This morning, my blind dog went in the back bedroom. He doesn’t usually go in there, but I could hear his toenails tapping on the wood tiles. I knew what he was doing. He was walking around and around and around in circles. When he first started circling, it bothered me. I was afraid. I thought he was lost and confused and scared. I didn’t know what to do for him. Every time he started circling, I would go pick him up, pet him, try to reassure him that I was there, that he was alright.
Turns out that I was doing exactly the wrong thing.
A couple years ago, the vet warned me that my dog might lose his sight. Tiger has Sicca syndrome (dry eye syndrome). Eye drops and eye ointment helped some, but his sight diminished until eventually, this past summer, he went completely blind.
Once his sight was gone, Tiger began walking in circles. Sometimes he cried. Sometimes he got stuck. Always I went to rescue him because I didn’t know any better.
After several weeks, I found an online group for people with blind dogs, and they explained that walking in circles is known as “mapping”, and it is very common with blind dogs. It allows them to map out their surroundings, figure out where they are. It allows them to cope with not being able to see. They use touch and smell and hearing to find their way around.
When finally he lost his sight, Tiger circled in the living room. He circled incessantly in the backyard. He circled in my bedroom and the laundry room and the dining room. He walked circles in every room in the house, except the back bedroom. That had been my daughter’s bedroom when she was here, but once she moved out, he had no reason to go in there. But this morning, for some reason, he decided to map her room, too.
This time, I didn’t stop him.
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Animals, including humans, often bear little resemblance to what we read about in books or see in movies. The question is why. Why do authors continue to portray disabilities and illnesses as horrible, scary, unknowable terrors? It’s lazy. Give a character a devastating illness and automatically the character faces drama. Make a character disfigured and the character becomes evil. Put a character in a wheelchair and suddenly the character has something that must be overcome, usually through the character’s goodness and willpower. It’s cheap. It’s easier than thinking up real storylines or believable characters.
But animals are made to survive. Maybe that’s why we have so many senses. If we lose one, we have several more to help orient us in time and space. Dogs learn fairly easily to compensate for not being able to see. Of course, I don’t think they carry all the emotional baggage humans do. I doubt my dog ever worried about losing his eyesight. Then again, he never read any books with poor blind puppies. He never had books or movies to tell him he’s supposed to be a sad, broken character. He doesn’t see himself as damaged or pitiful. He’s a dog. He wants food, he wants to go outside, he wants his sunspot so he can take a nap in the sun.
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When new people join the blind dogs group, they are upset! Devastated! Their beloved pets are blind! It’s horrible! It’s terrible! What can they do? How can they help? What’s going to become of their poor, devastated pets?!
Those of us who’ve been in the group for a while try to reassure them with the truth. Most dogs cope very well. They learn to rely more on their other senses to identify what they can no longer see. Animals, including humans, are made to survive. It is writers and storytellers who tell us otherwise. They want to make drama. But reality is quite different.
Authors go for cheap shots that only perpetuate harmful ideas about disabilities and cause unnecessary fear and anguish. It doesn’t have to be that way. If they used their brains, authors could come up with real stories about real people and still keep us entertained. Authors could do so much more. They could help us realize that illness and disability isn’t as bad as we fear. After all, animals, including humans, are made to survive. Most of the time, we don’t crash and burn if something goes wrong. Illness and disability need not be feared. It’s a change, yes. I have to be more careful now. Since the dog can’t see where I am, he often ends up underfoot. I don’t move furniture and I try not to leave things on the floor so he won’t run into them and get hurt, and I try to keep up with where he is at all times so we won’t have a crash.
Disabilities should not be fodder for cheap drama. They are reality that affect how we live our lives, yes, but they don’t have to be Horrible, Terrible, Life-Ending Tragedies. They can be managed. They often times are survivable. It would be so much easier to cope with disability and illness if authors would quit turning them into great dramas and use them instead as simply part of life.
And my dog would have had the whole house and yard mapped out a lot sooner.