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Help for dogs with limited or no vision

IF your dog is born blind, losing sight or maybe has limited vision due to disease, genetics or injury, he/she will need a lot of help, support and confidence building.

If your dog’s blindness is something that has come on quickly due to disease or injury it could take months or years for the dog to come to terms with his/her loss of sight. He may be experiencing a new and darkening world, perhaps your dog can see slight movements or no movements at all, perhaps he can see some colours better than others. This dog will need a lot of help and understanding from its owner.

I have written this after experiencing two of my own dogs going blind. My older Labrador retriever Bella started to go deaf around 8-9years old. I then taught her and used sign/body language to communicate with her. However at the age of 10 years old she began to go blind too and could not see my body language very well. I had to think of other ways to help and support her until she died at the age of 12½ years.

My other dog Kiwi began to loose her sight at the age of five years. She had blood tests and saw a specialist. No one knew why she had developed fatty lipids on her eye lenses but for her, suddenly her world is now likened to looking through frosted glass. She can see movements and colours but because this happened so suddenly, she has become very fearful of movements, sounds and new environments. She does not know if doors are open or closed and can sometimes bump into them. She is afraid to jump out of the car because she can not see the ground surface and many more problems continue to develop with her loss of clear vision.

I have had to find ways to help and support my dogs through their loss of sight and have written here my own experiences in helping both my own dogs and other people who must support their dogs through blindness and loss of sight.

  1. If your dog is fearful of strange or different environments it may be that he feels secure in familiarity. Try to walk or exercise him in familiar territory, if possible away from other dogs and people he/she does not know.
  2. You dog may prefer the comforts, familiarity and security of staying at home. If this is the case, give your dog time, it may be that he has not yet come to terms with the lose of vision and may not be ready to venture out into the strange dark world.
  3. When you do start to venture out, try to take it very slowly. Begin with short walks in the same area building up the time and distance of the walk very slowly at the dog's pace. If you see him begin to show signs of getting stressed such as panting, lip licking, trying to turn around to go back, rubbing its body against you, standing still and not wanting to carry on, lagging behind you, whining or barking, then help your dog out by ending the walk and taking him/her back home to where he/she feels safe.
  4. Try to keep your household and garden furniture in the same place, so your dog becomes familiar with where everything is. Make sure all sharp edges or holes in the ground are covered and any children's games or toys are picked up afterwards. Hide or cover any electrical wires your dog may trip on. Keep all low cupboard doors closed so your dog does not walk into them as he /she cannot see them if they are opened.
  5. If your dog is partially sighted he may find it more difficult to see at certain times of day. Dogs see best at dawn and dusk. According to studies, dogs see their world in colours of white, yellow, blue, indigo and violet. When they are partially blind, these colours will be easier to see at dawn and dusk rather than mid-day when day is at its brightest and colours and shapes of white and yellow may blend in and become harder to distinguish.
  6. Do not step or reach over your dog. This can be very frightening for them. They do not know what you are doing and partially sighted dogs may only see a movement going over them which is very threatening. Walk slowly around your dog, talking softly to re-assure him/her. If you are going to stroke your dog, bend at your knees and not the waist. Bending at the waist means you are bending over your dog from above, which is very frightening to dogs, especially with limited sight. Bending at the knees means you are bending down to the dog’s level and most likely turning slightly side-on to your dog. Your dog will feel much more secure if you stoke him/her in this way.
  7. When you stroke your dog, make sure you are stroking in slow, calm, gentle stroking movements. Do not slap the dog on its side. Often we like to slap our dogs on the side as an act of affection towards them but this is very threatening to a dog and may be seen as a punishment rather than our intended affection. Some dogs may even bite if slapped on the side. Most will tolerate it, but it is generally seen by dogs as a threat to them.
  8. If you are using baby gates or dog gates in your home, your partially sighted dog may not see the gate if it blends into a light background. I have found that placing blue tape across the gate helps the dog to distinguish whether the gate is open or closed.
  9. If your dog is blind and cannot see doors at all you may need to use language such as telling your dog if the door is open or closed every time he/she approaches a door. Get used to talking to your dog. Dogs are highly intelligent animals and can grasp language amazingly well. Teach your dog left from right, so you can guide him around an obstacle when needed.
  10. You may find your dog may trip you up a lot as he/she needs the security of leg hugging. This is similar to what cats do when they want affection. Your dog may like to walk with his/her body close to, or touching, your body. He/she may even appear to like wrapping his body around your legs. This can be very dangerous if you are walking fast as you could fall and injure yourself or your dog. Your dog may need the security of touching you. If he is like this (many blind dogs are) then you may need to talk to him more for reassurance and make sure you walk very slowly when your dog is with you.
  11. Your dog will benefit from knowing where you are all the time. Separation my cause anxiety. If you can and if it’s safe to do so, take your dog with you to your regular places. Keep him on lead so he/she does not wander off and get lost. If you have someone who can babysit when you are out, this will also help your dog to feel more secure. If you cannot do either option, give your dog a safe, secure area to rest in that is warm, sheltered, with water, some toys and perhaps something he/she can chew such as a stuffed kong or chewy.
  12. Talk to your dog all the time, tell him/her where you are going and how long you will be. Your dog cannot tell time but they can get familiar with timescales. I am sure he never lets you miss his dinner time!
  13. If your dog needs to go upstairs take time to teach him to count. Tell him/her there are two steps and count them as you go up, 1 and 2 and so on depending how many steps there are. If there are five steps, tell your dog there are five steps, lets go up 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and finish.
  14. The equipment you use on your dog is important. Many dogs come to prefer a soft padded harness. This can give your dog the feeling of being in a secure wraparound or blanket. The centre of your dog’s back is also the centre of balance. If the harness is the correct type for your dog and the leash attachment is at the centre of the dogs back, he/she may feel more balanced and secure being led via the centre of balance rather than the neck which may be a sensitive area for some dogs.
  15. A long leash about two metres long may be the preferred length for your dog. This will give him the opportunity to sniff and explore his/her environment. Your dog will need to sniff and explore, it is a necessary part of his life and more so in blindness as he/she will be developing and using those other senses a lot more.
  16. Remember dogs are born blind and it is two weeks before they open their eyes. In that world they depend on their other senses for everything. They need scent and touch to find their mother and to feed. They depend on touch to keep warm and their senses to find one another in the litter. These are the most important senses to them at this age and continue to be the most important senses as they grow. Letting your dog use those senses through sniffing and exploring is of paramount importance to him.
  17. You dog may have loss of sight but his brain will most likely be just as active as always. So do not stop games. Your dog will still enjoy games. However, the games will no longer be visual games but nose-work games. Your dog will still enjoy games such as hiding treats around your garden or in your house, a kong stuffed with his/her dinner, a treat ball filled with nice treats, some seaweed from the beach to sniff and play with. Old cardboard boxes stuffed with surprises such as soft toys, treats or nice smelly things to sniff. Old shoes or slippers of his own to explore. These are just a few ideas, but be creative and safe and talk to your dog.
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