Service Dogs Received Free Eye Exams at Tacoma Clinic

Two-and-a-half-year-old Rosa and six-year-old Rohan are in very different places in their lives.

Rosa, a sweet and eager black Labrador retriever is months away from graduating as a service dog and being placed with a person who’s life she’ll make easier with her presence.

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Working dogs Rohan (left) and Rosa (right).

Rohan has been working as a therapy dog in the community since he was a year old. Just the other day, he was a calming fixture among young kids reading stories aloud to him. He’s also made trips to college campuses during exam weeks, and has made the rounds at area hospitals.

What brought the two together today was a trip to the ophthalmologist at Summit Veterinary Referral Center for a national program that offers service dogs free eye exams at participating clinics, thanks to support from The American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists and Stokes Pharmacy. Since the program’s free service started in 2008, 68,000 free eye screenings have been given by hundreds of ophthalmologists donating their time.

Didn’t know there were doggie eye doctors? Neither did we. As part of the national program, roughly 8,000 dogs will receive eye exams this month, and 25 or so were seen at the Tacoma clinic.

Jennifer Hughes, a volunteer with the Prison Pet Partnership, a non-profit that works with inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor that trains service and therapy dogs, as well as offering grooming and boarding, was tending to Rosa.

Rosa, who was named after Rosa Parks by one of the inmate trainers within the Prison Pet Partnership program, relies on outside volunteers like Hughes to help socialize her.

“Since (the inmates) can’t bring the dogs out to a restaurant, into traffic, or to busy places — which they would encounter in their lives as a service dog — we bring them out and expose them to everyday things.”

Dr. Nathan Kice, an ophthalmologist and associate veterinary at Summit Veterinary Referral Center, is looking for a couple different

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Dr. Nathan Kice of Summit Veterinary Referral Center uses a headlamp and lens to look at the back of Rohan’s eye.

things when he’s giving eye exams, which also depend on the breed and age of the dog. It’s similar to an eye exam you might receive at your ophthalmology office, except Kice isn’t worried about minor vision changes that might require glasses in humans. Instead, he’s looking for organic diseases. The most common problem he sees at these complimentary exams are allergy-related redness, and he would be most concerned about cataracts.

Labradors — like Rosa and Rohan — are predisposed to have retinal problems. He shuts off the lights in the exam room, and at first he’s looking at the surface of their eyes, and then puts on a head piece and holds a lens up to the dogs’ eyes to look at the back of their eyes.

“To use a camera analogy, we want to make sure the film is working, but also make sure we’ve got clear lenses,” he said. “So those are the big areas we’re focusing on.”

Last year, Kice noticed Rohan has a misdirected eyelash, meaning one of his eyelashes was pointing in at his eye. It can be a common and minor problem among dogs, something that can be fixed with surgery in more severe cases.

Rohan is Cathleen Fitzgerald’s therapy dog. She got him when he was a puppy, and said she was likely inspired to raise him as a therapy dog after volunteering with the Prison Pet Partnership. Over the years, Fitzgerald estimates she’s worked with 80 service dogs.

Fitzgerald motioned at Rosa and said, “She’s about to go to a person, and we don’t want to give anyone who relies on a dog that’s going to have eye disease, or lose their sight in the next two years, or have a lot of maintenance because they have ingrown eye lashes.”

This is the third year she’s brought Rohan in for the complimentary eye exam, and a lot of it has to do with peace of mind. Kice noticed some cysts in the back of Rohan’s eyes, which don’t seem to be affecting his vision, but it’s something they’ll keep tabs on.

“A lot of people are unaware of why their dogs are tearing up a little bit,” she said. “Maybe there’s an irritation or an allergy that could be managed easily.”

At the visit today, Kice examined the redness in Rosa’s eyes. He suggested some ointment for the seasonal allergies she is experiencing and assured it should clear up in a few days.

Each year, Kice said a range of working animals come in for the free exam, from narcotics dog to seeing eye dogs to seizure alert dogs. It’s an important service for both the dogs and their handlers who depend on them, he said.

“I do it for the people and the dogs,” he said. “It’s not just about the dogs, because their interactions are very important. I found out about the Prison Pet Partnership through their participation (in the eye exams). … It’s dog training through reform. It’s people who made poor decisions changing their lives, so that resonates with me. This group, specifically, is really awesome.”


is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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