How to Care for a Blind Dog
You Are Not Alone in the Dark Anymore
On the way home from the animal hospital, I remember how disturbing it was hearing more than vet say, "Your dog is blind," and "there is nothing anyone can do." I was left with a whole lot of wonder, and a lot of questions that were never answered. I almost had the impression that we were being cushioned for the possibility of putting our dog down simply because he was blind. At this point, I was dumbfounded, overworked, over stressed, and now my poor dog was totally blind. At the time, there was nowhere to go, and nowhere to talk about it.
The purpose of this page is to share my experience about owning a dog that went blind after years of good health. and provide help to all who find themselves in a similar situation.
Our Story: In the Beginning
We were in the backyard one day when the dog heard something and took off running up the driveway. My husband and I were wide-eyed with shock when the dog did not listen to the "stop" command and ran headfirst into the back of our car. He hit his head on the bumper with such force that it put him into a frightened sit-stay position. Immediately, we took him to vet's office and the animal hospital and were told the dog was totally blind.
The dog was just at the vet's office a few weeks prior, and we were informed at that time that his vision was blurry. We couldn't believe our dog went totally blind within a matter of weeks, and we had no idea his vision would go that fast.
The specialist determined the dog did not have a stroke or anything, and other than getting old and being totally blind, the arthritic 9-year-old dog was getting along as good as could be expected.
What to Look for When a Dog Is Going Blind
Sometimes things happen so fast you don't really see the forest for the trees. Below are some examples of how our pet behaved while losing his vision.
- Do you notice subtle changes in your dog's behavior? Subtle changes like his paths around the yard and house. Our dog started walking close to the house and the fence line.
After years of independence, does your dog stick to you like Velcro? The dog does not want you to leave. As our dog began losing his vision, he began to get separation anxiety. Once he went blind, he would cry or whine until our car left the driveway, and he stayed on his bed until we returned home.
After years of eating normal, does your dog now eat like there is no tomorrow? The dog eats a full bowl of food and wants more. Our dog was a light-weight lean, mean mutt machine until he hurt his back. We did not know our dog was losing his sight, and he ate like he was afraid he wouldn't find his next meal.
Does your pet walk so close to the walls that he leaves marks on them? Little lick marks or wet nose marks on the walls appear in random places around the house. While our dog was making his new paths in the back yard, he was also making his paths in the house. Our dog was marking his walls with his scent by bumping his nose on the wall.
Is your dog playing games with you? Playing the game of in one door, out the other. Every puppy I've ever had practiced going up and down stairs, and when our dog was losing his vision, he was practicing the stairs, too. He literally navigated a flight of ground floor stairs, a set of basement stairs, knocked at the basement door to get out, navigated through the garage through a dog door, wound around the driveway and up another flight of stairs to the deck where he knocked on the sliding glass door to get back in. One night he did this at least ten times. We did not know he was practicing his path.
Is your pet becoming overprotective without reason? When friends come over, your pet goes alpha-like they are protecting you from them and starts barking in sync with the person who is talking. Our dog was a social butterfly. Once our dog went blind, when friends would stop over, he would stand between me and the person doing the talking, and out talk (bark) until the person stopped talking or left the room. He would not leave my side until the guests left.
Is your dog starting to bump into things? There is more than an occasional assured clear distance problem. The dog was bumping into things he never bumped into before—things like a cupboard, wall, furniture. Nothing too noticeable, as it was a general bump into something much like you, me, or anyone else would do if not paying attention.
When you take a picture of your dog, do you see lights in his eyes? Rather than the red-eye you get from a camera flash, the dog's eyes reflect green. Looking back at old photos, the green lights began two years prior to his going blind. Again, never having a pet with eye issues before, we did not know that was a potential clue.
Does your dog have a pre-existing degenerative eye condition? Visit your vet for a check-up regularly to determine the severity of your pet's vision loss. If your dog has a pre-existing degenerative eye condition, this may be of interest. After our dog went blind, we were at dinner with friends who asked about the dog. When we explained how his vision went from bad to worse in less than three weeks, the first thing my one friend asked was, "Was your dog on prednisone?" That question stopped me in my tracks. She then explained that her mother has been on prednisone for many years due to her severe arthritic condition, and the medicine exacerbates blindness in most people diagnosed with macular degeneration. With this information, we asked the dog's eye doctor if it were possible, and she confirmed the possibility. (I also researched information about the medication on the internet.) The vet said our dog might have had SARDS, and his vision was going slowly over a period of time, but it was possible that the medication could have made the problem worse.
How to Help Your Blind Dog
Maintain composure. Blind or not, your pet picks up on your emotions. It broke my heart to see our dog so down, and as long as he sensed my broken heart, he continued to be down. I tried to keep the dog's spirits up by going on about our daily business. No mollycoddling, just compassion and support. This helped him become more confident in us and less fearful about his food, and his eating habits went back to normal. To help with separation anxiety, before leaving the house we made sure he had one of our dirty t-shirts on his bed to comfort him while we were gone.
Learn new commands. Anyone that says an old dog can't learn new tricks never met our dog. He learned plenty of new commands. The most important new command was the word "stop." I can't stress this enough: If your dog is blind, and still fears nothing, make sure he learns the "stop" command. Our dog thought he could see everything with his nose and ears, and if his ears or nose caught something, he thought he could chase and would take off. Once he learned "stop," he stopped on command, knowing it was for his own good.
- Teach the dog to navigate the stairs. Our dog was very good about letting us know when he wanted in or out. He never had an accident. But since we had stairs, going in and out became tricky for our old dog, and his 55 pounds made him a bit too heavy for me to carry. So I helped him learn how to handle the stairs by teaching the commands "step up" and "step down" and taking every step with him until he was confident and able to navigate the steps himself.
- Mark transitions. The one thing I remember doing that helped the dog immensely was marking the end of the first step down so he knew where the first step dropped off (so he wouldn't just walk off and break his legs). I used duct tape on one stair top and different rugs at others. Wherever there was a first step, I rubbed his paw along the two surfaces so he would know how far he had left before his toes hung over the edge. I made each stair top a different texture so he would have a better perception of where the stair edge stopped and started and which room he was in.
More Things I Learned From Our Blind Dog
How to play with a blind dog: God has a way of compensating for a loss. Just because the dog was old didn't mean that he didn't like a little fun and attention. His hearing and sense of smell were amazing. My husband missed his friend trotting around the yard, playing catch and fetch, so to give the dog a feeling of accomplishment (if that is possible), they would practice playing fetch the stick in the driveway. My husband would take a stick, tap it on the driveway, and toss it in such a way that the stick would hit the driveway and clatter enough times that the dog could follow it. When the dog figured out he could bring the stick back, he got a dog grin from ear to ear, knowing he would get praise and affection.
How to walk with a blind dog: My husband began getting the dog's attention by snapping his fingers. We figured this may help him know how to follow us on walks. The snap of the fingers was not a loud sound but a consistent, soft snap that the dog could follow. This worked especially well for us during the dog's tenth birthday party. With over a hundred people laughing, talking, singing, and making noise— plus the loud music, dropped food, and exotic smells of strangers— the dog followed the click of my fingers everywhere. Also, if you walk your dog up and down the street, always remember to help him navigate curbs with the "stop," "step up," and "step down" commands. You and I take curbs for granted, but not knowing there is a step off could be a painful experience for the pet.
How to help a blind dog find his way: Years before our dog went blind, my husband inlaid a two-brick border around our back yard to separate our grassed yard from the flower beds. Our blind dog used that brick border as a path around the yard. We have a little water fountain that the dog liked to drink from. Prior to the dog going blind, I ripped out all the mint that was growing around the fountain. That spring, I replanted the peppermint by the fountain so he knew where to find it. I planted other safe things around the yard that would help him find his way by sense of smell. In the winter, we had some really deep snow, and the poor dog couldn't smell anything, but he found his way to the door by following the outer wall of the house until he could smell his way to the door. My husband used the snow blower in the winter to re-create his summer paths to help him get around easier. I placed a dryer sheet under the rug by the back door so he would know which door he was at.
Create a Safe House and a Safe Yard
The importance of a safe house and yard can't be overlooked. Smells, paths, and sounds aren't everything. Any place we take for granted as being safe can be a dangerous place for a blind dog (blind people, too).
We learned this the hard way. Our dog used to love chipmunks. He would chase them, dig to find their tunnels, and go to leaps and bounds to get to them. The dog came in the house one afternoon with his eye swollen. We took him to the dog specialist and were informed that the dog had a scratched cornea. She showed us how to detect the eye damage and how to treat it with medication. She said he probably ran into a tree or bush or something in the yard. Armed with this information, everything at the dog's eye height that had the potential for danger was pruned or removed from around his walking areas. This rule applies to items inside the house, too.
The most important thing you can do as an owner of a blind dog is make sure their environment is safe.
- In The Yard: Prune or move items that are dog's eye height.
- In The Home: Eliminate, move, or remove all sharp, hard, edgy items protruding at the dog's eye height in and around the house.
The Dog Whisperer Helps a Blind Terrier
Connecting With a Community
Don't Forget These Seven Tips
- Remember your pet's care.
- Be calm, confident, and composed.
- Make new commands simple.
- Communicate with comfort.
- Maintain the pet's paths.
- Navigate with safety.
- When in doubt, check with the vet.
Helping Others Understand Blind Dogs
A special note: When a dog is blind, often other people do not know their condition and approach your dog to pet or socialize. More often than not, the dog recoils, snarls, or retreats in fear from the new scent, foreign hand, or abrupt approach from a friend or stranger.
When taking your pet for a walk in public, it is always a good idea for you or your pet to wear a sign to let others know that your friend is blind and anyone who approaches should be calm and cautious. After many years of requests, I have opened a shop on Cafe Press and created a design in honor of my old blind dog with the purpose of helping others.
You are welcome to purchase one of my blind dog products at Cafe Press to assist your friend with their walk. If you are looking for a blind dog tag or tee shirt designed especially for you and your pet, please do not hesitate to contact me. It would be an honor to provide you with a custom design based on your pet's or organization's needs.
This site is a recipient of The WhippitTalk Purple Paw Award, and proudly supports the SCF and ASPCA.
Ben Kersen Trains a Blind Dog
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2007 Tonie Cook