Over time, a dog’s eyesight might begin to wean or they can lose partial vision due to a health problem or accident. Although these dogs can have some challenges getting around at first most dogs adjust quite well to a decrease in vision. Just like any other dog, blind or visually impaired dogs benefit from training and enrichment activities. Dog sports are a fantastic way to spend quality time with your dog, build their confidence, and have a lot of fun together.
There are plenty of sports you and your dog may be able to compete in, regardless of their level of vision.
Are Visually Impaired Dogs Allowed To Compete in AKC Dog Sports?
What sports are safe and appropriate for your dog will be determined by your dog’s level of vision. In general, in dog sports blindness is defined as without useful vision. Visually impaired dogs who have one eye or otherwise compromised vision can compete so long as it is safe for them to do so. There are even sports that dogs who are completely blind can safely excel at.
- Agility – Visually impaired dogs
- Barn Hunt – Blind and visually impaired dogs
- Diving Dogs – Blind and visually impaired dogs
- Fast CAT – Visually impaired dogs
- Rally – Visually impaired dogs
- Scent Work – Blind and visually impaired dogs
- Trick Dog – Blind and visually impaired dogs
- Obedience – Visually impaired dogs
Assessing Vision Before You Start
When considering what sports are right for your visually impaired dog it’s important for your dog to have a comprehensive exam with their veteran. According to AKC Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Jerry Klein, your veterinarian will assess your individual dog’s medical record and do an exam. They also may perform certain diagnostics to help evaluate your dog’s current health status, which will ensure they won’t be harmed by sports, as well as guide you to the best way to achieve your goals.
It’s also useful to understand what level of vision your dog has. Dogs with only one eye or partial vision loss can adjust well and safely participate in sports. However, the reason behind a dog’s vision loss is important for determining their future with sports. “One has to consider why the dog’s one eye was removed: trauma versus health issues such as glaucoma or other condition,” Dr. Klein says. “Some conditions can eventually become bilateral, so it is a good idea to have the singular working eye assessed, possibly by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist to make sure the working eye is healthy and functioning properly.”
A veterinary ophthalmologist will be able to provide you with information about your dog’s specific vision loss and help you assess what sports are safe and appropriate for your dog to pursue.
Building Up Confidence
To build your blind or visually impaired dog’s confidence, it’s a good idea to start adding enrichment to their routine. Denise Welk competes in a variety of sports with her deaf dogs, and she and her husband also have a blind and deaf Border Collie Australian Shepherd mix named Roxy who competes in Scent Work. To help Roxy, the family avoids moving things around at home so that the house and yard can be her safe space.
“We do work with her to be okay with tripping and running into things, but we want her home and her yard to be her safe zone, where she knows where her crate, water dish, sofa, bed, etc. will be at all times.” This approach can help blind dogs gain confidence in navigating their environment.
When outside the home, Welk says she and her husband try to remain cognizant when they take her places to warn her about curbs, trees, and other things that she could run into. Because she can’t see or hear, there are limited sports Roxy can safely participate in, one thing she can do, and loves is Scent Work.
“We use touch cues with her,” she says. “For Scent Work, she has a special harness and special treats that are only used for practice and trials. That helps her to understand what she is going to be doing.”
Mary Drexler and her Samoyed named Hex, who has one eye due to glaucoma, actively compete in Obedience, Rally, Agility, and Conformation. When Hex lost an eye Drexler adjusted her handling for the different sports. “In Obedience, I changed to a leftward turn and sit on the articles and began pivoting left in all three gloves to help her stay with me better. Right turns and pivots are tougher for her.”
She noted that with Rally she needs to talk to Hex a little more while they are on the course. Drexler has noticed Hex uses their eye contact now to place herself with heeling, so she struggles a bit to know where they are going when Drexler looks up at signs and breaks eye contact.
There are also specific training considerations to keep in mind, depending on the sport you train in. Welk explained that Roxy was always very brave even as a puppy, but to get her ready for Scent Work competitions they did some training to prepare her to trip over things and run into things, as this will happen during a trial.
Dawn Mlatecek competes in Agility and Dock Diving with her Labrador Retriever Ninja who lost one eye in an accident. Her biggest piece of advice for owners of vision-impaired dogs interested in pursuing sports with their dogs is to have a foundation. “Teach it correctly from the start and don’t rush to get in the game,” she says. “It took two years to get her into competition again after losing her eye.”
When running Agility, Mlatecek is attentive to make sure Ninja has the information early in order to select the correct obstacle. “I try to make sure she knows where she is going at least two obstacles before taking them,” she says. “I work lines, keeping her driving down a line so she can react to what is ahead of her.”
Mlatecek is also aware that because of her vision impairment, Ninja has no depth perception. She has to consider how things will look to her and how the obstacles will line up. When they are competing in Dock Diving, Mlatecek uses her foot to help Ninja know where to leap from on the dock. “It is critical she lines up and leaves from the same spot on the dock,” she says. “A couple of inches off and she could get hurt.”
Keeping Safety at the Forefront
As much as you might love dog sports, it’s essential that you not let that cloud your decisions for what sport to train your dog in or when to run your dog. For Mlatecek, Ninja’s safety always comes first. If she is at a show and she sees a course that involves a sequence that she feels would be unsafe for Ninja, she won’t run.
“In Agility, I see it mostly with the dog walk, maybe a tunnel before that shoots them out on an angle and they may or may not straighten out before the up ramp of the dog walk,” Mlatecek says. “I did it once and she flew off the contact. This is where knowing your dog’s line is critical! It’s just not worth the risk.”
The lighting at the venue is something that Drexler considers for Hex’s safety. “I’ve learned that in certain lighting in agility I can’t run her,” she says. “Yellowish lights on brown dirt really affect her depth perception so I won’t enter those types of venues. Also, in low light in some Obedience trials, she would really struggle to find her fronts.”
She advises owners of visually impaired dogs to be thoughtful about ways they can make their dog’s job clearer to keep them safe while they learn.
You know your dog better than anyone else. The decision about what activities to pursue with your dog should come down to advice and assessment from your veterinarian and then consider what you and your dog can enjoy safely together. “The first year we started competing I actually had a group of people try to file a complaint to have us removed when they found out she had one eye,” Mlatecek says. “Years later people love watching her and she has a pretty incredible support squad in place. She really is fun to run and watch.”
At the 2022 AKC National Agility Championship, Ninja was right below the cutoff line to compete in the Challengers run, a last-ditch effort to make it to the finals. Despite not running for it, it’s still an impressive feat for a one-eyed dog. “We went to the big show and almost made it with the best teams in the sport,” she says. “There were so many incredible teams and we can say we were one of them.”
So long as your dog is having fun, and your veterinarian approves of the training you and your dog are doing there’s nothing wrong with seeing what your blind or partially blind dog can do, as Hex has won all her championship titles with one eye and has her Obedience Trial Champion (OTCH), Master Agility Champion (MACH), and Rally Championship (RACH) titles.
If you’re considering pursuing sports with your dog the most important thing you can do is to focus on foundation training. Each dog learns at their own speed, and for blind or visually impaired dogs, it can take extra training to help your dog build their confidence. “Be patient and give your dog a chance to figure it out,” Drexler says. “Most dogs love to work with you and can learn to compensate if they have some time to adjust.”
It isn’t all big wins, as Mlatecek remembers that she and Ninja had a lot of frustrating years before they finally put it together. Although their vision may be limited, blind and visually impaired dogs still want the opportunity to have fun, be challenged, and use their minds.”It’s not going to be easy, but the reward is so much sweeter,” Mlatecek says.