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Whether you’re considering adopting a blind dog or have a sighted dog who’s losing their ability to see, it can be intimidating to figure out how to provide them with a fulfilling life. How can a dog navigate the home, let alone the world, without their vision?
But just because a dog’s sight is compromised doesn’t mean their other senses have stopped working. Blind dogs, in fact, have an even stronger sense of smell and hearing than their sighted counterparts. That’s saying a lot, when you consider that the average dog’s hearing is four times stronger than ours while their sense of smell is a whopping 50 times stronger. Compared to the strength of these other senses, the usefulness of a dog’s sight is relatively limited.
By harnessing sight, scent, and touch, blind puppers can learn just as well as sighted ones. And while those who have been blind from birth may learn more quickly than those who go blind later in life, both are capable of leading playful, exciting, and enriching lives without their vision.
Our guide to training blind dogs can set you off on the right foot, together.
Setting your blind dog up for success in the home
Vision-impaired dogs require puppy-proofing not just to help them navigate the home more easily but to prevent them from accidentally hurting themselves.
To identify the adjustments that you may need to make in your home, get down to your dog’s level and investigate. You’re especially looking for sharp table edges, obstructed passageways that may be hard to squeeze through, and changes in elevation. Even one step down or up can pose a problem for a blind dog.
If you can’t (or don’t want to) remove furniture with sharp edges from the home, pick up some safety bumpers to place on the edges. That way, if your dog bumps into a corner, they won’t end up poking an eye out.
Staircases with more than one or two steps should be blocked off with a baby gate or x-pen but just one or two steps can be easily identified by your pup if you change their scent and/or texture. Try putting a rug on the steps (or a rug which stops at the edge of the steps), spraying a scent on the steps, or drizzling them with a few drops of essential oil.
You can use texture and scent elsewhere in the house to help your dog find different rooms and resources. Rugs of different textures are great, but a dog can also tell the difference between different types of flooring (tile, linoleum, hardwood) that may already be in your house. Plug-in scent diffusers, scented oils, or other smells can also help your dog identify different rooms.
After the textures and scents in your home are arranged, avoid moving furniture around. If you purchase a new item, give it a new scent and introduce it to your dog to prevent them from taking an accidental spill. Always keep food and water in the same location. If you have multiple floors in your home, place a water bowl on each level so your dog can easily access it.
Lastly, make it easier for your dog to find you without wandering through the entire home. Tie a small bell to your favorite slippers or to a bracelet or anklet that your dog will be able to hear as you move around. Other pets should also wear small bells on their collars to help your dog find them (or stay out of their way).
Navigation cues for blind dogs
Now that your home is sorted, let’s make sure your blind dog is prepared to be safely out in the world. There are two cues, in particular, that will help your vision impaired pup navigate: “watch” and “step”.
Watch: For a sighted dog, the cue “watch” means “look at me”. For a blind dog, it means “turn toward me so that I can help you avoid an obstacle”. Use this cue when something is in your path or if someone or something is approaching.
- With your dog on leash, say the word “watch” then gently tug the leash down and towards yourself. Let them know they got it right by immediately marking the action with a click or marker word like “Yes!” then reward with a treat. Repeat at least a dozen times in multiple different locations.
- Next, say the word “watch” then wait five seconds. If your dog turns toward you on their own, mark and reward. If they do not, gently apply pressure to the leash then mark and reward. Repeat until your dog is able to respond to the word without you having to apply pressure to the leash.
Step: On a walk, curbs and changes in elevation can cause a blind dog to trip or even fall. The cue “step” will teach them to be aware that an elevation change is coming.
- When a curb (or similar step) is within a foot or two of your dog, say the word “step” then stop walking. Gently move your dog’s front foot to the edge of the step so they can feel it then repeat the word “step.” Move forward and, after your dog has stepped up or down, mark and reward them. Repeat until your dog is easily able to stop moving when he hears you say “step.”
- Say the word “step” then stop walking. Pause for a few seconds then move forward. When your dog has stepped up or down, mark and reward. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Say the word “step” and move forward slowly. Mark and reward when your dog has stepped up or down.
Teaching basic cues to blind dogs
When it comes to basic cues like sit, down, and come, blind dogs learn a little differently than sighted ones. Whereas touching your average dog’s bum to teach them to sit is a no-no, with a vision-impaired dog touch is essential to model exactly what it is you want your dog to do. A blind dog can learn any basic cues but “sit” and “come” are among the most useful.
- Put a treat in one hand and place it in front of your dog’s nose. Place your other hand on your dog’s rear, just above their tail. Begin to slowly lift the treat hand up while you apply gentle downward pressure to their back. When their bum hits the ground, mark it with a clicker or marker word (“yes!”) and release the treat. Repeat a minimum of five times.
- Next, add the verbal cue. Put a treat in one hand and place it in front of your dog’s nose. Place your other hand gently on your dog’s rear. Say the word “sit” and slowly lift your treat hand as you apply pressure on their rear. Mark and reward when they sit. Repeat at least five times.
- Now we can begin to fade the pressure on their rear. Put your treat in one hand and place it in front of your dog’s nose. Say the word “sit” then slowly raise the treat up. Mark and reward when their bum hits the ground. Repeat at least five times.
- Finally, try the cue without luring your dog with the treat. Say the word “sit” then wait five seconds. If they don’t respond, pull out your treat, put it in front of your dog’s nose, and lift it up (do not repeat the word). Mark and reward when they sit. Continue this until your dog responds to the word without you having to lure them with the treat.
Since a blind dog cannot see cars, bikers, or other hazards, they should only be let off leash in fenced spaces and should always be closely supervised.
- Put an extra delicious, high-value reward in your hand and hold it to your dog’s nose. Say the word “come” in a happy, high-pitched tone of voice then slowly back up a step, luring your dog to follow. Mark and reward them for coming toward you. Repeat at least five times until your dog doesn’t hesitate to follow the treat forward.
- Next, try moving a little farther away. With the treat at your dog’s nose, say the word “come” then slowly back up five to ten feet, encouraging them with your voice as you do (for example, saying “Let’s go, you can do it, you got this!” or whistling, making kissy noises or other interesting sounds). When your dog reaches you, mark and reward. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Now, try fading the lure. Say the word “come” then encourage them to follow you with your voice as you back up ten feet. Mark and reward when they reach you. Repeat at least five times.
- Your dog is now ready to transition from following you to coming toward you on their own. Walk five to ten feet away from your dog and call them, saying “come!” and encouraging them with your voice. When they reach you, mark and reward. Repeat the first distance at least five times then begin slowly moving farther from your dog before asking them to come.
With these helpful tips, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your dog learns to navigate your home and harnesses their sensory intelligence to live a happy, fulfilling life.