Older and Wiser: Tips for Living with a Blind Dog

Most of us don’t like to think about our dogs getting older and the heartbreak which will inevitably follow. It’s easy to be in denial about a dog aging and cling to the idea that they will live forever and attempt to ignore the signs of aging. It’s also common to put stiffness, slowness and disinterest down to your dog being old and leave it at that. While it is sadly impossible to turn back the clock for your dog, by accepting that he is getting older you put yourself in a position to make changes that will make his last years as fulfilling as possible.

Age brings new difficulties and problems for dogs and owners; in these posts I will look at ways to alleviate the problems and help your dog get the most out of their golden years.

What to Do if your Dog is Going Blind

If you know your dog is going blind there are things you can do now to help him or her adjust:

03092012_Damien_speech_bubblesTrain Verbal Cues

You might think your dog knows verbal cues, after all we all teach our dogs ‘sit’ ‘stay’ and so on. But would your dog respond if he couldn’t see you? Often people train their dogs with hand signals as well as verbal cues as dogs tend to respond to these more readily. Even if you have not taught hand signals, dogs still pick up on our body language, position, facial expression and context as well as verbal cues when working out what we want them to do. If your dog is going blind he is going to lose all these visual cues so the sooner you can teach him to respond to verbal cues the better.

To retrain your dog using verbal cues simply insert a verbal command before you use the gesture or hand signal which he already knows. Try to use verbal commands which sound very distinct and alter the tone you use for each command as dogs respond well to tone of voice. Each time you ask your dog to ‘sit’ for example, give the verbal command with as little body language as you can manage, followed directly by the hand signal and a treat when he obeys.

The dog will come to learn that the sound ‘sit’ is always followed by the hand signal and will start to sit when he hears the cue. Gradually lengthen the time between the cue and the hand signal until your dog is reliably sitting after the verbal cue. At this point you can begin to phase out the signal.

Train New Commands

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It will quickly become apparent that you can teach your dog commands to help him cope with not being able to see. ‘Stop’is important if your dog is about to get into a dangerous situation, as is a ‘down stay’ from a distance if he can achieve it. ‘Up’ and ‘down’ for steps are also very useful. The onset of blindness is also a good time to brush up on leadwalking; trying to ‘steer’ a blind dog through a busy street is not easy and if he is responsive on the lead it will be ten times easier! It might be a good idea to start using a harness, which will give you more control: you can even get harnesses that let other people know your dog is blind. If you are going to let your blind dog off the lead it should be in a safe place and he must have cast-iron recall (unless he’s so slow you can easily catch  him). Remember he doesn’t know what’s in front of him, and it could be a river, electric fence or a busy road.

Keep his Environment Familiar

Blind dogs adapt surprisingly well to their surroundings and acquire a mental ‘map’ of places and routes they know well. Having said that, if your dog is already familiar with the layout of your home, changing it frequently will be stressful for him, so try to keep redecorating and new room layouts to a minimum.

Help him Navigate

plan_revised_111710Think about investing in stairgates if you dog is no longer confident navigating the stairs. You can also consider dabbing scents such as essential oils in different parts of your house such as steps, doorways and top and bottom steps of thestaircase, or use these specially designed scented stickers. (Ever since BlindDog wandered into our neighbour’s house one summer, we keep a potted herb by our door so she knows which house is hers.) You could also use plants in front of obstacles in the house and garden so the dog brushes the plants before he hits the obstacle. Putting down woodchippings would work well to indicate outdoor obstacles (trees, washing lines etc) and rugs or carpet tiles for indoor obstacles: the dog feels a different texture underfoot and learns to change direction.

Finally, try to be consistent about which doors are kept open or shut and try not to leave things lying around. It’s not fun for your dog to be constantly tripping over and walking into things (although I can’t promise never to have laughed. Sorry!)

Communicate through Sound

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Your dog is going to have to learn to navigate and communicate through sound, and you are going to have to learn not tobe embarrassed by this in public! You can train your dog to come to you or follow you by either clicking your tongue or fingers as in this video. This is also a good way to alert you dog to your presence, or to wake him up so you don’t startle him. It could also be a good idea to attach bells to other pets, small children and even yourself so your dog knows when they’re nearby.

Your dog is relying entirely on sound and smell to locate you, so using loud distinct sounds will be useful over longer distances. Try clapping to get your dog to come to you, or train him to a dog whistle. Incidently, clicker training also works well with blind dogs as they respond to the clear sound and it helps them know exactly when they’ve done the right thing.

Finally, it is important to remember that a blind dog has lost a secondary, not a primary sense and with a few adjustments and a little practice, most blind dogs can live full and happy lives.

Check back soon for more posts with advice on living with elderly dogs.

Best Toys for Blind Dogs: Scented Toys

In my last post I looked at toys which are great for blind dogs because they use sounds which help blind dogs follow and interact with them. Another way of helping your dog locate its toys is to use toys that have a strong smell.

1031 Old Soul Orbee GroupThere are some great scented toys on the market, such as the durable range of rubber toys by Planet Dog which are mint scented. The Orbee Tough for senior dogs is particularly good, it’s high contrast colours make it easier for partially sighted dogs to spot it and there is a place to put treats, peanut butter cream or cheese  for added interest. It’s also worth checking our the eco friendly range of vanilla scented dog toys by BecoThings.

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You can scent your dogs toys in different ways. For soft toys like plush toys or rope toys, try adding a small amount of scented extract,such as vanilla or mint to the toy. You could even add a different scent to each toy and train your dog to identify them by name.

For hard toys and squeaky toys try placing the toys in a zip-lock bag with strong smelling food such as a pig’s ear or dried liver, for several days so they absorb the smell. You can also try soaking solid toys in meat stock for a few hours. The scent will eventually wear off so you will need to refresh it every so often.

BristleBoneFinally, any toy which you can use with food will smell so enticing that any dog will want to interact with it! You could try the iconic Kong, or one of the great products from BusyBuddy which you can combine with edible chew treats.

Using these methods, there’s no reason your blind dog can’t enjoy almost all the same toys as a sighted dog. You can help your dog rediscover tug toys, chew toys and plush toys again, by following the tips above and spending time encouraging him to play again.

Product Review: Training Treat Ball by Good Boy

Treat BallThis was the first interactive toy we tried with BlindDog and overall I think it was £5 very well spent. The basic concept doesn’t require much explanation: the ball is hollow, with a opening in it and when you fill it with treats or dog food, the dog has to roll it around to get them out. The main benefit of this particular treat ball is that you can adjust the size of the opening to vary the difficulty or so you can use different sizes of treats or kibble.

The ball looks quite big next to BlindDog (It’s 12cm tall) but that doesn’t stop her at all, and I think it would be suitable for all but the very biggest and tiniest dogs.

The treat ball doesn’t come apart, but the adjustable opening makes it relatively easy to fill with kibble compared to treat balls with one small hole.  Filling with BlindDog’s ration of 1/3 cup of kibble is very quick and while it would easily hold a lot more food it would take a little longer.  I try and feed at least one of BlindDog’s meals from a puzzle toy every day so from that point of view the toy is perfect.

The best aspect of the training treat ball is it’s entertainment value.  BlindDog loves playing with it and will keep coming back to it after the treats are gone (hoping it’s refilled!?). In terms of physical exercise, she will chase after it all round the house, and I think it must be great for improving her dexterity and what I can only describe as paw-nose coordination!

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