No eyes? No problem for stage star Sonny

Sonny with kids

Sonny, a 6-year-old rat terrier, was born with glaucoma. His original owners had allowed his eyes to become infected, leading to swelling that put pressure on his brain and caused severe headaches. Suffering and in pain, he was relinquished to the Dumb Friends League, where our veterinarians removed his eyes. Shortly after his surgery three years ago, Sonny was adopted by Karen B., who says he has overcome his disability with flair. “He’s a lively fellow. He acts like a normal dog, including getting into the garbage. He can be a little jerk,” she says fondly. “When we’re out and about, I say ‘Step’ and he tests whether to step up or down by sticking his leg out in a canine version of a white cane.”

This blind boy gets along well with the household’s other dog, a cocker spaniel, and three cats, all of whom are sighted. The dog has learned to “work” Sonny, hiding toys so Sonny can’t find them or stepping to one side when they are playing so he can’t locate her. “I was advised to put baby gates up on the stairs,” says Karen, “but Sonny climbed over them. He maps out rooms, patrolling the perimeter to find out where things are. I was also told not to move things in the house, but my daughter and her 6-year-old moved in with me, and Sonny has to navigate Hot Wheels and toys strewn everywhere. He manages just fine.”

Now Sonny has a chance to showcase his abilities—onstage. Enter Phamaly, a Denver theater company composed entirely of disabled actors, whose latest production is the musical “Annie,” which features a couple of parts for disabled dogs. Karen found out about the acting opportunity through Marissa Martino, the League’s behavior manager. To audition for a part, Sonny had to demonstrate his ability to respond to “Sit” and “Stay” commands. He also wowed his fellow actors with his skill at walking on his hind legs, a move he performs during the show, prompted by the “Up” command and rewarded with a treat. He was selected, not for the lead dog role of Sandy, who is played by a black Lab, but for a smaller role in which Sonny’s “character” accompanies the dog catcher. Although Karen is very proud of her pup’s accomplishment, she says it’s a serious commitment: two months of rehearsals, twice a week for three to five hours.

To see Sonny in action onstage, catch one of the performances at the Space Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. The show runs from July 15 – August 6.