Not a pet but a partner, guide dog provides artist with mobility

Posted by: Sharon    Tags:      Posted date:  December 14, 2011
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Commercial Appeal

Sculptor Sharon McConnell of Como, Miss., fights for her mobility every day. Avatar, a $50,000 guide dog, is her latest weapon.

At age 27, McConnell was diagnosed with uveitis, an autoimmune disease that slowly attacks the body and has left her, in her own words, “nearly blind.”

From the start, McConnell began living as if she was totally blind, wanting to be prepared for the eventual day when her sight would be gone.

“Blindness is difficult and hard and feeling stupid with everyone leading you around. It’s like playing a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. But at the same time, it’s a lot of trust and surrendering. None of us is in control of our lives,” said McConnell, now 44.

McConnell, originally from New England, relied entirely on her service dog, Bella, while she lived and worked as a sculptor in Santa Fe, N.M. She does direct casting, a hands-on process that allows her to mold plaster to a body or face to produce a sculpture.

In 2002, a friend, Greg Woodcox, of Brookhaven, Miss., encouraged her to come to Mississippi because she loved the blues and had just begun doing castings of the faces of Mississippi blues musicians.

Last year, her collection of castings was donated to Delta State University with a formal opening March 29.

In 2006, she purchased a historic home in Como, which now serves as her private residence and public gallery.

While learning the area and renovating the house, McConnell began noticing changes in Bella.

“I noticed she was slowing down,” McConnell said.

After nearly a decade together, McConnell’s emotional tie to Bella was perhaps even greater than the physical dependence.

“I began losing my independence and confidence,” she said. ” I picked up the cane and my world shrunk, but I didn’t realize it. I put Bella in harness and mostly heeled her, thinking that would help. I was overwhelmed, and my friend Mary Dustin became my eyes.”

Early this year, McConnell knew it was time to face the change — and the eventual painful loss of Bella as a working service dog.

“We looked to each other for everything,” said McConnell.

With Bella facing retirement, McConnell contacted Guide Dogs for the Blind, which found and trained Bella years ago. Based on the West Coast, the company has campuses in California and Oregon.

A preliminary search began for a new service dog. Meanwhile, McConnell was able to secure a financial sponsor in Atlanta for the new dog.

Last month, McConnell traveled to Portland, where she met a black Labrador named Avatar that had been chosen for her after a rigorous screening process.

“It helped that they know me through Bella and the organization has been a great supporter of my work,” McConnell said.

Just over a year old, Avatar’s personality and skill levels are far different from Bella’s.

“My first impression of Avatar was true love. I thought ‘what a goofball, he’s wild,’ but he’s so astute, he remembers everything and he’s very protective, which makes me feel secure,” she said.

She spent two weeks training with the new dog on the streets of the city.

“It was really intense and it rained the whole time. We worked at night and during the day,” she said.

One incident stands out in her mind. During a night exercise, the trainer helping them stepped off into the bushes. Avatar, who was supposed to make a left turn, stopped.

“I thought he was looking at a familiar scene when I heard the trainer say ‘correct your dog.’

“I disagreed with her because he saw something in the bushes that alerted him and I’d want him to react that way. The pattern was off and she was out of context. Where I live in Como, people and animals aren’t always where they should be on the sidewalk.”

Today, Avatar is hard at work, learning his new territory in McConnell’s home and around the streets of Como. His first lessons focus on learning his place within the home, McConnell’s routine and her movements. To do so, he’s on what’s referred to as “tie down” for the first six months.

“That may sound horrible, but essentially it means he heels around the house on a leash, in every room of the house. Not only is he learning his area, but it cuts down on potential accidents for me like tripping over a dog who’s not where he’s supposed to be,” she said.

Amazingly, when placed in harness, the goofy, playful young black Labrador changes immediately. He becomes alert and serious.

And Bella? McConnell was able to keep her.

“I couldn’t imagine having to let her go entirely,” she said.

While Bella and Avatar may live in the same physical space, their days are very different. As a retiree, Bella can now do things she could never do as a seeing-eye dog. She’s allowed on the furniture, she’s allowed to bark, she can roam the house and she can walk and run without the harness.

“She’s enjoying people in a different way now. Bella has even decided she’s going to do some volunteer work as a therapy dog visiting people,” McConnell said.

McConnell’s fight
Years ago, a stray dog attacked Sharon McConnell’s first service dog, Bella, on a populated street in Santa Fe, N.M. where she lived. The incident left Bella fearful and jumpy at the sight of another dog.

At the time, McConnell realized she had little to no recourse against owners who refused to leash their dogs. So, she worked with lawmakers there until “Bella’s Bill”– a leash law — was passed.

The law strives to protect service animals from injury and attack, penalizing owners whose unleashed animals interfere with or injure them. The offense is a misdemeanor crime requiring offenders to pay restitution, including vet bills and, if necessary, the cost of an animal.

She is currently lobbying for a town leash law in her new home of Como, Miss., that would hold dog owners accountable

Bobby Billingsley, a deputy with the Panola County Sheriff’s Department and investigator of animal abuse and neglect cases, says that unleashed dogs pose a threat to the community in many ways.

“Loose dogs may affect a working dog. Not only that, children can be hurt and dogs may be aggressive or carry disease if they aren’t vaccinated,” Billingsley said.

Healthy service dogs
The loss of a service dog, whether to retirement, impairment or attack, can be devastating for the owner.

This month, through the local efforts of Pet Health Systems and Dr. Bill Miller of Collierville, more than 140 veterinary ophthalmologists have committed themselves to working with primary-care veterinarians to screen guide dogs, handicap-assistance dogs, detection dogs and search-and-rescue dogs that are certified through a formal training program or organization.

Sponsored by The American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists and Pet Health Systems, the first ACVO National Service Dog Eye Exam will be the week of May 12. This event will provide free eye examinations and preventive health reports for thousands of service dogs.

Register at

For more information, call (208) 466-7624 or e-mail

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