I Can See Clearly Now
Whether your dog was born blind, slowly lost his vision, or abruptly lost his vision through illness or a traumatic event, there are ways to help them function in their surroundings comfortably and without stress. It is likely easier for a dog who was born blind or one who slowly lost vision to become accustomed to his surroundings if the surroundings and scents are familiar to him. If the blindness occurred suddenly, it will likely take a bit longer. Either way, some gentle guidance will help.
One Room At A Time
Help your dog become accustomed to his surroundings one room at a time. Pick a cue word, such as “careful” that you will use each time you approach an obstacle, such as a piece of furniture or a wall. As you approach the couch, for example, say “careful” and gently pat the couch allowing the dog to take his time sniffing and touching it. It is helpful to have a loose leash on your dog while introducing him to each item in the room.
Slowly walk him through the first room, stopping and calmly using the cue that informs him there is an object he should avoid or be aware of. Using the couch as an example, say “careful” and pat the couch at each end, in the front, and behind it. If there is a coffee table in front of it, start with the four corners of the table before moving to the couch. You will need to repeat this exercise several times. The number of repetitions depends entirely upon the dogs age and stress level, length of time he’s been blind, size of the room, etc. Always begin the tour at the same place and go in the same direction. Never force your dog to go to an area by tugging on the leash, if he stops or sits down, allow him to do so and if necessary, simply walk him back to where he feels comfortable. Continue to practice in the first room until you are comfortable taking the leash off. Then, practice a few more times using your cue word every time your dog approaches an object. If he avoids all of the objects while you are standing nearby, next try sitting on the couch while helping him by using the cue word as he makes his way to you. Once is dog is comfortable, you can begin the process with another room. The second and subsequent rooms will be easier for your dog.
It is believed that dogs will use Cognitive Mapping to create in their minds a mental map of the objects around them. All dogs possess this skill whether they are sited or not. A cognitive map will help the animal know what is important to him. This will help him to know what things to avoid, like sharp edges of furniture and walls. Remember to keep chairs tucked under tables and be sure the pathways through each room are free from obstructions. If you move furniture, be sure to point this out to your dog, by repeating the initial walk through with your dog on a loose leash.
Be a Chatter Bug….and Patient
The most important thing you can do for your blind dog is to have patience. It takes time for the dog to learn his way around, and to learn the cue word. The fun part for us humans is that we get to chatter away to our dogs which is always going to help him to know where you are. You will have lots of opportunities throughout each day to practice the cue word that will help your dog make his way to you without bumping into obstacles along his way.
We can help our dogs further by using scents, carpet runners, and/or throw rugs in key locations to aid them in finding a desired place or object more quickly. For example, a throw run that contains a food and water bowl can be scented with a very small amount of lemon extract. You would use only a q-tip dipped once in the extract to dab the corners of the throw run. You would only need to repeat the scenting after the rug has been washed. Another helpful hint would be to place a small fountain near his water bowl, thus using sound as well as scent to help. It is important to employ the use of baby gates or fences around dangerous areas like swimming pools, roads and potentially hot surfaces.
Once your blind dog is used to his surroundings and can find his way around without your aid, then training will be much easier. In fact, training a blind dog is not very different than training a sited dog. You will often use luring as a method. Luring is when you hold a tiny treat very close to your dogs nose and slowly move the treat to guide him. For example, to teach “sit”, you place the treat close to your dogs nose and slowly move it over his head until his bottom touches the floor. Once he is sitting, quickly give the treat and praise. You can use this method for walking on a leash, sitting, lying down, going to place, going to crate, and many other cues. You won’t need to lure to teach your dog to come to you. Start by stepping a few feet away from your dog in a safe, open area. Happily call your dog’s name and clap or make a fast rapid sound with your mouth. As soon as he gets to you, praise enthusiastically while giving him a yummy treat. Blind dogs may be more in need of touch than sited dogs. This is good for us humans because we all love touching and petting our pets! Still, be very careful about hugging your dog – whether sited or not. Our dogs who know us well will often tolerate being hugged, but most do not really enjoy it!