Since Travis lost his vision, we’ve made a concerted effort not to move the furniture or leave items on the floor where he might trip or become confused. Today, we moved the furniture, figuratively speaking.
We have a smallish courtyard in the front of the house and in an effort to give the boys more room to do their business, we decided to make a few changes. That’s a great idea with two sighted dogs, but with a blind dog, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
Here’s what we saw when we set out to make more space for the boys: small pockets of space surrounded by unruly, fruitless tomato plants, heavy boulders, shaggy bushes and empty terra cotta planters all enclosed by stucco-covered slump block retaining walls. Good homeowners that we are, we set out to remove the bushy tomato plants, trim back the bushes, remove and replace troublesome boulders, and tie back thorny bougainvillea limbs. We re-graded the areas were the boulders once rested, reset the empty planters in “better” places. There, that’s better. Look at all the room Trav will have to maneuver through the courtyard during his numerous potty trips! Cue pats on the back here.
Here’s what Travis experienced before we set out to make more space for the boys: easily-navigable small pockets of space surrounded by soft bumpers that brush my fur on one side, something hard and raised up from the ground about three strides up a small incline. My favorite place to poop is under a very low branch, just a few steps from the planter I like to pee in/on. I know I can take a few strides forward before I feel the rough wall on the guard hairs of my fur. I can make a sharp U turn then three strides before there are hard lumps in the ground that I step over before I feel the hard, even surface of the sidewalk. Four steps to a right turn, three strides to a left, five strides to the door. Then I’ll use my nose the find the opening.
Before we knew it, we’d rocked his world. What we saw as an improvement was disconcerting for Travis. As we watched, he searched for his fluffy, leafy landmarks, stepped over removed boulders, and walked straight into his favorite pee planter.
In the long term, it was the right decision to move the items we did. The bougainvillea has strong, thick thorns more than an inch long with limbs stretching into his path, and the boulders are trip hazards, even on the best day. We wanted him the have a consistent, safe pathway to follow when he was outside—and I think we created that for him.
But the learning curve has been steeper than we expected. Because he gets along so well, we were stunned back to reality by his confusion and utter inability to take more than a few strides without running into or tripping over obstacles. We were dumbfounded—unreasonably so.
I know better. In my therapy dog training course, we focus on learning about how a dog experiences the world and how the information can make my students better, more proactive handlers. We talk about smell, hearing and sight. This term I think I’ll add touch. We didn’t think about how all those overgrown, fluffy branches and bushes actually acted like bowling alley bumpers for Trav. He’ll find new bumpers and new textures to use as signposts, but they will be different—in location on his path, the level at which they contact his body, in texture and in the flexibility of the object on his fur or skin.
Don’t get me wrong. He had a tough first few walks through the space but after 36 hours, he’s pretty much got it down. In fact, at 4:30 this morning, he had no trouble finding his favorite spots.
All of the trimming needed to be done, but I was angry with myself for not being better prepared for his reaction. Then, I sat back and thought about when Travis seems the happiest and most engaged—when he’s meeting a challenge. The hikes, the walks in the park, the short clicker-training experience. All of these events bring out the younger, energetic Travis.
Once again, he’s taught me a lesson: Work on his terms, not what I perceive to be his terms. Give him the opportunity to thrive, don’t protect him from potential adversity. He’s smart, capable and willing to trust. What more could you ask of a dog? And what more could he ask of me?