Zero to Hero: A Blind Agility Dog Champion
One of the first things we realized at Rex Specs is how incredibly unique and inspiring each of our customers are. We’ve been so lucky to pick up the phone for a customer service call and ten minutes later find ourselves laughing, crying or in complete awe by the stories we hear. Dianne Morey and her blind dog, Zero, are no different. The picture above is taken by Dianne, you can follow them on Instagram at @leagueoftheunsane.
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How Dianne Found Zero
Dianne Morey was just getting started in web design when the Dotcom Crash hit. New to the trade, it was like being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hoping things would recover and assuming she’d get a job in design eventually, she took a part time job at a doggy daycare to pay her bills.
“The first day they left me alone with like 32 dogs,” she remembers, a fond memory catching in her laugh. “When the next shift came in they said, ‘Oh my God, there’s no poop on the floor and no dogs fighting!’” A hidden talent emerged, and with the support of the doggy daycare staff she went to a training academy and pursued certifications in dog training. After apprenticing and interning at the San Francisco SPCA for awhile, she was brought on as their staff trainer, where she stayed for nine years. Then in 2010, she was hired to teach agility full time by the world famous Sandy Rogers, owner of Ace Dog Sports.
In the spring of 2005, Dianne stumbled across a bearded collie on Petfinder who was just over 5-years-old. He’d been rescued from an animal shelter by a movie trainer who wanted him to be the lead role in a shaggy dog movie. But his baggage proved too much for Hollywood, leading him right into the arms of Dianne. With her training experience, “True” was able to overcome his issues and blossomed not only as a therapy dog, but he also led Dianne deeper into the world of dog sports, including herding. Since Dianne didn’t know much about herding, she headed off to sheep herding lessons, where she just happened to meet a guy named Micah who just happened to have a dog named Zero.
True (left) and Dianne's younger dog, Sic. PC: @leagueoftheunsane
“We both lived in San Francisco and started commuting together and going to lessons for six months,” Dianne says. “Then we started dating, and I started doing more work with Zero cause he’s such a bad ass dog.”
Zero, who is now 15-years-old, was part of a semi-feral litter that were all dumped in a field. After ending up in a shelter, Zero went out for adoption a couple of times and was quickly returned. “Cattle dogs aren’t your average pet dog to have,” Dianne warns. “Micah adopted him when he was about 7 months old.”
Zero out crushing life. PC: @leagueoftheunsane
Zero Found His Agility Dog Talent
Right off the bat, Dianne saw that Zero could overcome anything through his incredibly high drive for toys, which made him extremely fun to do sports with. “I started training him for agility,” she says. He quickly became her go-to dog for demoing agility in the classes she taught. “I trained him to perform at kids’ birthday parties -- where he was a huge success even though he was terrified by kids. He’s just an amazing, amazing dog -- a little crazy, but with tons of drive.”
Zero working on agility training with Roy. PC: @leagueoftheunsane
But it didn’t make sense to Dianne when he started to slam into certain contact obstacles. Contact obstacles are parts of all agility courses and have an area (or multiple areas) that are painted yellow. At least one of the dog’s paws has to touch that “contact” area. When Zero would slam into these obstacles instead of just touch or paw them, everyone seemed to think it was just because he had so much drive. But Dianne knew they had trained extensively for these obstacles. “It took me a year to figure out why it happened in horse arenas,” she recalls. Horse arenas are usually light in color, and the yellow on the obstacles were the same tonal quality. “So I realized that he couldn’t see it, and that’s why he was running into it.” She and Micah made an eye appointment, thinking maybe he had a small visual impairment. Instead, the vet said Zero was almost completely blind and should never be off leash again. Dianne and Micah were stunned. At this point, Dianne was also doing dock diving with Zero (they tried it on a whim one day and he got 2nd place), and before the vet appointment he had just won first place at the Splash Dogs finals, not to mention he’d herded in a feral calf on their friends’ ranch less than a few weeks earlier.
Zero and Dianne on the 2nd place podium spot. PC: @leagueoftheunsane
“But we also believed it was true,” says Dianne. “The things we had thought were just Zero’s ‘weird’ things we realized were because he was blind, like sticking his nose against a chain link fence before going through a gate.”
We Learned Zero Had Progressive Retinal Atrophy
They learned he had Progressive Retinal Atrophy, which is a progressive genetic disease that starts at birth. The dog will gradually lose its sight, and according to Dianne most people notice this when their dog is around 6-years-old. “It’s not common in the AKC show line,” Dianne mentions. “But working ranchers don’t tend to do genetic testing. They work them until they can’t work anymore -- Zero’s a phenomenal cattle dog, he’s a real working dog.”
Zero at one of his eye appointments. PC: @leagueoftheunsane
Dianne and Micah were left with a heartbreaking dilemma. “It never occurred to me that one of my dogs would have something like that,” she remembers. “That one day he would be able to do agility and then never do it again.” In fact, Zero was already registered for an agility trial that would take place just a few days after the visit to the eye specialist. “I thought -- well, that’s it. I can’t put his safety at risk.” Dianne tried to come to terms with it and accepted that their performing was over. But she woke up with a strong feeling the day of the trial, feeling that they had to have one more run together. So she went. It was a master level trial, and as they entered the ring Dianne was questioning her decision. But then Zero let out a little chirp. “I knew I was screwed,” she says. The chirp, according to Dianne, is the sound Zero makes when he’s especially excited about something. “I released him, and he was ahead of me the entire course -- I rear crossed everything, he went into the weaves way ahead of me. I crossed the finish line screaming and crying.”
You guessed it -- Zero got first place. Who knows what dogs can sense, but it certainly felt to Dianne like they were both getting some closure and going out with a bang before his retirement. They both slept easy that night.
Zero at a dock diving event. Dianne says she uses Rex Specs Dog Goggles for dock diving because the different Rex Specs Replacement Lenses help him see in different light conditions. PC: @leagueoftheunsane
How Zero Overcomes His Disability
Even though Zero has an incredible talent for agility, the equipment can still be very dangerous for a blind dog. So Dianne did retire him from it after that last special event, but he still does barn hunting, rally, dock diving and, just recently, advanced obedience training. And he loves to go mountain biking with Micah, using the trail scent, Micah’s scent and their other dogs as his guides. “I still want him to live a really wild life,” Dianne says of Zero’s amazing ability to experience the world on his own off leash even as a blind dog. “We do obedience now and he’s a terrible heeler,” she laughs. “He’s really bad -- but he loves it. He’s ready to go for anything.”
To get in touch with Dianne or see more awesome pictures of her and the dogs, check out leagueoftheunsane.com. To learn more about Progressive Retinal Atrophy and other eye conditions, check out our comprehensive article.
Dianne, Zero, True and Roy. PC: @leagueoftheunsane