When faced with the task of helping your blind dog adapt to his or her vision loss, you will likely feel overwhelmed and possibly helpless. This is a normal feeling, but rest assured, your dog has likely already started to adapt utilizing his or her other senses. As humans, we are very dependent on our vision for everyday activities. Of course dogs also depend on vision, but their other senses (especially sense of smell and hearing) are thousands of times better than ours. By exploiting these other senses, your dog can adapt and have a great quality of life. Remember different things work for different people and different dogs. You may need to try several different techniques to find what works best for you and your dog.
The first step is making sure that your dog is and feels safe. The easiest way to do this is by keeping the environment stable (ie don't move the furniture, make sure to pick up shoes/toys/etc from common pathways). To help navigate around the house, changing the texture of the floors can be helpful. For instance, if you have tile or hardwood floors, placing rug runners throughout the house can serve as new pathways to help guide your dog. They will feel the rug under them and know that they are safe and are not going to bump into anything.
If they are having difficulty and bumping into things, you can try spraying those areas (eg chair/table legs) with scented solutions. Most dogs do not like citrus and therefore using lemon juice or a scented cleaner (such as lemon pledge) may be helpful. Most dogs will associate the citrus smell with that they are going to "bump" and will learn to stop or go in another direction. Of course whatever you decide to use as a scent, please make sure it is safe for use with your dog and your furniture.
Stairs can be quite scary, especially going down stairs. Using a baby gate will help prevent an accident. Many dogs overtime will learn to go up and down stairs again, but caution is recommended. To help identify where the stairs are, using a scent marker is useful. Air freshners of different scents (one for top, different for the bottom) can be used. When teaching your dog to use the stairs, a harness helps with safety. By holding onto the harness you can prevent them from falling down the stairs, and by pulling up on it at certain times you can teach them to climb the stairs.
Dogs have a vocabulary of 50-100 words and understand much more than most people think. By being consistent and having all family members use the same words to mean the same thing, most dogs can do extremely well with verbal cues. For instance, with the stairs, everytime your dog comes to a step you say "up" they will learn, that "up" means go up one stair. If they are going to bump into an object, you can say "wait" or "stop".
Some dogs become hesitant to go outside or go for walks after losing their vision. This is likely due to some disorientation and the lack of familiarity with that environment. If you take them for a walk, walk the same route every time. They will learn the smells along the walk and be more comfortable. If possible, walking them in a field or in the middle of the street so that there are no obstacles that they will bump into is ideal. For big dogs, a harness is very helpful. A harness can be used similar to reigns on a horse. Pulling to the left or right and saying "left" or "right" will help guide them. A harness is preferred to a collar as the collar moves the dog's neck while the harness will guide the whole body.
If you have a fenced in backyard, this is a great safe area for them to enjoy the outdoors. Most dogs will figure out or already know where the fence line is. If not, they may mark it themselves (with urine). To help, you can spray the boundaries of the property/fence line with deer-off. They will smell the "line" and know where the fence is. Think of the deer-off as an invisible fence but instead of white flags and a shock collar, it's just a smell, their nose, and no shock. To help guide them back to the house, placing a citronella candle on the back porch and scraping it with a key once weekly is all you need.
Many owners feel that their blind dog will no longer play or can't play. Well they definitely can play, we just need to help them learn new games. Tug is always great as it crequires no vision at all. How about fetch? Inside, play on a hardwood floor with a hard rubber ball with a hole in it. Place some peanut butter (or other treat) inside the ball. As you throw the ball (just a few feet at first), your dog will feel the vibrations in the floor and know which direction the ball went. Once they get closer, they will smell the peanut butter and bring the ball back. Outside, play on a level area with no obstacles. Instead of a hard rubber ball, try using a tennis ball that has been boiled in water with a beef bouillon cube and dried. At first roll the ball just a few feet away and over time, you will be able to throw it farther and farther. Always roll or throw the ball in the same direction.
Finally, many people ask if they should get another dog. While it is common for the other dog in the household to act as a seeing eye dog for the blind dog, this is not always the case. Sometimes, a new dog will abuse the blind dog and therefore if you are ready for a new dog in the family, a trial first to make sure they get along is recommended.
This is only a handful of hints and your dog will teach you many more as you go. Some of these hints may work great, others not at all. Let them teach you how to adapt, as you likely have more adapting to do than they do.
Dr. Brad Holmberg
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