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When a Therapy Dog Becomes Blind: Meet Dutchess, the Subject of a New Children's Book

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In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch wisely advises, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view -- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. "

Although she was the most empathic pup around, this sentiment rang true for Dutchess, a therapy dog with a joyful heart.

Dutchess began life as an energetic puppy who loved to fetch tennis balls and socialize. While Dutchess liked other dogs, she always preferred human company. Early on, Dutchess' owner, Mark Condon, noticed that his golden retriever had a special skill. When a child approached to pet but seemed nervous, Dutchess instinctively understood and would respond with great gentleness so the child felt safe. Condon believed that Dutchess possessed an empathy and that couldn't be taught, making her an ideal therapy dog for people with autism and special needs, especially those hesitant about communication and interaction.

At canine training classes Dutchess was a quick study. She instantly found her vocation. By 2009, Dutchess soon became a favorite at the autism centers that she visited and helped foster communication and social skills.

In an odd twist of fate, in 2010, Dutchess was diagnosed with an hereditary illness that required the surgical removal of her eyes. However, instead of leaving her work behind when she became blind, Dutchess resumed her work with people with autism. Losing her eyes made her even more compassionate. She gave solace when she visited hospitals. Dutchess visited mourners at memorial sites in Newtown after the tragic shootings.

Dutchess's ability to shrug off her blindness and continue helping others inspired Condon to immortalize the beloved pup in a children's book, A Day with Dutchess: Life Lessons from a Blind Therapy Dog. In fact, the book recently won a Family Choice Award. The golden retriever with the giant smile and giving heart continues to see the good in any situation and brings joy to others wherever she goes.

I talked to Mark Condon about Dutchess, and the special gifts she gives to others.
 
Q: What is it about Dutchess that made her so special.

MARK CONDON: Dutchess has always been driven to seek the attention and companionship of people. She is not shy about walking up to a stranger and politely inviting interaction. She has the innate ability to recognize people who are hesitant or shy and those who are more robust. She tailors her demeanor to reflect that which makes her a great therapy dog. Unlike most people, Dutchess is so "tuned in" to the personality, mood, and emotional state of others, that she knows when a boisterous, enthusiastic head butt or paw shake should be offered versus when a slow approach and a "sit-and-wait-for-a-pet" is more appropriate.

Q: How does Dutchess help people with her therapy work?

MARK CONDON: Dutchess and I work at autism centers, hospitals, schools, libraries, grief centers and anywhere the special healing powers of animal assisted therapy are needed. I have seen her work quiet miracles and change people's lives. I cannot take any credit--it's all Dutchess.

At one of the autism centers she visits a young man who has been non-verbal since early childhood. He communicates largely with his ipad. He doesn't often initiate conversation with others, but his bond with Dutchess has grown so strong he now frequently asks for her, when she will be visiting next and requests visits with her. This is a huge step towards advancing his communication skills. His mother is so touched by the impact that Dutchess has on her son, she hung a photo of Dutchess on his wall.

Q: And Dutchess worked with some of the Newtown residents.

MARK CONDON: When Dutchess and I first visited, I wasn't sure exactly what to do but Dutchess knew. Reporters and news vans were everywhere. Dutchess and I stood next to one of the tents filled with photos, candles, notes, and stuffed animals--memorials of the children and adults who had been killed. Dutchess, wearing her therapy dog vest, gently approached individuals and invited them to pet her.

Dutchess that knew how to offer comfort, not me. As we walked back to the car, numerous people called, "Thank you!" to us. Later Dutchess and I were invited to a ceremony in Newtown thanking the many therapy dogs who visited after the shootings.

Q: Why did you decide to turn Dutchess' story into a book, A Day with Dutchess?

MARK CONDON: So many people found Dutchess' story so engaging it seemed a perfect focus for a children's book. Her ability to cope with her vision loss and continue helping others; her newfound ways of inspiring others, etc. and all the positive messages for children about acceptance, diversity and seeing the good in any situation made it a terrific project.

Q: How has a Day with Dutchess touched people?

MARK CONDON: Many parents tell me that the book has become a favorite bedtime read for their kids. Gratifying to me is the feedback recognizing the celebration of acceptance and diversity in the book. One person who works at a school for the blind has found it especially enriching to use in her classroom. Dutchess and I have received requests to read the book and talk about our work from schools, libraries, and even a senior citizen group.

Q: What do you hope that people learn from Dutchess's story?

MARK CONDON: While Dutchess has been given a significant challenge to overcome, she has not let it isolate her from others. On the contrary, she has turned lemons into lemonade. She is blind, but it doesn't dwell on it; it focuses on what she CAN do, not what she CAN'T do. What a great message for children.

To learn more about A Day with Dutchess visit www.DutchessThetherapyDog.com

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