Dutchess is a golden Retriever with a smi le guaranteed to warm your heart — an important gift in her line of work. As a therapy dog with the Good Dog Foundation, she is required to stay calm and nurturing in challenging situations. And when a hereditary illness recently claimed her eyesight, her generosity of spirit and signature smile remained firmly intact.
Mark Condon brought Dutchess into his home as a puppy nine years ago, and they have been a loving team ever since. In between his duties as professor of biology at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., they volunteer at the Anderson Center for Autism in nearby Staatsburg.
Like any rambunctious pooch, Dutchess loves chasing tennis balls. She never missed one tossed to her, Condon recalls. Then, in 2010, something started to change — she began to miss them. She also started bumping into objects and sometimes appeared to be disoriented. Visits to the vet and ophthalmologist revealed that she had pigmentary uveitis, a genetic disease that generally leads to glaucoma and blindness.
Eye medications slowed the progression, but it was obvious to Condon that after six months of trying everything, her vision was all but gone. Even worse, the pressure on her eyes was causing her pain. After receiving the grim news that surgical removal of both eyes was necessary, he and Dutchess started preparing for the inevitable. “I had some time to get her oriented and teach her new commands such as ‘Curb up, curb down’ and ‘Look out’ to alert her to things she might collide with off-leash.”
Fortunately, Dutchess sailed through the operation and was able to go home one day later “with her tail wagging as if nothing had happened,” says Condon. Free of pain, her recovery was nothing short of remarkable, but the question remained: could she go back to the therapy work she loved?
“My biggest fear was that the outgoing, gregarious dog I knew would be lost,” says Condon. “She loves her work so much, and I knew she would really miss it, but I had to make sure she had the confidence to return. She would be completely blind and still interacting in a place where there might be loud noises. The only way was to try.”
Mary Anne Enea is a speech language pathologist at Anderson and had worked with Dutchess and Mark before the surgery. “When Mark first told me she was going to lose her eyes, it broke my heart,” says Enea. “Then when he said she was ready to come back to work after only three weeks, I couldn’t believe it. [Though] I thought he might have wanted her back this quick for her sake, I knew he would never put her in harm’s way.” Dutchess surprised everyone by easing right back into her job as if nothing had happened.
Part of a special program initiated by Anderson several years ago, therapy dogs work with patients to break through the wall of autism and help strengthen their communication and social skills. If a patient wants to throw a tennis ball for Dutchess to chase, brush her or give her food or water, they must step outside themselves to communicate that request to Enea or Condon.
Dutchess’ inability to see now adds another layer to the interaction. Before, a tennis ball was easy for her to spot and chase. Now, the ball must first be held close for her to smell it, and then thrown. Retrieving the ball is a triumph shared, says Enea. “One of my patients is much more enthusiastic now when she gets the ball. Before, he wasn’t cheering for anyone. Now, he is clapping and cheering for her … for someone else.” Condon admits he swelled with pride the first few times he took Dutchess back to Anderson. “It was amazing that she had the confidence to trust people she couldn’t see to pet her and interact with her.”
Rachel McPherson, founder and executive director of the Good Dog Foundation, calls Dutchess and Condon an inspiring therapy-dog team. “Clients and patients take comfort in hearing how Dutchess rebounded from a grim prognosis, and see her as an example of what love and determination can do.” Dutchess’s remaining senses have become heightened, and the fact that she has overcome her disability with grace is not lost on those she interacts with, says Condon. “Whether you are a dog or person, consider not just what’s inside you but what is around you. It is how you fit into the rest of the world that is important. People say to me, ‘I feel so bad for her’ and I say, please don’t. She is as happy as she has ever been in her life. Someone’s petting her now, or wants to play with her right now or talk to her. If she was not able to extend her consciousness outside of herself, she would not get that happy. She derives it from how she reacts with others.”
The deep bonds of love and trust between Dutchess and Condon have fueled the engine of recovery and allowed her to continue to make a difference in people’s lives. “I don’t know if I have ever seen a bond like they have,” says Enea. “Mark lives for Dutchess. He is so proud of how much she loves her work, and she knows she is safe with him. She is an inspiration.”