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Three years ago, my now 17-year-old retired service dog Mercury started going blind. Even though I had worked with dogs for 20 years before he started losing his vision, I didn’t know much about working with a blind dog. Naively, I thought his blindness would dramatically change his life.
It turns out, I had a much harder time than he did adjusting to his blindness. Initially, it was hard for me to realize that this dog who had saved my life wasn’t able to see me anymore. But, once I stopped feeling sorry for him (and myself), I was able to recognize that he wasn’t struggling or afraid. Watching my blind dog continue to love life, train, earn AKC Trick Dog titles, go hiking, and surf — all while not being able to see — has inspired me to teach others not to shortchange blind dogs of any age.
What Causes Blindness in Dogs?
Canine blindness and loss of vision can be caused by a variety of conditions. Sometimes blindness is a natural result of conditions associated with old age. For other dogs, it comes on quickly when they are quite young. Common blindness-causing conditions include canine cataracts and canine glaucoma, as well as Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome, or SARDS. As the name implies, dogs with SARDS lose their vision quickly instead of it slowly deteriorating over time.
If your dog begins bumping into things or seems disoriented and you suspect they’re losing vision, make an appointment with your veterinarian right away. In addition to diagnosing your dog’s vision issues, the vet may refer you to a canine ophthalmology specialist.
Safety First for Blind Dogs
For a blind dog, maintaining routines as much as possible can help them adjust. Keep your furniture in the same spots. This makes it easier for your dog to navigate your home. If you redecorate, or when you bring your dog to a new place, take them carefully around the area to show them any obstacles. Because your dog can’t see, make sure that any potential dangers (such as swimming pools or staircases) are blocked off with fences or dog gates to prevent falls.
If you find your dog bumping into things frequently, talk with your vet or canine ophthalmology specialist. They may recommend a dog bumper that can help protect your dog’s face as they walk around.
Many blind dogs are able to happily return to activities they enjoyed before losing vision. So, where possible, don’t stop engaging in activities that your dog has always loved. However, make sure to always keep blind dogs on leash so you can prevent them from walking into things or getting hurt.
It’s also essential to inform people who interact with your dog — such as groomers and dog walkers — about your dog’s condition. Most people who see my dog Mercury have no idea that he’s blind, but I still like to advise anyone who approaches us so that they don’t startle him. You can also purchase leash and collar wraps that say “blind dog” to communicate to others that your dog is visually impaired.
Playing With a Blind Dog
Just because a dog can’t see doesn’t mean they don’t want to play! Play is an important part of life for dogs, and loss of sight doesn’t mean that playing days are done. When playing, blind dogs utilize their other senses to compensate for a lack of sight. So, opt for dog toys that squeak, rattle, and make noise when they move, so that your dog will be able to find them.
Training a Blind Dog
Even for experienced owners, it can be shocking to see how well most dogs adjust to going blind. Blindness doesn’t mean you have to change training routines with your dog. It just may require some shifts in how you cue certain behaviors. Obviously, your blind dog will not be able to respond to visual signals. However, verbal cues work well to help blind dogs maintain existing skills and learn new ones.
Luring your dog with training treats and then incorporating physical cues can work well with blind dogs. For example, try a shoulder touch to cue a sit or a back touch to cue a down. Keeping up regular physical and mental exercise with blind dogs is important. Training continues to build self-confidence, as well, which is particularly important for dogs with impaired vision.
Blind Dogs and Dog Sports
The sport of AKC Scent Work is an ideal outlet for blind dogs because they’re relying on their sense of smell to search for odor. Scent Work can build confidence for blind dogs and be an excellent way to channel energy. Other dog sports blind dogs can participate in include the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program, AKC Trick Dog competitions, or therapy dog work.
While discovering that your dog has become blind might be overwhelming or even devastating for owners at first, it’s important to recognize that blindness isn’t a death sentence. Dogs who go blind can and do continue to go on to live enriched lives. They just need a little extra help from us to keep them safe.