GREENVILLE, SC — Inside a darkened room at a Greenville clinic, Dr. Diana Pate uses a slitlamp to peer inside her patient's deep brown eyes to look for abnormalities like cataracts.
Finding none, she focuses an ophthalmoscope on his left eye, then his right, to examine his retina and optic nerve as well.
"You were very brave," she tells Mr. Pibb, giving his ears a good rub. "What a good boy."
Mr. Pibb is a happy yellow lab mix who wags his tail as he gets a clean bill of health and some encouraging words from Pate during his first visit to the eye doctor as part of the National Service Animal Eye Exam event sponsored by the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists. It's held each May to provide free eye exams for service dogs.
Whether it's helping a wheelchair-bound paraplegic like Mr. Pibb's owner Kevin Kellett maneuver through the local mall or steering a blind woman around perilous obstacles on the city streets, these dogs must have healthy eyes to do their work.
"These dogs do such an incredible service for us," says Pate, a veterinary ophthalmologist who works at Upstate Veterinary Specialists.
"These dogs specifically, more so than just pets, rely on their vision and this way we can find certain diseases early and address them," she adds. "It's important because dogs can't always communicate to us some of the early signs of eye disease."
Since the event began in 2008, according to ACVO, more than 22,000 service animals have gotten free eye exams from more than 250 veterinary ophthalmologists like Pate.
But man's best friend can't read an eye chart and recite the bottom line. So how is it done?
Eye to eye
Most dogs are normal-sighted not near- or far-sighted like many of their human companions, says Pate, so the exam is focused on diseases and conditions that can affect their vision.
"We need to drive and read, but dogs don't use vision that way," she says. "The majority of my job is to evaluate the health of the eye, not so much vision."
The first order of business after their pupils are dilated is checking for normal tear production, corneal defects, and glaucoma conditions that also can afflict people, Pate says.
Then she uses a handheld slitlamp similar to the device humans put their chins on at the eye doctor - to evaluate the eyelids, the inside of the eyes, the cornea and the lens, which is where cataracts develop, she says.
Next, she evaluates the retina and optic nerve, as well as reflexes and responses, which show that the eye and brain are communicating appropriately.
If conditions like cataracts or glaucoma or lumps are discovered, treatments range from medications to surgery, she says.
And if she's suspicious about a dog's vision, or if his owners have noticed problems at home, such as difficulty finding a ball or navigating a room, Pate can use a maze or silent visual tests, such as tossing cotton balls, to determine if they are having trouble seeing.
"Although there are some big correlations between health and vision, true tests of vision require us to ask them questions," she says. "But through other tests, neurological exams, we can see how they respond to various stimuli, and we can usually assess how well they can see. And usually they are able to see quite well."
This year, she says, about 30 service dogs were signed up to get their eyes checked.
Among them was Mr. Pibb, a 2-year-old from "a soda pop litter." He helps pull Kellett to keep him from having to use a power chair and lose muscle tone in his arms, says his mom, Carol Kellett, who called the exam "a very great service."
Hondo, a lean young Belgian malinois handled by Deputy Jim Leathers of the Greenville County Sheriff's Office, is a bit skittish when Pate shines a bright light into his eyes.
"Good boy. Good boy. It's just a funny light," she tells him as he pulls his head back. "We're almost done."
When the exam is completed, Hondo gets his beloved tug toy and some affectionate pats from Leathers, and the strange bright light is forgotten in game of tug of war.
"He tolerated that better than I thought he would because it's such a strange thing," Leathers says, playing with the dog. "All right buddy?"
Hondo is one of several K-9 officers at the clinic for the event to identify and correct any eye issues, the deputy says. He gets the all-clear from Pate as well.
"He's the best partner I ever had," Leathers says. "He never wants to drive the car, he doesn't care what the radio station says, and he's always ready to go to work."
Also getting an eye check is Duke, an unusually tall blood hound rescued from a shelter, according to Master Deputy J.D. Redman.
"My joke is, if we had saddles, we'd give rides," says Redman, scratching the contented hound's floppy ears as Pate conducts her exam. "It doesn't matter the breed, and we don't care about papers. As long as they have the desire, that's what counts."
In his years as a police dog, Duke has tracked many a missing person and suspect with little more than a loving pat and a dog treat as reward, he says.
"I mainly care about his sniffer," Redman says. "But his eyes are important, too."
"Good job," says Pate, as Duke shakes off the exam.
Search and rescue
While many service dogs come from a documented working background and are specific breeds, such as German shepherds and labs, Brand, a fawn-colored Husky-Sharpei mix, was found by the side of the road as a puppy starving and nearly dead, says his owner, Sarah Hey.
Now, sporting the clanging old sleigh bell that lets her keep track of him on missions, he's an experienced search-and-rescue dog who helps law enforcement and other emergency services find missing people.
"He had a live find last year on Mother's Day in the woods at night," she says. "But when he finds a missing person, he will come back and alert on me. My response is show me. And he leads us to the missing person. And he did that night."
This was the 7-year-old's second eye exam. And although he's been pawing at his right eye the brown one, not the blue one Hey was concerned. But after a thorough check, Pate concluded he has allergic conjunctivitis and prescribed over-the-counter human eye drops.
"There are various conditions that can cause intermittent discomfort, a foreign body in there, or the other thing, an allergic conjunctivitis, where it's similar to where we have allergies. And surprisingly, yes, it can only be one eye," she says. "But there are no ulcers or anything. His eye exam is pretty normal."
An appreciative Hey says the exam affords her peace of mind that Brand's eyes are healthy.
"This service for me was huge," she says. "Once you have a dog trained who can do magical things ... you want to have that as long as you can. And I also want to make certain we're not missing something that could be fixed or to make certain he's comfortable in the field and seeing well and doesn't have any underlying problems."
Also on hand for a checkup was Ashton, a 9-year-old Whippet who works as a therapy dog helping children learn to read and visiting patients at Roger C. Peace Rehabilitation Hospital and the cancer center among other duties, says his owner, Kaye Martell, group leader for Upstate Therapy Dogs.
"He gets an annual (check-up) at the vet's office. And he's going to be 10," says Martell, who began working with therapy dogs after realizing their value when her husband was battling brain cancer 15 years ago.
"So I decided it would be nice to know if he had any (eye) issues we needed to address," she says. "This is fabulous."
The former show dog is a bit nervous about his first eye exam, but Pate expertly calms him down.
"Good boy. Good boy," she says, petting his sleek coat. "You did great, buddy."