I specialize in training blind dogs in San Diego County, California through my company, Wonder Dog Institute. My own collie, Sam, went blind at two years old from glaucoma, detached retinas, uveitis and collie eye anomaly. From diagnosis to blindness was about two weeks. After the initial devastation, I changed my attitude and told myself it is not the end of the world, he is otherwise healthy and we still have to do all the things we did last week, it just might take longer.” I straightened myself up, taught him a few different commands, and after a few months, my collie was a happy, well-adjusted, still sweet, mellow dog.
More people should know that blindness is not a heavy burden, just an adjustment. A blind dog is completely adoptable. More trainers should take on this challenge instead of letting the dog waste away in a shelter and never get adopted, or be euthanized. This information will help an owner, but more importantly, may help get a shelter dog adopted.
I have compiled this list of helpful tips for dealing with devastated owners of recently blind dogs. Adapt a special needs mindset which anyone dealing with any handicap can follow. Keep in mind this list is for dogs whose only or largest problem is that they have become blind. Special considerations should be made for dogs dealing with other limitations (physical, mental or medical). A dog born blind should be treated like any other puppy, obedience and structure first, tailoring that same training to incorporate a few more audible commands. Use regular obedience techniques for dogs that are hyper, barking, pulling or aggressive.
Tips for blind dog owners, trainers or shelter volunteers who interact with blind dogs:
1. Acknowledge the Funk: Changes require an adjustment and grieving period. Dogs that have gone blind will go through a depressed period, in which they show a lack of energy and unwillingness to appear enthusiastic about anything. Assuming they are pain free and have a clean bill of health let them have their funk for a little while. The owner may exhibit an even deeper sadness. Let them have their time to adjust too. Be sympathetic and listen. Set realistic expectations with owners that they might only get 80% of their dog back, but the quiet, sad dog they have now, is likely just temporary. My clients typically report a more zesty dog within 3-5 months. Let them have their mope time. We all need our mope time. Be patient.
2. Keep The Same Routine: Why shouldn’t you continue to bring your dog in the car for coffee, post office, to the dog park, out for a long walk, or a pet festival street faire? During their funk period, let them sit in the car quietly, windows open, to feel the breeze and smell the wafting aromas. Take them to their familiar dog park during quiet hours. Don’t prolong the funk by letting him fall out of practice with normal activities like getting in and out of the car, behaving in public and socializing with other dogs. Surround him with dogs that are wiggly, playful and friendly. Surround a blind dog with only good vibes. You do not want to inadvertently create a fear-aggressive dog by giving a nervous blind dog negative encounters. Be not the owner who holes their handicapped dog in the house – Be the owner who parades their special needs pooch proudly in public. Buy a sweatshirt that proudly states “Seeing Eye Person – My dog is the blind one”. Available online at www.BlindDogTrainer.com. It is quite the icebreaker as most people are quite amused and will ask questions.
3. Increase Your Vigilance: Teach owners about the body language of other dogs so they can be watchful on their dog’s behalf. Steer the blind dog away from pushy, intense, growling dogs that tend to pick on smaller dogs or wrestle roughly. Encourage interaction with the ones that frolic sweetly, or play chase.
4. No More Rescuing: Refrain from picking up a small blind dog to relocate it past a flight of stairs, curbs, or other obstacles. A dog that has gone blind in familiar surroundings has a layout mapped in their head, and probably has a good idea of where they are in those surroundings. If an owner continues to pick up and put down a dog after some distance, the dog has to re-map where they are, often with difficulty. Have patience, use soothing low tones, encouraging touches, or connect them to you via the leash. Do not pull them around; just guide them slowly on a loose leash. Encourage Independence. Their confidence will gradually increase as they continue to realize they are still capable of locate things on their own. Please refrain from rearranging furniture, or relocating the dog’s food and water bowls. The dog will likely be best at mapping the house by using food and beds as central locating points. Be even more patient with a dog that is in unfamiliar surroundings, or in a shelter – a very unwelcoming, intense, echoing, loud
and stressful environment.
5. Encourage Self-Discovery: Encourage them to investigate with their nose to solve a problem. Drop handfuls of kibble on the floor and tap your finger on the ground to call the dog over to them so they get used to scouring a larger area. Move on to following the tap to signal to them to look for something. Don’t bring the food to them, let them find the food. This tap on the ground, with either your fingernail or shoe, becomes your signal to keep looking or “I want to show you something, come here!” This tap can also be done as a snapping of the fingers, and can be used as the luring command during obedience training classes.
6. New Commands – Step, Up and Wait: “Step” is any step or motion of a drop off, a change in elevation downward. “Up” is, of course, any upward change in elevation. “Wait/woah/hoah/stay/stop” are all “stop what you’re doing” commands. Choose one that means stop and teach it as you would teach “stay” and add tactile cue, like a flat handed pause to the chest, or a prolonged deliberate touch of their nose with your flat hand. Refrain from choosing two-word phrases as commands – like “Step Up” or “Step Down” Step Down might get confusing because “down” is already the “lie down” command, and saying “step” associated with two different actions is too repetitive..
Figure 1 – Drops his nose
Figure 2 – Reaches with paw to find step
Figure 3 – Reaches next step, head low, ready for next stair.
Start with the new “Up” command. Place the dog on a leash so you can control their speed since you want to encourage the deliberate slow movements and instill caution. Position dog on the lower part of a stair or curb they are familiar with. Place the treat on the higher part of the curb. As they follow the treat and your tapping, they will step onto the curb or stair. Say “Up!… Good boy!” Once their whole body is up there, place a treat on the bottom where they just were. Tap the ground, scratch the carpet, say “Step…” and encourage the dropping of the nose to let them feel that the platform is ending. They know spatially, they aren’t that far up from where they just were. Dog wants to get to treat, then cautiously steps off to get the treat. As the dog is problem solving on their own, repeat “Step… Step… Step…” Praise generously when dog is back on bottom step by themselves. Repeat the same process in the other direction, for “Up… Up… Up…” Repeat these initial sessions in the same location so the dog associates the new word with familiar motions. Then move to a new location and start over. Generalize these new commands during walks, at other houses, pet stores, parks… anywhere and everywhere and eventually wean them off the leash.
7. Teaching the Staircase: “Up” is easier to start with (for their spatial recognition). Position a food bowl (much larger odor than one morsel, and if you do it at mealtimes, you have their undivided attention) about two steps off the bottom. Encourage dog to find the food bowl. As dog goes up the 2 stairs – use the “Up” command (with an upward intonation with your voice). When all paws are on the stair where you put the food, give them a bite, then lower the food to the bottom. The dog knows, via spatial recognition, there are two steps to go down. He will slowly find the bottom. With each paw on a lower step, say “Step, Step” Repeat this with bowl on the same two stairs. Increase to third step, then return to bottom, repeat twice. Once the dog is familiar with this “chase the food” game, and once you’ve progressed to the fifth or sixth step, you can bring food all the way to the top of the staircase – at which point they might lose the scent so encourage with the new “Up” command. Say one “Up” for every stair they must climb. When at the top, praise praise praise! Then immediately turn around for heading down the stairs before they can forget how high up they are. Keep the flow. Say one “step” for each stair.
Disclaimer about staircases: Stairs which have no “backs,” may sound, feel or smell like empty space. When my collie hesitates at these staircases, I know he prefers that I am touching him with my hand in some way. I apply no pressure, not even a collar grip – but simply an emotional and tactile reassurance that I am there to assist, he isn’t alone. He does it all by himself (he is a large 85 pounds, I physically cannot make him do anything) but he does sometimes want emotional support. I am happy to oblige. In general, my dog does most activities faster when he is on the leash. Feeling connected to me in some way gives him instant confidence and he has less to worry about. He also becomes distracted by smells, so we make more forward progress when I can tap the leash and get him moving again.
8. Let Them Bump… Gently: As long as the dog isn’t around sharp objects, (because you have instructed the owner to babyproof the house of such things at his eye level), I tell my clients to be ok with their dog bumping into things now and then. This teaches them to slow down and be more deliberate with their movement. It also teaches them that the “woah” or “this way” you are telling them (from afar, because you are now his life narrator, guiding him verbally) is a warning that something is in front of them. My blind collie is great off leash – I can guide him, with my voice, away from something he might bump into. If I say “hooo” or “this way” (my version of “come toward me”), he knows to change his direction slightly. The consistency you have with your commands will help communicate to your dog that you are there to help him and guide him, even off leash. A sterner “Sammy, Whoa!” stops him faster than normal tone; although admittedly he is never going fast enough to ever injure himself seriously. But we must still be watchful and more vigilant on their behalf. It is a great responsibility and joy being a Seeing Eye Person.
9. Practice at Night with the Lights Off: If you have the luxury of having advanced notice of the blindness, you can set up and practice blindness at night in the dark. Practice the step/up commands by candlelight or flashlight. Simulating total blindness will give everyone more practice on the teamwork involved with a Seeing Eye Person and blind dog.
Adopting a special needs mindset is essential for a trainer to pass on to the owner. An owner who over-coddles, rescues, and constantly looks at their dog with pity and sadness, needs to be enlightened on all the things the dog can still do. The dog is still alive, capable of living a very happy life. The dog won’t miss a beautiful sunset or your nice new blouse, but he will miss having activity and fun in his life. Don’t pity the dog – transition and train him all over again. Play new games! Find toys that make noise on their own even when they’ve stopped moving – stuffed toys with an activated sound box inside. Harley Davidson actually sells the perfect toy, a plush bone-shaped toy with a sound bite which, when activated, sounds like a motorcycle engine.
The way blind dogs play will change too. They may want to be touched more, to feel a connection to someone. Tug-of-war, chase-me-on-the-leash, tag (follow me), fetch (with noise activated toys). Adapt to new changes of playing, don’t stop playing altogether because the old games don’t work anymore. Sometimes I run and clap my hands at the same time, or slap my legs to always be creating a noise my dog can follow quickly when he wants to chase me.
Be realistic with the owners that their dog may never be the same dog, but this special needs mindset, in being helpful to the dog instead of enabling the depression, will help the owners regain most of their dog by adjusting to the changes.
There is no structured time line on when the dog will regain full confidence but it will directly correlate with how confident the owner is with their dedication to keeping the dog as functional as before. Owners must have the same expectations for their dog, blind or not.
Gillian Young has been specializing in blind dogs and recently branched out to assist with deaf dogs, focusing on acclimating the owners and household to the dog’s new or changing condition. Gillian received her Bachelors degree in New York, and is an,overnight pet sitter for the San Diego area. She is a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) and Pet Sitters International (PSI). She is also an ABC Certified Dog Trainer.
For more information, contact Special Needs Dog Trainer Gillian Young at www.BlindDogTrainer.com. Gillian trains throughout San Diego County in southern California. She can be reached via email at WonderDogInstitute@yahoo.com.
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