The Eyes Don’t Have It

I’m worried about Travis. Something in his eyes is changing. It’s not his eyes, really, it’s the set of his eyes, the sharpness of his stare that’s telling me to pay attention.

It’s been a long few months for the pack. In early June, Harley had a mysterious neurological attack that left him afraid to move for fear of searing pain on his rear right side. He only finished his medication a few days ago. A few days later, Kallie, the senior member of the pack and sole feline representative, told us she was ready for the Rainbow Bridge. Kathy and I went to great lengths to give Travis individual attention during this time and he was both patient and appreciative of our time together.

In July, we weathered a pair of pantry raids, the latter known as The Rice and Beans incident (the vet techs still haven’t eaten Mexican). Between the two of them, they scarffed down two and a half pounds of white rice and two pounds of dry black beans in a matter of 45 minutes (probably much less). Travis spent the afternoon at the clinic passing a Mexican buffet of rice out the front and black beans out the back, earning himself the nickname of Senor Burrito. Harley spent the afternoon at home trying to convince me that he didn’t eat any of that stuff. The truth came out that evening and it wasn’t pretty. Did you know that baby locks are terrific for pantry doors? We do now….

Then in early August, we realized that Travis was losing his vision—rapidly. Proffered treats went unacknowledged as he stared into our faces, waiting for a tasty bit. He was tripping over roots and missing curbs on our walks. We took him to a specialist, but we both already knew what the tests would reveal. He was either completely blind or would be soon. His retinas have already clouded to reflect the bluish-green of a blind dog.

Looking back, Harley was probably the first to know Travis was struggling. I can recall watching him move off a dog bed when he saw Travis approaching. In my romanticized view of the situation, I imagine that Harley must have known that Travis couldn’t see him and graciously moved to allow the old fellow a soft spot to recline. In the light of day, it’s more likely Harley decided he’d better move or else be sat on. He would never be confused for a dog that likes to cuddle with the pack so he probably evacuated the bed and headed for higher ground (my bed). The luxury of hindsight.

We’ve learned a lot from Travis in the last five weeks. He’s refused to stop trusting that if he jumps someone will catch him. He’s refused to stop believing that it’s OK to trot on our walks, that someone will steer him around that fishhook cactus or mailbox.

We took him to Mt. Lemmon for my birthday hike last month, fully intending to keep our walk off the trail and on the paved road. He wanted more. He convinced Kathy that the flowing stream and steep embankments were a better option. She obliged and he rewarded her courage with some of his own. He forded small streams, scrambled over boulders and picked his way through the underbrush. That’s the day we started trusting HIM more. Kathy started focusing more on which verbal commands and leash tugs resulted in which actions. Together, they built a language.

And that’s why I’m worried now. Unlike many of my client dogs, Travis’s eyes have always been a mystery to me. They were always a deep, bottomless black; his pupils always seemed to be dilated. Now he stares at me with unseeing eyes, pointed directly into my own. He remembers the angle that he used to hold his head to search me for a treat. It’s odd to see him look at me with the same eyes, yet know he can’t see the treat I’m holding out for him.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say I thought reality was setting in for Travis. Although he may be able to see changes in light, he’s blind. His nose and snout are taking a beating as they always get wherever he’s going first—for better or for worse.

Maybe what I see is frustration. Nights are hard, especially nights after a rain. Everything is soft, so feeling for surface changes under his pads is a challenge at best. And the smells must be overwhelming. I think his nose might be overloaded with all the sensory information and processing it under less than ideal conditions.

Now it occurs to me that maybe I should stop trying to read those eyes and focus on his tail instead. I’m confident there is joy and contentment when his tail sways from side to side while he’s trotting down the path during one of our walks. That quick, even stride and tail moving like the pendulum on a grandfather clock. Left right, left right, left right. Perfect rhythm, keeping perfect time.

Dogs communicate with every inch of their bodies. I think I’ll stick to watching and reading the 12 inches hanging off the back of Travis.


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