Jason Torchinsky is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Jason has a book out now, Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a tinkerer and artist and writes for the Onion News Network. He lives with a common-law wife, five animals, too many old cars, and a shed full of crap.
One of my dogs, Virginia, went blind late last year. I knew it was coming; she has glaucoma, and lost sight in one of her eyes a while before. We'd been keeping the other eye alive with lots and lots of medicine, but the vet told us it was just a matter of time. So, when the morning came and I found her running around crazily all over the house, nose to the ground, I shouldn't have been surprised.
Still, I was pretty alarmed. And while I read lots on the internet about this, and even saw the articles that said not to panic, the dog will adapt, those articles were almost invariably written by the sort of hyper-caring earth-mother women who could say taking care of a limbless, eyeless, incontinent sea lion was an easy, rewarding experience anyone could do. I didn't really buy it.
So, when she went blind, I did end up going a bit nuts. She's a profoundly sweet-natured and smart dog, and seeing her struggle, without benefit of understanding why, was wrenching. I looked into research into artificial vision, surgeries, other medications; everything was either a pipe dream, insanely expensive, and almost nothing guaranteed any vision retention. It was crazy, and while I was being an idiot, Virginia was out there, rewiring her little brain to make it work.
It's really amazing. In far less time than you'd ever guess, she adapted– far, far better than I ever realized would be possible. I made the usual mistake of anthropomorphizing the animal I live with. Her brain just works differently than ours do: I'm told when they go blind, dogs just think something along the lines of "It's nighttime always now. Huh. How about that." and they get on with it. Plus, they're much less avid readers than us, and, of course, their primary sense is smell, so they're in a much better position to give up sight than, say, me.
Virginia learned how to navigate the yard and the house. She checks for open doors with her snout, she uses her ears far more than before it seems– you can 'remote control' her through unfamiliar territory by clapping or yelling, and she'll make a straight vector to the recognized sound source. Plus, she got rid of her phobia of men who fit some mold from her past, because, apparently, the nose gives everyone a fair shake.
I knew she's really adapted when I saw her chasing squirrels. And doing a surprisingly good job of it. I made a little diagram here showing a bit of how I think she does it: the nose gives a general radar-like image of squirrel locations; the ears, each pivoting independently, are triangulating rapid movement and locations with some advanced unconscious dog-math; she has a good map of the yard in her brain, and I think she gets more information from her paws about the surface she's on, which must help pinpoint where she is in her mind's map.
Granted, she still occasionally plops on a pillow already occupied by another dog or cat, and will bump into things. When she does, though, she's completely undaunted, and bolts off headlong without fear. I close my eyes and try to take a few timorous steps, and I'm flailing my arms around in front of me like one of those inflatable monsters that try to get me to buy a used car.
None of this is really shocking information, I'm sure. But hopefully, another voice, one not really particularly skilled with animals, telling anyone going through something like this not to panic, and have some trust in your pet, will help put things in perspective.
Good girl, Virginia.