him places he would never dream of going when he was sighted. And he continues to find ways out of our yard, even after I have fixed the obvious gaps in the fence. How does he do it? I put him in the yard and a minute later, like Houdini, he appears on the other side of the neighbor’s fence. He never did this when he had eyes.
The beauty of it is, he is out of his old comfort zone, or discovered a new one based on smell. Prior to being blind he never wanted to spend time outdoors. He’d go out and do his business and then want to be back in. Now you take him home from a long walk and he immediately wants to go into the back yard. He’s a true seeker now. More enlightened. He just can’t get enough of that smelly wilderness.
We rarely walk the dog together, my wife and I. Something about it being a chore, I guess. Although often we are out with the dog and look around and wonder at the world in a way that we never do in any other context. But tonight, we need to be together. A neighbor has committed suicide and we are moody. Of course, some combination of the dog and the will of the leash leads us right to her house. And that’s all my wife needs. She walks up to the door bravely and knocks
“What are you doing,” I ask incredulously. Before she can respond the door is opened by the husband. My wife and he share a long sorrowful hug and Charlo and I are drawn in with hugs and ‘come in’s’ and Charlo smells a kitchen. There are several friends here commiserating, none of whom we know, and before I can rescue Charlo from the kitchen, the 20 year-old son comes down the stairs and stares at us. He is white, drawn. I grab Charlo from the kitchen and make some excuse about him being blind and the son’s eyes focus suddenly.
“He’s blind,” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, “but it’s turned him into a bloodhound. Did you know that dogs have 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses and we have only 6 million?”
He looks me in the eye, which is shocking from this young sullen figure, and almost smiles.