Top Cambridge vet says Dave the blind wonder dog is a ‘medical mystery’
Dave the dog is pretty special. In fact his owner, Waterbeach resident Jane Downes, calls him a wonder dog and, after fooling two vets and a rehoming centre, his owner and Jane’s friends and community, one of the UK’s top veterinary ophthalmologists has declared that he is “a medical mystery”.
You see, Dave is blind: his retinas do not work – apparently they never developed – and yet he can walk, jump, run and play like any other dog. How does he do it? It’s a mystery and, like many a good mystery, it started in Ireland....
“I saw him on a website at Heathlands Animal Sanctuary in January last year,” Jane explains. “I’ve had border collies or collie crosses for 44 years – I’ve only ever had border collies or crosses – and I know Heathlands because I’ve had five dogs from them before, all over from Ireland. They bring in rescue dogs from Ireland every three weeks.
“I liked the look of him – he has a lovely face – and they said I could have him in three weeks. His name on his passport was Whip, which I didn’t like so I immediately changed it to Dave. He came over from Ireland in February and I went and collected him from Heathlands in Wimpole. When I got him he was skin and bone. That’s what happens to rescue dogs – there’s no way they would have known he was blind, if they’d spotted it in Ireland he would have been put down for sure.”
Heathlands Animal Sanctuary is based in Royston. It was founded in 1991 by Gillian Knight: the charity brings over between 10 and 30 dogs from Ireland every three weeks.
“When Dave arrived we put on his record sheet that he would need a vet check,” Gillian says. “At the vet check just after adoption the vet said no problem with the eyes.”
When Dave arrived in Waterbeach, he seemed surprisingly well adapted.
“When I brought him home I noticed on a couple of occasions he walked into door frames,” says Jane, “but I assumed he was a rescue and had lived in barns, and he wasn’t used to being indoors. He never made a fuss. A couple of times he’d knocked me from the back: in June last year he knocked me over and I broke three bones in my foot – my foot went underneath me, it was on a walk he hadn’t been on before. But I still had no idea he was blind – I thought he was clumsy. It was very, very rarely that he walked into things. I’d taken him to a vets a few miles away when I first got him and they hadn’t spotted anything.
“Then, in October last year, I was in Grumpys [Pet Shop] in Chesterton buying him a harness and Dave missed a step, and the owner there said, ‘I think your dog’s blind’. That was when I thought he might be. A few people had said ‘his eyes are strange’, and his eyes are luminous in some light. But when I take a photo of him, he looks straight at you. My husband, Mick, said ‘don’t be ridiculous’ when I told him, and whistled – and Dave went flying down the stairs to him.
“The next day I went to Village Vet in Milton. I’d taken Sammy [Jane’s other dog] there. They took him out the back and the vet said, ‘He’s clearly very devoted to you, he was very good, yes he is blind but he may see shadows.’
“They didn’t have the equipment to test that so I booked him in at Dick White Referrals in Six Mile Bottom – they’re amazing. I’d been there before but Dave hadn’t and when we got there I wondered if he’d trip up on the step on the way in, but he went straight up. The optometrist said, ‘He’s totally, totally blind, he has no vision whatsoever’. He said Dave was either blind at birth or very soon after. The other thing was they thought Dave was aged between five and seven, and it had him as two when I first saw him. He manages amazingly well. He’s nervous of water – he won’t go into the river – and bridges. The optometrist said: ‘He is a very, very clever collie’.
“When he sees another dog he plays and runs about, charging around, face to face, following the direction – you wouldn’t know. I don’t make allowances for him because he is only blind and he knows no different. Sight is a dog’s third sense after smell and hearing. Furniture, trees, lampposts – even puddles, he goes round everything.”
The whole situation seemed incredulous, not least because I’d met Dave late last year. I have a border collie, Tilly, in my care and I know Jane from a previous workplace. She came over to visit me near Fen Ditton with Dave and Sammy before she learned about his condition. Of course I had no idea. Dave and Sammy played with Tilly in the back garden, which has a bench, a table, two chairs, a post, a very large flower pot and a gate all within a few feet of each other. Dave seemed happy enough with everything as he explored the new premises.
It occurred to me there must be a vet in Cambridge who would be intrigued enough to try and solve the mystery. I’d taken Tilly to the Queen’s Veterinary School on Madingley Road one time last year, so I started there.
Liz Smith, a very helpful fundraising executive at the world-renowned vet hospital, said she could not help but knew someone who could, and I was put in touch with Dr David Williams, associate lecturer in veterinary ophthalmology at Cambridge University’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, and a Fellow and director of studies at St John’s College. I had heard of Dr Williams because I’d read the story about his world-first animal surgery – a hood graft on Ratna the tiger at Shepreth Wildlife Park – which was reported in the Cambridge Independent in May.
Dr Williams kindly said he would drop by to see Dave at home and that was when he first met Dave – August 14. Two maze tests, which involved putting objects such as a suitcase, watering can and table in Dave’s way – one test in the garden, another indoors – were followed by a retina test.
“The pupils are widely dilated and open,” said David after the tests. “They’re not responding to light – at least the pupils aren’t responding to light. The back of his eye is too shiny, there’s not enough retina to absorb the light. It’s weird he does so well. Everything eyewise I would say looks as though there isn’t any vision there, but you’ve got to put it in the context of how the animal is in himself: from a behaviour perspective he looks as though he can see.
“It’s not just a clever collie, it’s an animal who can see sufficiently to get around. Maybe he’s got some extra sensory perception – no, I didn’t say that! I can’t explain what’s going on in those eyes. Until you look in his eyes you can’t tell he’s not seeing...
“In life you like to think you know everything, but that’s not always the case. Just because I’ve been doing this for 33 years, it doesn’t mean I’ve seen everything, and this I can’t explain. But that’s OK – even Stephen Hawking said he couldn’t explain everything. What’s going on is very, very strange.”
Dogs do have enhanced smell and hearing compared to their human counterparts. As humans we have 30 million olfactory receptors in our noses – canines have 600 million. And they hear frequencies at a far higher pitch – between 67-45,000Hz (it varies slightly with different breeds), compared to humans whose approximate range is 64-3,000Hz.
One possibility could be that dogs – or Dave to be specific – could have some sort of echolocation facility. Echolocation is a technique used by bats, dolphins and whales to determine the location of objects using reflected sound. But the suggestion is not supported by Dr Williams, who said: “Noses do smells not distances and, while echolocation through hearing might work, I think it’s unlikely it explains him negotiating those objects so well.” Indeed, the possibility has to be discounted because it would require Dave to bark and hear the location of objects by the bounce-back of sound, and Dave didn’t bark during any of the maze tests.
Meanwhile, the report came in from Dick White Referrals. The diagnosis was ‘bilateral optic nerve atrophy/hypoplasia with secondary retinal degeneration’. The specialist commented: “The blindness is explained by the optic nerve head disease. It is impossible to know the original cause of this due to the absence of history previous to February 2020. It is certainly possible that Dave was born with optic nerve abnormalities (optic nerve hypoplasia) and has always been blind. Another possibility is that he developed optic nerve head atrophy following previous optic neuritis.
“There is no evidence of active ongoing inflammation and so further investigations are not indicated. Sadly, there is no treatment for this cause of blindness.
“However, Dave is an extremely intelligent dog and has been coping remarkably well and I can understand why he has fooled so many people into thinking he has some vision.”
The situation seemed very unresolved. After reading the report Dr Williams emailed, suggesting that he conduct a second examination in a large room which Dave had not been in before. He wrote: “I’d like to have a better idea of his navigating around objects without all the other dogs complicating matters. I see a lot of blind dogs and they all bump into objects in a way that Dave didn’t – so at present he is a medical mystery!”
Jane spoke to her local parish councillor, Martin Howlett, who kindly arranged for the hire of the local church’s – St John’s – village hall, so on August 20 further tests took place in the Waterbeach village hall with the Cambridge Independent photographer in attendance.
The stage was set for the ultimate maze test. This involved Jane calling Dave from one end of the hall while Dave set off from the other end: he had to navigate through some fiendish placements of tables in his way. To be honest I did not think he did too well – he tried to walk off to the side of the tables, missing the narrow entrance, and it took a second call from his owner for him to realise where Jane was and how to get to her. But still, Dave was confident and did not bump into anything – and moreover, when Tilly did the same test (as a sighted dog to compare to), she also tried to walk round the side of the tables rather than going through the narrow gap in the middle – and I had to make a second call. The two animals were responding to the same cues, though Tilly has very good vision.
Dave did the maze test three more times, and on no occasion did he bump into anything – he went up to the tables, sniffed one close up without touching it, and navigated around it. When Keith called him Dave had no problems walking back through a different gap in the tables. Out in the car park, we were discussing the case when Dave suddenly jumped into the back of Keith’s car – a perfect leap into the open boot, which startled even Jane.
“He does jump into the back of my car but he’s never done that with anyone else’s car,” she said.
It was almost as if Dave was saying: ‘You think I can’t see... check this out!’
But Dave cannot see in any conventional sense, not even shadows.
“There are cases of animals listening to reverberations, but I don’t know of any case of that in a dog,” concluded Dr Williams. “The fact that his pupils are widely dilated, the fact that his optic nerves don’t go right to the back... but he can negotiate everything.
“Looking at how he’s coped with all of that I can’t see anything wrong with his vision. He went perfectly through those barriers.”
So a six out of 10, I suggest?
“More like a nine out of 10,” David replied.
Usually journalists write stories which have a start, middle and some sort of conclusion, but it’s not possible to draw any definitive conclusion with Dave. What we do know is that he exists, he is a very happy chappy, he has a lovely owner who cares for him a great deal, and he is living in a very supportive environment. We know that he has none of the usual technology, if you like, for seeing, yet he has wrong-footed probably dozens of people for at least five years into thinking his vision is normal.
He is apparently using some other mechanism or mechanisms to navigate almost flawlessly around his environment, and no one, even one of the world’s top canine eye specialists, can explain what the mechanism or mechanisms might be.
He truly is a wonder dog.