Three years ago, 8-year-old Gonzo began tripping over his food bowls. The behavior seemed odd and his owners, Karen Tolen and Neil Beaulieu, took him to the vet for an exam. It was then that they learned Gonzo was experiencing rapidly advancing blindness. Upon hearing the diagnosis, Tolen and Beaulieu were shocked and saddened, but the vet offered them some simple advice: "Run the dog".
Tolen and Beaulieu own Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel
, a dog sled kennel that accepts rescues and "second-chance" dogs. Beaulieu says the kennel is much more than just a sled dog kennel business, telling Fox News
"A lot of shelters deem sled dogs unadoptable, and they put them down. For myself and the entire crew here, we know that's false. They are very adoptable."
Tolen and Beaulieu decided to give Gonzo a second chance as well, taking the vet's advice and waiting to see what happened. Ben Morehouse, the kennel manager, told the Washington Post
“Even though he’s blind, he still knows when hook-ups are happening. He’s still very aware. When you have a dog such as Gonzo, with such a want and a drive and a desire ... you try it, you hook up, you see what happens.”
When Gonzo went completely blind, his brother Poncho initially did not treat him any differently. However, Poncho soon realized that his brother needed some help. The pair would be harnessed next to each other during sled runs. Gonzo would lean into Poncho to gauge turns and speed. Tolin told US News
"At first, [Poncho would] be a little bit nervous when Gonzo would lean into him. And then somehow — I don't know how dogs communicate — he learned that he was utilizing him to determine where the turns are and how fast they were going. And he would let him do that — he wouldn't get as grumpy as he did in the beginning."
According to Morehouse, the behavior is unusual. Typically, if one sled dog stumbles, the rest of the team will continue running at the normal pace. The brothers are different however, with Morehouse telling Fox News
"I've never seen it with any other dog. There's definitely a bond there and communication beyond what we do with the two dogs, between the two of them themselves."
The love and concern Poncho has for Gonzo is unique, and very visible. Beaulieu recalls a spring run when Gonzo stumbled, falling off the trail. The rest of the team continued to run, but Poncho dug his head into the snow, grabbed Gonzo's harness and pulled his brother up, putting Gonzo back on the trail without ever missing a beat. Beaulieu, who has worked as a volunteer with the Iditarod dog sled race, said he has worked with and run dogs all over the country, but watching Poncho lift Gonzo out of the snow and get him back on track was "the most amazing thing I've ever seen a sled dog do."
Morehouse says most people are concerned about the efficiency of sled dogs. He admits that Gonzo and Poncho will not set any speed records and they are not the most efficient. But, he says
you can't deny what the pair does have:
"To be honest, they're probably some of the goofiest dogs you can put in harness. But they're just fun."