You likely won’t find many people rushing to their vehicle enthusiastically when someone says, “Let’s go to work,” but to Harley, a 10-year-old blind yellow Labrador, those might be the sweetest words she hears.
Harley lost her eyesight when she was 5 years old, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a therapy dog and bringing joy to people at hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
Harley and her sister, Bailey, came to live with Rita Harrell and her family when they were just puppies. Five years ago, before Rita went to bed one evening, she noticed Harley’s eyes watering. The family lives on a farm in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, and Rita thought Harley had just come into contact with something that irritated her eyes.
“I put some drops in and we went to bed,” Harrell says. The next morning, Harley was blind.
“We rushed her to the vet and we were told it was glaucoma,” Harrell says. “[The disease] typically doesn’t come on all of a sudden and dogs usually don’t go blind all at once.”
The Harrell’s took Harley to a specialist in Charlottesville, but they were told nothing could be done.
“She didn’t have any health issues and there was no apparent reason for it. It was just a freak thing,” she says.
Eventually, Harrell was told they would have to remove Harley’s eyes, as the pressure from the disease causes pain.
“I was in denial, I kept thinking they might come up with something,” Harrell says. “It was such a final thing for me, but when we did it, she was running around like a puppy again. I wasn’t aware of how much pain she was in.”
Harley learned to get around the house and even takes walks on the farm, and her condition didn’t affect her friendly and bubbly personality. Because of her spirit and what she’d been through, Harrell thought Harley might make a good therapy dog.
About three years ago, Harrell contacted Paws2Care and enrolled Harley in their therapy dog training program. Fortunately, Harley’s condition didn’t make it harder for her training, and in fact, it was the opposite, Harrell says.
“She did great because she was never distracted by other dogs or things like wheelchairs,” she says. “The only thing that distracts her is when people talk, she thinks everyone is talking to her.”
Now, Harley and Harrell spend their free time visiting stressed out students at universities and patients at the Carolina Center for Behavioral Health.
“Harley likes the higher-risk patients better than anyone,” Harrell says. “She does really well in the depression group.”
Harley’s favorite place to visit, however, is the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Greenville, South Carolina.
“She loves kids and she knows her way around,” Harrell says. “Some of the little kids even think she’s there for treatment because of her eyes.”
It would be easy for small children to be intimidated by Harley’s big size, but her friendly demeanor and thumping tail put them at ease quickly. Even those patients who are sad to learn about Harley’s condition usually perk up seeing the permanent smile on her face.
Frances Fischer, a certified child life specialist with Shriner’s Hospital says she believes Harley’s lack of sight helps some of the kids identify with their own medical issues.
“I think it teaches them they can do anything, no matter the circumstances,” Fischer says. “I think it makes some of them feel more normal.”
Fischer says all therapy dogs provide joy to the children, but there is something definitely special about Harley.
“I think when she walks into a room, the kids’ eyes light up,” she says. “She has that friendly spirit about her, she always enjoys people and is always wagging her tail.”
Harrell says Harley doesn’t get to work as much as she’d like to right now (Harrell is a busy athletic director at a local school), but once she retires next year, Harley will get to do the work she loves much more often. She also hopes to take the family’s 2-year-old chocolate Labrador, Hershey, for training once Harley retires.
“I hope Harley lives a good, long life, she is so special,” Harrell says.
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance journalist and author who lives in a tiny house with her 5 dogs and husband.