Isobel, a nine-year-old husky cross, lost her sight five years ago, but not her spirit. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

Isobel the sled dog is hanging up her harness in Churchill, Man.

The nine-year-old Siberian husky-malamute cross is set to retire in January. What makes her well-deserved rest remarkable is that she has been running for the past five years completely blind.

She lost her vision but not her spirit, said owner Gerald Azure.

Everything seemed fine with Isobel until one day five years ago, when she staggered to a halt in the middle of a sled run.

Veterinarians in Winnipeg told Azure and his wife, Jenafor Ollander, that Isobel's retinas had detached, possibly the result of a virus. The doctors said Isobel would not be able to work as a sled dog any longer.

Back in Churchill, Ollander kept Isobel indoors, figuring she would be happier and safer there.

Instead, Isobel went into a funk. She stopped eating and drinking.


Isobel, front left, runs lead on a sled near Churchill, Man., in 2007 ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

When Ollander and Azure brought one of Isobel's former sled mates home, she perked right up. She was depressed and missed her pack, Ollander said.

Azure said the couple was reluctant to put a blind dog back on the team, but Isobel responded with enthusiasm.

"The first couple of steps she stumbled a little bit, and after that it was straight on down the trail and she never looked back," Azure said.

Isobel's mood and appetite also picked up again.

Since that day, she has been running as well as she ever did before losing her sight, Azure said, noting that Isobel relies on the other dogs, human vocal commands, and her other senses to avoid obstacles.

She has often been put up front with another dog for races and has helped beat other dog teams in head-to-head competitions.

"She's pretty much blind to the whole situation — she doesn't know she's blind anymore," said Ollander.

An international TV star

Isobel's spirit hasn't gone unnoticed. American television network NBC was in Churchill two weeks ago to tape a feature on the blind sled dog.

The story will air during NBC's coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

But now it's time for Isobel to settle down, as she is at the retirement age for sled dogs.

'The time is right for her to move on.' —Jenafor Ollander

Ollander says it's hard to retire Isobel, but she deserves the rest.

"The time is right for her to move on," she said.

And it's also time for Isobel to leave Churchill, Ollander said.

Isobel will move to Alberta in January, where she will live with the veterinarian eye specialist who first treated her.

Ollander admits she will be sad to see Isobel go, but her biggest concern is whether the dog will be able to adapt to the slow life, and not fall into another depression.

However, Ollander can't think of a better place for her than with a doctor who will make sure Isobel is given the best care an aging athlete could hope to have.