Encouraging Play and Activity with Newly Blind Dogs
When my dog Vegas suddenly lost his sight, his whole world changed. Dogs can do many things without their sense of sight, but when they start life sighted and then go blind, they are often confused and maybe even fearful when they can no longer see the world around them. This is what happened with Vegas.
Vegas never had very good sight to begin with. He couldn't see a treat that fell on the floor. He couldn't see his toy after I tossed it. He could see movement up close to him, and he became very good at navigating his world with the very limited vision that he did have.
But when he suddenly lost the sight he did have, his world suddenly was dark, and he wasn't getting any visual clues about what was going on around him. He could no longer predict and interact with his environment the way he was used to. He was scared. His world had suddenly gotten so much smaller and limiting. I was sad for him, and it took some time to adjust to the way he was now vs. how he had been.
I didn't realize just how much he was using the limited vision he had. I thought he was relying more on scent than he was. When he lost all of his sight, he was no longer able to navigate around the house and yard alone. He stood in one spot and pointed his face upwards hopefully waiting for me to help him ... except I had already moved across the yard, and he hadn't noticed. He really had no idea of the lay of the land without the blurry visual cues he used to have.
The Transition Period
There will be a time of transition while a blind dog begins to relearn how to navigate using different senses. This should be expected. He will create a mental map, now relying more on the senses of smell and tactile information such as surfaces, air currents, and feeling his way around.
A dog that has suddenly gone blind may appear depressed and may stop interacting with the family in the special ways he used to. There are ways that we can help him through this transition and encourage him to stay engaged in daily activities, to play, and to be more active.
Our dogs are very tuned into us and will take their cues from us about how to respond to their situation. When we are worried and sad because our dogs have lost their sight (which is normal for us to feel), our dogs can sense these emotions from us. Our mood and our thoughts and feelings always affect our dogs.
It's normal for us to grieve when our dogs lose their sight. And it's healthy for us to grieve. There are many wonderful groups on social media particularly centered around dogs that are blind. These are great resources and support systems as you and your dog learn your way. It's also helpful to work with a professional who can guide you and your dog through this transition and help you find new ways of communicating and setting up a full and happy lifestyle for your dog.
How You Can Help
When we see our dog struggling to adapt to blindness, it can be heartbreaking. We miss the ways he used to behave, the games he used to play, and the way he looked at us for that last bite of our snack. We often feel helpless to make things better for him. Knowing what to do can be just as helpful to us in this process as it is to our dogs. Here are some tips:
It's perfectly OK to comfort your dog if he's feeling confused or scared. You won't make his feelings worse. He needs to know that you're there to help and support him. Help him to feel safe and loved. It's also important to help your dog to feel confident and empowered to figure out this new normal for himself. You will need to help him learn the skills he will need to become self-sufficient again.
Tellington TTouch, massage and other calming touch, and modalities such as Healing Touch for Animals, will help reduce your dog's anxiety and stress, and will help him to relax. A relaxed dog will be more likely to try new things and to play. Plus, these are techniques you can learn to do yourself with your dog, so they will also help to relax you at the same time!
It may be overwhelming for your newly blind dog to move around the entire house and yard on his own right away. It's often helpful to give him a smaller area to learn to navigate first. You can use gates or ex pens to create smaller areas for him to safely explore at first. It is very helpful to have him wear a harness (or collar - whatever your dog is already used to wearing on walks) so you can easily help guide him along routes in the house and yard that he will use often. Go at his speed and help him to avoid obstacles. It's no fun for anyone to run face-first into a doorway or a table. With consistent guidance, your dog will begin to learn how those routes smell, how they feel to his feet, and how many steps to take between point A and point B. Try to keep furniture and the layout of his world the same. Keep food and water bowls in the same place, his bed where it has always been, etc. As he learns these routes, you will find you need to guide him less and less until he can do it herself. Guiding less but staying nearby as he gets better will help to build his confidence.
Play and Exercise
Encourage play with favorite toys as he is ready. I use longer plush toys, so there is room for my hand at one end, and still plenty of room at the other end for Vegas to grab the toy without grabbing my hand (because she can't see it).
Will a blind dog chase toys if you toss them across the room like you used to? Perhaps. But it is more likely that you will need to learn a new way of playing with him. Move the toy back and forth near him and touch him with it playfully as you pull it around on his level. Let it move over his paws so he can feel it moving and be tempted to grab at it. If he can hear, use your voice to excite him in the same ways you used to so he recognizes this is a game. Many blind dogs enjoy light tug of war games with toys. This way, they can play while keeping the toy in their mouth where they can keep track of it. Some enjoy chasing toys that make noises as they move - giggle balls, balls with bells inside (always supervised!), stuffed toys that continue to make noises after they are squeezed, etc. Most dogs enjoy toys that can be stuffed with yummy treats to tempt their noses and taste buds. These can be played with as toys, used as enrichment activities, hidden around the room for dogs to sniff out and find, etc. Many blind dogs still enjoy going for walks and outings. If your dog liked to ride in the car before going blind, continue to take him out and about. Don't stop doing his favorite things just because he can't see. He will enjoy the smells of going someplace new, the breeze in his face, the lick of your ice cream. If your dog is reluctant to walk, take it slow. Just take him out and go at his pace. There's no place you need to go in a hurry, right? Just let him explore at his own pace. Give him time to acclimate to the new surroundings. Maybe sit with him and read a book if you need something to occupy the time while you wait. Your dog will eventually step out and begin sniffing around. This creates confidence, and if you do it often, he will begin to go farther and farther. Your dog may appreciate it if you wear a small bell or a set of keys on your belt loop when you are out for a walk to help him easily hear and keep track of you. Take time to review leash walking with your blind dog. I prefer to use a harness with a leash attached to both the front ring and the back ring at the same time - one end of the leash to each attachment point. If your leash only has one clip, you can use a lightweight carabiner clip on the handle end of your leash to attach it to the harness.
This allows your dog to receive more information about where you are, how fast you're going, etc. He probably kept track of you on walks by sight in the past. Now he will need to learn how to use his other senses to keep track of you - by smell, by hearing where you are, and by feeling you through the leash. Vegas learned new touch cues to help him learn to get around on walks. I taught him cues to stop and wait, to step up or down for a curb or set of steps, and to go left or right with me. If your dog can hear, you can teach verbal cues for these. If your dog is also deaf, you can teach that different touches on his body mean these things. These cues help your dog understand his world better and help you to keep him safe.
Enrichment and Fun
Enrichment activities are important for any dog but can really help to increase a blind dog's confidence and interest in the world around him. You can use your dog's regular meals to encourage toy play by putting his food in the many varieties of puzzle toys that are available. You can even make your own in some cases. If these puzzle toys are new to your dog, begin easy and help him learn how to play with them. Enrichment activities can use all the senses your dog has available. Snuffle mats are great for encouraging sniffing and searching. You can teach him to search out treats or toys you hide (easy at first and then making the game more challenging) in the house or yard, or even out on your walks. Vegas loves cookie walks where I hide special cookies in the area around where we are walking. I go at his speed, and he has fun sniffing them all out and having a snack. If your dog can hear, try hanging a wind chime, or playing music. And the sense of touch is important too - helping him to feel confident on all surfaces will go a long way toward helping him be more active. A dog that is not confident walking across tile floors, for instance, is more likely to remain in his bed than venture out and risk walking on one. Even if he used to walk on your kitchen floor before, he may be hesitant to now. Remember, this is new for him to experience the same floor now through different sensory input. Teach your dog new things! This will help get him active and engaged with you and his environment. There are lots of ideas for new enrichment activities and games that are suitable for blind/deaf dogs in this home study course that you can do at your own pace from anywhere! Enrichment and Games Course (click link) One of my passions is supporting pet parents, answering their questions, and offering them hope that their blind dog will once again live a full and happy life! If you have questions or would like help with any of the tools or concepts mentioned in this post, please reach out to me! I'm always available to listen and help with whatever it is that you and your special dog need! You can find me at Your Inner Dog (click link).
The most important thing to remember is that this IS a time of transition. For you and your dog. Be patient and be kind in guiding and helping him. Empower him to be confident and to try new things and cheer him on every step of the way. You will soon see him starting to feel more comfortable and enjoying life again.