Manitoba dogsled team has the blind leading the not-blind
Isobel, a six-year-old husky cross, has all the great qualities of a sled dog: strength, endurance, team spirit. It takes a while for visitors to notice that she is blind.
Despite that, Isobel works well alongside the other dogs tethered to the sleds that take tourists out on the subarctic terrain of Churchill, Man.
"The dog lost its vision, but it didn't lose its spirit," Dr. Evan Fisk, Isobel's Winnipeg-based veterinarian, said in a recent interview. "It can smell, hear and feel other dogs nearby."
Isobel not only follows other dogs on the sled team owned by Jenafor Ollander and her common-law husband, she sometimes runs lead in tandem with another husky.
"She runs tours every single day right now… and we have tourists from all over the world that are absolutely amazed," Ollander said. "I'm sure some of them think I'm crazy when I tell them she's blind."
'She's a good dog'
Isobel wasn't born blind. Everything seemed fine until one day three years ago, when she suddenly came to a halt in the middle of a sled run and started staggering around.
"We hooked her back up in her house and noticed that both of her pupils were completely dilated," Ollander said. "I remember a couple of people mumbling, `What good is a blind sled dog? You should just take her out and shoot her.' And I'm a bit stubborn in nature… and I said, 'So what if she can't be a sled dog? she's a good dog.' "
Isobel was taken to Winnipeg, where Fisk noticed her retinas had detached, possibly the result of a virus.
Back in Churchill, Isobel was kept indoors. Ollander figured she would be happy and safer inside.
Ollander was wrong.
"She stopped eating and drinking and we were quite concerned about what was going on," Ollander said. "We happened to bring one of our other sled dogs home and she perked right up. So it dawned on us that the problem was she was depressed and she missed her pack more than anything else."
'Better than when she had her eyesight'
Isobel was soon reintroduced to her canine comrades and her behaviour improved right away, Ollander said. She started eating and drinking again.
With some hesitation, Ollander's husband decided to hook Isobel up to the sled team and see what would happen.
"That dog ran like you wouldn't believe. She ran better than when she had her eyesight," Ollander said.
Isobel has been running ever since. She relies on the other dogs, human vocal commands, and her other senses to avoid obstacles.
It's not a complete surprise for Fisk.
"I believe that their senses adapt and they adjust, just like a person," he said. "We know that people hone in well on their hearing skills and their sense of vibration and time and distance and smell and everything like that. And dogs become really acute at that. When they lose their vision, the rest of their senses kind of take over."
Isobel is sometimes put up front with another dog for races and has beat other dog teams in head-to-head competitions.
She still has a couple of good running years left in her. But she's already nearing the age when many sled dogs hang up their harness.
Finding a good home for her might be a challenge.
"We've had several people who've offered to adopt her… but we're really concerned because she just loves to run," Ollander said. "We want to make sure that she doesn't end up in a situation where she gets depressed again."