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A teenage boy lays with his Buddy Dog, a golden retriever. The boy is embracing the dog and their heads are touching.

Puppy Tales: Meet Zach & Elsie

By Devin Sturge, Marketing & Communications Specialist, CNIB Foundation

With schools closed due to COVID-19, children and youth across the country are finding themselves struggling with boredom. Calgary’s Zach Abdalla is no exception, though he’s finding comfort in a special companion, his CNIB Buddy Dog, Elsie. 

Thirteen-year-old Zach was already prepared to spend time away from school this spring, after undergoing Baerveldt implant surgery on March 13. After a long and complicated journey with sight loss, this was his 19th eye surgery – his first one being at four months old. The surgery saved some of his remaining vision in his right eye.

“The day I had surgery, Elsie chose to stay by my side and we’ve had many snuggles, which has helped tremendously during my recovery,” says Zach. “She is such a good dog and my best buddy.”

Zach and his Golden Retriever have been partnered since August 2019. As a Buddy Dog, Elsie’s role is to provide Zach with an opportunity to care for a dog and make it easier to transition into a guide dog partnership in the future. As they develop a strong bond, Zach spends his time feeding, grooming and walking Elsie – and the pair often make time for cuddles and playtime.

With his surgery taking place only weeks before the world entered a global pandemic, Zach has had more time to rest and recover than originally thought. Elsie has been his faithful sidekick throughout physically distancing, as well. 

Already an active and involved teen, Zach is remaining busy. When he's not doing schoolwork, he enjoys playing video games, listening to audiobooks and talking with friends online – all with his constant shadow, Elsie, nearby. He’s also involved in a number of CNIB Foundation programs. 

Zach joined CNIB’s Youth Hangout program, which is now being offered virtually through Zoom. These sessions are intended to help keep youth connected at a time when they're physically distancing. The teens play games, share their experiences with sight loss, and discuss things they love doing when they're at home.

Zach has been participating in CNIB’s Youth Tech Club since last summer, a program where young Calgarians learn about a variety of accessible technology and practice using it. Recently, each participant was tasked with presenting a piece of adaptive technology they use through Zoom, an online platform. Zach presented his ScripTalk Station Prescription Reader – a device that audibly reads prescription labels for individuals with sight loss.

“Zach is so involved in the sight loss community here in Calgary, so it's important to have these programs available virtually to ensure he remains connected,” say Zach’s parents, Chris and Kevin. “Through CNIB programming, he is able to continue to connect with his peers and role models and supports during what could be an isolating time.”

With the exception of eating and going outside, Elsie didn’t leave Zach's side while he recovered from surgery. 

“We weren't really sure who was comforting whom more,” says Zach’s mom, Chris. “At one point, his eye was itchy, so I asked if he wanted something to squeeze to distract him and he said ‘No, I'm good – I've got my dog.’"