Blind sled dog runs better than when she had sight: Manitoba owner

CHURCHILL, Man. — The end of the trail is near for Isobel.

Isobel the blind sled dog

CHURCHILL, Man. — The end of the trail is near for Isobel.

The nine-year-old Siberian husky-malamute cross will retire in January, five years after she lost her sight.

In January 2005, veterinarians told her owners, Gerald and Jenofar Azure of Churchill, Man., that Isobel couldn’t work as a sled dog ever again due to her blindness.

Isobel, however, had other ideas.

“Isobel went absolutely wild, she wanted to run,” recalled Jenofar Azure.

The dog’s story is one of incredible heart that has caught international attention.

NBC will air a feature about Isobel during its prime-time coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Crews filmed the segment in Churchill two weeks ago.

Tourists come to Churchill from all over the world to see sled dogs in action and Isobel has become the star attraction.

“She has touched the hearts of a lot of people.”

Isobel’s story is an inspiration to people living with disabilities and those adjusting to change, she added.

“If a blind sled dog can run, just think of what the rest of the world can do.”

Isobel, named after a young Italian girl who visited her as a newborn pup, became ill during a storm almost five years ago.

Because there are no veterinarians in Churchill, they flew to Winnipeg and took Isobel to vet Evan Fisk.

Fisk determined that despite vaccination, Isobel had contracted a virus that was attacking her brain, said Azure.

Medical treatment saved Isobel’s life, but the damage to her eyes was done. Her retinas had detached and her optic nerves were shot.

While recovering, Isobel gorged on expensive leather shoes, which later needed to be surgically removed from her stomach.

Then, she stopped eating altogether, depressed from being cooped up inside. When she was reunited with Thunder, the Azures’ lead sled dog, she started running again, learning to use sound and smell as beacons.

“She absolutely loves it,” said Azure. “She runs better now than she did with her eyesight.”

Before her illness, Isobel ran in the middle of the pack or at point position, behind the lead dog. Now she and Thunder take turns running in the lead.

“In the North, everyone is expected to carry their own weight,” said Gerald Azure. “Isobel does that and more.”

The end of this season marks a sad one for the Azures.

After her retirement in January, Isobel will be adopted by a family in Alberta. Her ophthalmology specialist, Cheryl Cullen, works in Calgary at Western Veterinary Specialist and Emergency Centre.

“Gerald and I derive a lot of strength from our sled dogs, but from Isobel in particular,” said Jenofar Azure.

“She doesn’t know she’s blind anymore.”

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