When a blind dog knocks at your door: How to adapt your life to accommodate his needs
I was looking for articles that cover what it is like to adopt a dog who is already blind and mainly located articles discussing what to do if your dog is going blind and how to deal with it. While those articles are helpful, when it comes to adopting a dog who is already blind, there were a lot of questions that the articles just did not cover. There are some sites dedicated to the adoption of blind dogs and have posted testimonials, but nothing that applied to my situation.
The night our lives changed…
On a quiet October evening in 2010, a knock came at the door. Neither my family nor I would have imagined that the guest would become one of the family.
At the door was a scraggly Malamute who would become our dog Sam. He actually knocked on the glass door by walking into it with his head just hard enough to make a sound. He was able to see enough of the light coming through the glass door from our living room to know someone was home. When we didn't respond the way he wanted to his knock, he reared up on his hind legs and started scratching at the door. Sam came to us with a collar (no tag to identify him or where he came from), his fur coat matted and dirty. From the state of his coat and his fishy smell, it looked like he had been on his own for some time. Sam was and is smart enough to wander around on his own and apparently was able to forage for food. It's a wonder he didn’t get hit by a car or semi-truck. He is such a beautiful dog with a sweet disposition, it made us wonder who would have allowed this dog to wander around on his own. We had many questions. Some of the questions were related to behavior: how to house train Sam, and what to expect.
First step: Getting over our insecurities.
When we accepted Sam into our lives we had some questions about what to do. Growing up there were always dogs in the house. The main difference between the dogs we had growing up was that they (including the dog we had at the time we adopted Sam) was that they all had their eye sight until the day they passed on. Since Sam came to us blind, we didn't at first know if he was born blind or if he became blind later on in life.
We took him to the vet to be checked out and was told us he was about 5 years old and his blindness was from a congenital birth defect due to a corneal defect in both eyes. However his third eye lid, formally referred to as a prolapsed lacrimal gland, covers the left eye and we cannot see much of the eye. This means that he most likely cannot see much of anything out of that eye as well.
So he's healthy, albeit a little thin; now what? How do you treat a blind dog? How do you play with a blind dog? How do yu teach him house manners? We kept having all of these questions and we had to find answers. I researched how to live with a blind dog when we first took Sam in, however I neglected to save any websites that I found useful. I did a new search, which lead to this article. The sites that I found helpful are listed below.
- http://www.blinddogrescue.com/: This is an organization that provides help to the blind and visually impaired dogs of the United States and to Canada. They help blind dogs to get adopted. They have links to websites, blogs, and informational PDF's on how to train your dog, the different types of eye disorders and diseases that can lead to blindness.
- https://www.petfinder.com/dogs/dog-care/living-with-blind-dogs/: An article on Petfinder.com that goes over what to expect when your dog starts going blind. from mood swings to the possible causes of blindness.
- http://www.eyevet.ca/: Gives information on veterinary Ophthalmology. The information provided is helpful and detailed. They also provide information on the breeds of dogs that most often have the type of visual defect or disease.
- http://www.malamuterescue.org/pdf/health.pdf: A five page article that gives information about medical issues that occur in Malamute's. They give information on different health conditions that cause partial to whole blindness in Malamutes, hair loss and other health issues caused by genetics.
Sam's eyes and Yazoo's eyesClick thumbnail to view full-size
There are several conditions that can lead to a dog being born blind, from illness the mother suffered while pregnant to the genetic makeup of the breed. I could list all of the types of blindness that can occur in dogs but it would fill a book, I recommend that if you are interested in the types of eye defects that effect dogs focus on first a breed of dog you are interested in to get started.
I listed some sites that helped me to understand the eye defects Malamutes are prone to having and the type that Sam has in the section above. First let me cover a few basics of animal eye anatomy. Primarily the anatomy of the eye in mammals, whether it's human or your faithful dog, is the same. However, a dog and several other species of animals, not just mammals, have an extra eyelid that can be drawn over the eye to help moisten the eye, add an extra layer of protect, and as an extra advantage, its transparent allowing the animal to see through it. To get a clear picture of this, think back to shark week. Sharks have a protective eyelid that they draw across their eye when they are about to bit into something they think is tasty. Now back to Sam.
Sam has a corneal defect we believe to be both eyes. Corneal defects are usually congenital, meaning it occurred in the womb. This defect can become worse later on in persons or animals life. When we first took Sam in we thought he could be considered legally blind. According to Servicedogcentral.org a person who is legally blind is not totally blind. Most legally blind people have varying degrees of useful vision. This definition explains the degree of legal blindness for a human and can also be applied to dogs and other mammals. With Sam he could see a little and we think he mainly saw shadows. Lately he started to bump into objects that he usually wouldn't bump into and so we think he is seeing less of those shadows and full blackness is setting in. On a recent Veterinary visit, the vet told us he shouldn't be seeing anything and is completely blind at this point, confirming what we suspected.
The prolapsed lacrimal gland in his left eye, also called cherry eye, means the gland of the third eyelid has popped out from behind the eyelid and in some cases either covers the eye (like with Sam) or protrudes out of the eyelid as a reddish mass. This condition is called "cherry eye" because of the red protrusion. Why they named it after a summer fruit I do not know; maybe the veterinarian that discovered it was craving cherries that day.
- Cherry eye is usually seen primarily in young dogs and is thought to be congenital. According to the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists, the breeds that commonly develop this condition are small breeds like Bulldogs, Cocker Spaniels, Lhasa Apso, Shih-Tzu, Beagles, and Poodles (I am not sure if this effects both the large breeds of poodles and miniature or just the miniature). Notice that Malamutes are not listed as a common breed to develop this type of disorder. I came across another eye condition that is also referred to as Cherry eye, called eversion of nictitating membrane. This condition is seen in Malamutes. With the third eyelid protruding out of the eye, it by itself would not cause Sam to be blind and from what I have read so far about the condition, it doesn't cause pain to the dog. However, if it becomes infected, Sam would have to have surgery to have the tear gland removed or tucked. So it is important that we watch for any changes in his eye or if he starts rubbing it with his paws.
Are blind dogs as protective as dogs with intact eye sight?
The answer to this one is both yes and no. A dog with vision impairment can be just as protective as a dog without vision impairment. You however, will not want to get a blind dog if your neighborhood is experience a string of break ins. If the dog cannot see the burglar, there is a good chance he cannot protect you or your valuables, but he can bark enough to dissuade someone from breaking in. Sam has a very loud bark and will let someone know that he is on the other side of the door along with the other doors in the house.
If the family dog begins to go blind, he or she is not going to lose the desire to protect his or her human, unless they were never very protective in the first place. With Sam, there are times that he protective, but he is very subtle. I recently took him to a new vet, we were done with the visit and I was walking him out into the office area to pay. They had to put us on the cat side because there were two dogs on the dog side and they were making a lot of noise and it was easier to put us there until the dogs were taken back. I was talking to the veterinary technician and a Mother and Daughter came into the cat area. Sam immediately started sniffing and after taking a few hesitate steps in their direction he came back to stand behind me, he didn't bark or growl, silently guarding. Yes, those ladies were not a threat, but he was going to stand there until they left for good measure. Once they left the office, Sam then proceeded to wrap the leash around my legs.
When he is at home, he’s listening. He doesn't always alert us first, we have two other dogs in the house, but when he is sure that there is someone outside he lets us and the visitor on the other side that there is a dog(s) protecting the house. When he is listening at the door, he almost looks like he has his ears pressed against the door itself. But as you can see from the angle in this picture, there is some space between his ears and the door.
Walking a dog with Visual impairment:
When I first took Sam for a walk I expected to lead him or that he would be walking by my side. This never happened and to this day doesn't happen, unless he is tired from the walk ( and it takes a lot to make this dog tired enough to walk beside me). He becomes excited when he hears one of two sounds; the door to the closet opening (this is where we hang the dog leashes and harnesses) or one of our other dogs jumping for joy over that sound because it means that are going for a walk. Sam will start to jump excitedly, performing half back flips; something that we never thought possible, throwing his head back over one of his shoulders and jumping up clawing the air trying to find us with his front paws.
Once we have him in his harness and on the leash, he takes over and it's as if he is telling us "Hold on and follow me, I know the way!" During the walk, he is out in front of us, weaving from side to side as he smells the ground and air, occasionally pausing to mark his territory or to investigate an interesting smell. I'm not sure why I expected him to be placid during our walks. He came to us from having been on his own for who knows how long.
The key item that aided in walking him was the harness seen in the picture above. This harness pulls him to the side when he starts to pull too hard and helps to train him to walk more sedately. Sam doesn’t just love to go on walks but also likes to swim. We brought him to the beach and he took to the water like a fish. He frolicked and chased the waves from the boats all the way up to the beach. He is always full of surprises.
The Benefits of having a dog who is already blind:
There are many benefits to having a dog that has already developed coping mechanisms to being blind. We mainly tried to help him get around the house for the first time. We also helped him navigate the stairs for the first month, walking beside him up and down the stairs so he would know where the turn was and where the funny step was. However, he adapted amazingly well and was running up and down the stairs in no time. Don't misinterpret what I saying, this does not take out the stress of being a first time pet owner to a blind dog. Just as if your dog is going blind slowly, a pet owner who takes in an already blind dog can still fall into the trap of coddling, babying, or trying to over compensate in his/her daily care. Don’t do it! Sam figured out how to find his way around the house, up and down the stairs, and around the backyard. The main thing we had to do was give aid. The aid I am speak of is walking him around the furniture arrangement if we change it or get in a new piece and helping him locate his bowl of food or water.
He is amazingly self reliant and stubborn. If he doesn't want to go to bed he becomes deaf in addition to being blind. He doesn't get depressed because of his disability, but has embraced it. The one down side to Sam is that he is only too aware of his surroundings and how to cope with them.
Playing with Sam is just a little different than how I would normally play with one of my other dogs. He likes to play with squeaker toys and this new round puzzle chew toy called a Treat Ring made by Starmark. We would have the toy in our hands and squeeze the toy to make a sound and he would prance around trying to get it back. We mainly crawled around the room with the toy and he follows us. He loves the Treat Ring. We had initially purchased it for our new puppy, but he seemed to figure out how much she enjoyed chewing on it and he started to wait in anticipation to have his chance to chew on it. He has also figured out how to get it from her. He enjoys chewing and playing with it whether the ring treats are on the inner ring or not . He mostly chews/plays with it on a solitary basis but his interactions with the other dogs are funny. They actually have conversations. Even though we had to change the way we play with him, Sam didn't need to change how he plays with the other dogs in our house.
They wrestle around like normal dogs do, playing attacking each other, and so on. He is still learning how to play with our new puppy, she is too fast for him to wrestle around with and she doesn't know how to play nice yet. So he lunges at her when he feels her run by.( see the video below)
Sam and Marley Playing
Draw backs of having a dog that is already blind:
Adopting any animal that will roam around your house is a huge responsibility. A little more pressure is added when your beloved pet cannot see the book bag your kids dropped on the ground as they came running inside or the box you left in the middle of the room as you went to get something from another room. While leaving any items on the floor with a dog with no vision problems would mean the animal would walk around or over the items, a blind dog would walk into the item and would possibly become disoriented by it or worse, injured by it. So here are some tips to remember:
1. Learn to keep your house spick and span.
2. Keeping the furniture stationary and items so that the dog will not become disoriented and the map in their head has to be tossed out and the floor plan relearned. Remember to push the chair(s) back in after you or your guest get up from the table
3. Be prepared to take a little extra time when feeding your dog and keep to a time schedule. We shake Sam's food until he finds the bowl and once he finds it he usually eats. If he walks away from it he sometimes will not come back to it the rest of the day.
4. Have eye drops on hand and check your dog’s eyes to ensure they are not drying out.
5. Take time to play with your dog each day and have approved playthings that will not harm your dog if you are not there.
6. Help your dog downstairs or take him or her for a walk to relieve himself on a regular basis, otherwise he may find it easier to go on the carpet or deck than in the yard.
7. Just because the dog is blind, do NOT be fooled into thinking they will not try to dig out of the yard. Sam dug out of the yard several times to go on walkabout. He enlisted the help of our other dog to dig out and act as his Seeing Eye dog. They made it several miles away before we found them walking together down the road.
Living with a blind dog
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I hope that this article helps someone who has decided to take in a blind dog or helps someone whose dog is going blind. All of our questions were not answered right away or some were not answerable. Sometimes, we had to chalk some things up to a behavior unique to Sam and what he experienced while on his own. We had to do a fair amount of research on some behaviors such as " why did Sam just walk down my bed peeing?" Knowing that even though a dog may be born blind or become blind later on in life, doesn't mean that the dog cannot have a full life.