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Shaune Gilliland
Nikki, a blind Rat Terrier, was “rocking it” with the Scent Work boxes. Handler Martha Wixom, however, called an alert before Nikki was ready. On the second challenge, Buried Hides, Wixom slowed down, followed Nikki’s lead and identified the correct scent location. She earned a Q for that effort and recorded the third fastest time in class.

It was love at first sight for Martha Wixom, of Birmingham, Alabama. It wasn’t quite the same for Nikki, a 9-month-old Rat Terrier suffering from detached retinas and glaucoma in both eyes. The retinas were beyond repair and there was no cure for glaucoma, just management.

“I’m sure she was having trouble seeing me,” says Wixom, a multiple breeds dog owner for more than half a century.

Nikki was abandoned at the office of Wixom’s veterinarian, Dr. Debbie Darche, of Leeds, Alabama about five years ago. “They reached out to me and I came in immediately to take a look at her. She needed a home and I knew she would fit right in with the Rat Pack.”

Losing Both Eyes

Wixom attempted to manage the pressure in both eyes with drops but after several months the first eye had to be removed. Approximately six months later, the second was excised. The discomfort Nikki was experiencing was explained to Wixom by veterinarians, as similar to having a migraine – with pain multiplying as the pressure in the eye intensified.

Any regrets relating to the surgeries? “I wish we had done it sooner and had both eyes done at the same time,” Wixom replies. “Nikki has always been fairly confident but she began to really blossom once the pain was gone.”

The active Wixom was then challenged as to what discipline to pursue with this 5-to-6-year-old, 10-pound, blind character? Dog sports? Walks? Canine Good Citizen testing? Therapy Dog certification?

Finding Scent Work

In spring 2018, Wixom was introduced by her niece to Scent Work, which was somewhat new in the area. The next stop was meeting Cindy Roberts, who, along with others, started training classes in Hoover, Alabama. She evaluated Nikki in a trial class and the two have been moving forward since.

The Beginning Scent Work class, where the participants initiate their hunt drive by learning to search for their treats or toys in open boxes, met for 1½ hours weekly for six weeks. “At first I was not certain how Nikki would handle learning where the boxes were positioned and I wondered if she stepped on the side of a box causing it to flip, if she would be startled,” says Roberts.

“Quickly I discovered that I did not need to worry. Nikki has a high-stepping gait that tests the area of her next step to be sure she is not walking into a solid object or meeting an obstacle she needs to negotiate.”

Roberts observed a tight trust between Wixom and Nikki, hence there was only an abbreviated early adjustment phase when Nikki launched into a search mode.

The trainer recalls, “The first time she lifted her head to catch the odor of her treats we all waited to see how she would respond to the treat resting inside a mailer box. She high-stepped her way toward the box, making certain the floor was clear. Upon reaching the box, she dipped her head into it and sniffed the exact location of the treat. Then she brought her head out of the box and sniffed about to find more treats nearby.”

Nikki and her pal, Bo (short for Bocephus) spend an afternoon picking beans. Despite being blind, Nikki loves to explore new areas and has no fear of going into the unknown, with or without a sidekick.

Exceeding Expectations

Nikki hunts purely by scent, explains Roberts. Missing the visual picture of the search area, she is not distracted from her pattern by the appearance of a stray box. She tracks the true path of the odor. “Tilting her head to catch the odor as it wafts by, she follows the eddies, the swirling pattern of the odor in the room. She maps out how the odor plume dissipates in the room and helps all of us in the class become better students of odor and scent movement.”

Nikki has maintained pace with others in her class. “She is even slightly more advanced than some classmates,” adds Roberts. In fact, several handlers in class did not realize she was blind until late in her first class. Now the class is all smiles when Nikki works.”

Nikki’s first Scent Work trial resulted in a Q in buried for a third-place score. Wixom and Nikki’s container venture didn’t work out as well. “I called the hide too soon,” explains the owner, “so no score. This is a learning experience for both of us.”

A Bond Beyond Sight

A dervish of energy and ambition, Nikki’s prowess isn’t limited to the Scent arena. She has earned Canine Good Citizen and Trick Dog Novice titles and with that recent Q, she is listed as an AKC Achiever Dog.

For Wixom, who owns six Rat Terriers, it was a segue, from Great Danes to the energetic terriers, one of less than two dozen breeds of American origin.

Has Wixom been amazed by Nikki’s extraordinary Scent Work progress?

“I have never owned a blind dog,” she replies. “The biggest surprise is how able she is. Stairs, new environments, new challenges are all in a day’s experience for her. She has no fear of moving around and taking on new things. She seems to know where she is at and what needs to be done to stay safe.”

The bond between Wixom and Nikki is crisp, colorful and emotionally rich. “We are very attached and when I am in a room that is where she wants to be. But as long as she cannot smell or hear me, she is perfectly content to be a dog with the rest of the pack.”

Do any of the other five Rat Terriers assume a Guide Dog role for Nikki? “No,” laughs the owner, “she is often at the front of the line. She is one confident character.”