Blind puppy to be trained as therapy service dog

FOND DU LAC, Wis. — Trotting happily across Judy Essman's kitchen floor, Rosie the golden retriever seems like any other puppy from her 6-week-old litter.

However, when Essman, owner of the Golden Choice breeding service, slipped a pair of tinted "dogglers," or dog goggles, over Rosie's eyes, it becomes clear that the puppy is unique. 

Rosie was born blind. 

"I don't want children to be afraid of her as she gets older," Essman said, referring to Rosie's gray, glossy eyes. "You have to get them (familiarized with) the glasses really early on, so they'll be able to wear them more often for outings."

Essman said that in her nearly 13 years of breeding, a large majority of dogs being utilized as therapy/service dogs, she has never had a puppy from a litter be born without sight like Rosie.

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"Blindness in goldens is not a breed-specific genetic defect," she said.

When Rosie’s eyes didn’t open after two weeks, Essman took her to see veterinarian Marty Greer. After Greer broke the membrane covering Rosie's eyes, they gave the puppy a few days and then came to the conclusion that Rosie was blind. 

"She said it was due to an infection that affected her eyes," Essman said.

While the other puppies began stumbling out of their whelping box to discover the world around them, Essman said Rosie's adventure was a little more difficult.

"At about three to four weeks old they begin walking around, playing, going outside," she said. "But Rosie would stumble into the water dish or bump her head into things. It was really hard for me at first to let her test by trial and error, but she has to learn or she will be dependent on me for the rest of her life."

Essman said it took the puppy just a short time to rely more on her other senses, like hearing and smell, but some small adjustments were made in her home for Rosie.

"My husband built her a little guided ramp to go out the back door," Essman said. "All the other puppies could of course see where the exit was, but she just needed a little help getting out there."

Rosie remains docile and curious of the world around her.

"Rosie is very outgoing and loves people, which is an absolute must in order to be a therapy dog," Essman said.

Jake Guell, dog trainer and owner of Tails for Life, said that although Rosie's other senses will be heightened due to her lack of sight, it is expected to take her a little longer to become therapy certified.

"One of the biggest things coming out of Rosie's case is that she will bring awareness to the fact that those with disabilities are just as capable as everyone else," he said. "She is definitely going to bring a lot of joy to kids, too."

Essman hopes encountering Rosie will help children with disabilities or differences understand they are born to do great things.

"I mean, you hear it all the time whether its a child putting themselves down because of their awkward height or a child who feels left behind with a learning disability," she said. "I'm hoping Rosie will help them relate on that personal level so they may work through any issues they have."

Follow Jillian Ellison on Twitter: @ellison_writes.