Friday, August 29, 2008

Painful zap from walking near power transformer impairs Seeing Eye dogs

Shock to canines leads to anguish for blind couple

Painful zap from walking near power transformer impairs Seeing Eye dogs and forces one to be retired

St. Catharines Standard
Copyright © 2007, St. Catharines Standard
4 / 11 - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Caitlyn McFarland feels like she's forgetting something every time she leaves her St. Catharines apartment.
Not any of the usual items typically at risk of being left behind, though.
Not her keys. Not her purse, either.
"That something is the dog," McFarland said.
For the past three years, the St. Catharines woman, who went blind after a brain injury 20 years ago, has relied on her five-year-old German shepherd, Kendall, to help her navigate the streets of the Garden City.
But in February, Kendall was involved in an accident that left him incapable of helping his human companion.
It happened during one of the daily five-kilometre walks McFarland enjoys with fiance Mark Furness, who is also blind, and his Seeing Eye dog, Flint.
McFarland felt Kendall jump as they strolled along King Street near Carlisle Street. She suspected her four-legged guide, who hated to get his feet wet, was simply trying to manoeuvre around a puddle or freshly salted patch on the snow-covered sidewalk.
But she knew something wasn't right when Flint started yelping before collapsing to the ground in a spate of mournful howls.
Confused, Furness tried to find out what was causing the dogs' strange behaviour.
"He bent down and put his hand on the sidewalk to find out what was wrong and he got shocked," McFarland said.
Kendall and Flint were jolted by electricity when they walked past a transformer box on King Street behind the police station.
The couple managed to get the dogs home to their Louth Street apartment and called their veterinarian, who reassured them the pooches were likely fine. They also called Horizon Utilities and the city, fearing for the safety of other passersby.
Turns out the problem was with city wiring, said Horizon Utilities spokeswoman Sandy Manners.
She referred the issue to Kris Jacobson in the city's transportation and environmental services department.
Phone calls to Jacobson were not returned Monday, but McFarland said she was reassured the problem, involving underground electrical wiring sending a charge through the pavement, was fixed. McFarland is also being reimbursed for some of the costs she'll incur as a result of the incident.
Still, life hasn't been the same since.
Kendall and Flint, once buddies, started fighting with each other. Leisurely walks turned into journeys into the unknown. McFarland and Furness could no longer trust their dogs to stick to the task of leading them about safely.
"Two blind people living in a house with two dogs constantly fighting is not a good scene," McFarland said.
A trainer from The Seeing Eye, the New Jersey agency that reared the animals, visited in an effort to try to abate the growing dislike Kendall and Flint had for each other. It was to no avail.
So two weeks ago, McFarland made the difficult decision of retiring five-year-old Kendall, returning him to New Jersey. She's since had to rely on her white cane to help her get around, a distant second to a Seeing Eye dog.
Kendall was familiar with McFarland's habits. He knew what shelves to stop at when his master went grocery shopping. He memorized what staircases she needed to climb in her apartment building. With Kendall by her side, McFarland could keep up with Furness on their daily walks. She could make her way through a crowd quickly and with ease.
Now she can barely do that without someone trying to lend her a hand - more of a disconcerting proposition than any Good Samaritan may realize, McFarland explained.
"When you have a white cane, people feel it's OK just to grab you," she said. "People's intentions are good but it's pretty off-putting to be in a crowd and be grabbed. I know people want to help."
It's something she'll have to get accustomed to considering it could be as late as September before The Seeing Eye will have trained a suitable replacement - a dog whose personality meshes with McFarland's.
"If this incident hadn't happened, barring any disasters, he should have lasted 10 years," McFarland said, adding it costs about $48,000 to breed, raise and train a Seeing Eye dog.
"Retiring a healthy dog, aside from his mental breakdown, was really hard."
But as it turns out, it's not unusual, explained Doug Roberts, The Seeing Eye's programs director.
Five years ago, the agency experienced a "rash" of similar incidents with dogs it trained for clients in Boston and New York.
The older the city, the older the infrastructure, including underground wiring, Roberts explained. As a result, electrical currents from frayed wires are sent through pavement when water drips between sidewalk cracks and onto the charged cables.
"To a dog, it's got four feet on the ground. It's quite a shock," he said.
The same would have happened to any person walking in their bare feet, he noted.
Kendall and Flint went squirrely after the incident because they believed the other dog was the culprit in the shocking mishap.
"The aggression was just too tough, so one of them had to retire," he said.
Kendall will be put up for adoption to live life as a regular housepet, Roberts added. But it's likely little consolation for McFarland.
"It's a real heartache," Roberts said. "If you're a dog person, you know how close you are to your dog. If you're blind, it's doubly so."

St. Catharines Standard
Copyright © 2007, St. Catharines Standard