I’m working with a dog right now who’s ten years old, and blind. Now, the only thing I need to do with this dog is leash training, which is nice. He’s a English setter, and boy can he pull! Being blind hasn’t deterred him from lunging to the end of his leash and heaving on whoever is holding it!
My job is to help him learn to walk nicely on his leash. Now, I don’t want to use anything that will deter him from walking in general; he’s already being quite courageous by wanting to go out, still, and I don’t want to lessen that. So no slip chains or prong collars to stop him lunging, despite the fact that he’s nearly pulled me off my feet — no mean feat (pun intended!)!
I also need to find a way to tell him where to be, even though he can’t see me. In this case, whether he walks ahead or beside/behind doesn’t matter so much for psychological reasons, as it matters for safety reasons: I can’t guide him around objects if he’s ahead of me!
To solve the problem of letting him know where I am, I’ve taken to wearing bells on my hip. I’ve only worked with this dog for two days, so time will tell if it works, but the theory behind it is that he’ll hear when I’m walking, when I’m stopping, where I am, and how fast I’m going. (I can tell the same thing by the sound of a dog’s tags when it’s coming up behind me; he can certainly learn it, too!)
I’ve also started keeping his leash snug. Normally the goal with a dog is to walk with a very loose leash, but in this case if I keep a small amount of pressure on the collar, then he knows where I am. If the pressure increases either forward or back, he knows he’s gone out of line. This also means I can guide him with his collar to either side, if I need him to dodge something.
To get some control without stressing him out, I got myself a martingale collar. To him, it’ll feel like his normal flat collar (the collar you put a dog’s ID tags on), but I can bring it up behind his ears, keep it snug enough to A) keep it there and B) let him know where I’m at, and then I can control his head instead of trying to control his very powerful shoulders.
The first day I took him out, I had neither bells nor martingale. The second day it was like a changed dog! I’m hoping things will continue to improve.
There are some other notes to working with a blind dog (and in many respects, any dog with a disability). The first one is – DO NOT PITY THEM! They don’t pity themselves, and you’ll only convince them there’s something wrong with them, when they would normally accept life as it is. Sometimes dogs do get quite anxious as their bodies stop working the way they used to, but pitying them will only make that anxiety worse. Think about being a cheerleader instead: be proud of them for their accomplishments, and praise them enthusiastically while supporting and helping where you need to.
The second note is – they will probably need more support and help than another dog! While we were walking with the blind dog, my assistant trainer, Quin, noted that I was much more careful with him than with a seeing dog. It’s true: if a seeing dog falls behind and whumps my leg, I’m probably going to give them a sharp tug to knock it off. But the blind dog couldn’t see what he was doing, so instead I guided him back where he belonged and praised him for it. Quin also noticed that I was “almost protective,” and that, also, is true! It’s my job, if I’m putting him in danger, to keep him safe. That means also keeping him safe from excess anxiety: I need to steer him around bushes, overhanging plants, posts, curbs, puddles, the edge of the sidewalk where it turns into dirt, and so on. Try closing your eyes and having someone lead you — every new thing is startling.
The third note is – there are a lot more commands you can use! His owners told me they’d taught him “curb” at one point, though he’d forgotten it. We’ve gone back to it and he’s already remembering what it means. I also use it going up and down steps, with one “curb” for each step. I also considered using “Feet” to let him know when the ground was about to change and that it was a safe change, as in when he walks over a pile of leaves. I may yet; I’m debating between a command that will help him, versus people forgetting to use it or not noticing and the ground change startling him when the command isn’t used.
Blind dogs, or dogs with disabilities, are also more likely to rush things. Humans freeze up, but often a dog will rush through. The blind dog, for instance, charges down the stairs from the house. In part he does it because he’s eager to go on his walk, but when I was able to slow him down and get him thinking, I noticed that he also has some anxiety around those stairs — he’s getting them over and done with as quickly as possible! As we slowed down, he started to hear my “curb” command, and he slowed down even more and started to relax. I, of course, praised and praised and praised!
A dog with a disability isn’t always a sad thing. My dog, Sam, ended up in a wheelchair for the last year of his life — and it was the happiest year, too! He was a big, intimidating looking dog. When I put him in a wheelchair, people went from avoiding him to cooing over him, and he LOVED it. He would strut quite proudly whenever I put it on, knowing he was about to get the attention he deserved!
Dogs with disabilities need some extra help and new ways of thinking, and it often takes them longer to learn since they’re having to think about so many other things (imagine Anne Frank), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happy. Take some precautions, learn some new tricks, have patience, and things can be good!
As for the blind dog, I’ll let you know how the bells are working in a few weeks!