What I learned about pet care from my deaf and blind Great Dane

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Trevor and his blind and deaf Great Dane Keller enjoying a hike.

People are always impressed and amazed when they meet Keller, my deaf and blind Great Dane. And he meets a lot of people, because he always draws a crowd. He’s a great ambassador for Adopt-A-Less-Adoptable-Pet Week.

I think he especially loves it when we leave the house because he gets to experience so many new smells. All dogs have a strong sense of smell, but, think about it: For a deaf and blind dog, smell is everything. Keller sticks his head out of the car window or sun roof and takes it all in. It is really funny to see people at stop lights all pointing to the car with the big white dog sticking out.

While it wasn’t a hard decision to take Keller as a 9-week-old puppy — he was in desperate need of a home right away or he faced euthanasia — I did initially wonder if I’d gotten in over my head. I had no experience with special-needs dogs and here I was taking on a deaf and blind puppy.

But raising Keller hasn’t been that different from raising my other dogs. (See Keller’s puppy pictures and read our first post-adoption blog post here. ) Now 3 years old, Keller has taught me a lot about how great special-needs pets can be. He’s also taught me some ways to make life easier on both of us. Here’s just a bit of what I’ve learned:

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Keller enjoying his fenced-in backyard where he can play safely.

House training
House training was easy and Keller learned really quickly. The technique I used did not involve any negative reinforcement or harsh noises, so
his being deaf or blind had no impact on the process.

The process I follow is to pay very close attention to the puppy and
give him frequent time outside at regular intervals. If I can’t watch
him, he is in his crate. I always let him out before and after meals and
playtime. When I see him “looking” around for a place to go, I calmly
pick him up and take him outside. It doesn’t take long for him to figure
out that is the place to go.

I’m so proud of Keller because he picked it up so fast and has only had
accidents because of illness or medications he might have been taking.

Leash training
Learning to walk on the leash was also pretty effortless. The difference
between Keller and my previous dogs is that he tends to lean against my
left leg when we are walking. It gives him a point of reference and
security. I do have to pay attention, though: He can push me off the
sidewalk. Don’t forget, we’re talking about 130 lbs. of Great Dane here.

Bonding
A deaf or blind dog will most likely bond closely with you and rely on
you for comfort. He’ll like to know you are there. Some deaf or blind
animals will exhibit a lot of stress or separation anxiety when their
partner is not around, whether that partner is another pet in the
household or, in most cases, you. If you can’t be around most of the
time, I think it can help very much to have another pet for your
special-needs pet to bond with.

Dealing with separation & pet-proofing
I’m very fortunate that I can be with Keller all day. However, I can’t
be with him all the time, so I worked with him to help him get used to
being home alone. I started by leaving him in the house alone for a few
minutes and watching him through the window. I kept increasing the time
until he was mostly comfortable being home alone for several hours at a
time. He will get up to some mischief from time to time, but I minimize
the damage through proper puppy-proofing.

I think you should always puppy-proof your home, regardless of whether
you have a special-needs pet, but it helps tremendously for blind dogs.

In my house, there are plenty of open areas where Keller won’t run into
anything and there is little risk something could fall over and hurt him
if he ran into it. I don’t usually move furniture around that could
change the layout of the house. If I do need to move something, I
introduce Keller to it by leading him to the change and letting him
check it out.

That said, Keller almost never runs into things. He has an amazing
environmental awareness and can run through the house and yard at full
speed and always seems to know exactly where he is.

Since Keller is a Great Dane and is so tall, it is very easy for him to
counter-surf to pick up treats. I always make sure countertops are clear
and free of things that might attract his attention. This also helps me
keep a better household, because dishes and laundry are always kept out
of the way.

Secondary medical issues
Some special-needs pets may have other medical issues in addition or
related to their deafness or blindness. In Keller’s case, he would have
been a Harlequin Dane, but the genetic defect responsible for his
deafness and blindness also caused him to have a mostly white coat. I
later learned this defect can also cause an increase in allergic
reactions.

One day I noticed that Keller had gotten very itchy and scratched
himself raw in several places. I tried all sorts of things: changing his
diet, making sure his ears were clean, and generally making sure to
address all the things that might make him scratch. I had tried
everything I could think of and we visited several vets trying to figure
out the problem. Eventually I met Dr. Nicola Williamson of Veterinary Dermatology of Richmond
and finally got some relief for my boy using immunotherapy treatment.
Dr. Williamson was awesome and helped me get Keller’s allergies under
control. I’m very happy to say he is much better now and has gotten
relief from all that itchiness. I can’t thank Dr. Williamson and her
staff enough for all they have done for us.

Who should consider a special-needs pet?

I strongly encourage anyone looking for a new pet to consider “less-adoptable” pets
and those with special needs. Sure, it may be a little intimidating at
first, but it is such a rewarding experience to help these animals, and
they will return the love and appreciation tenfold. Open your home to
one of these extraordinary animals and you will gain a very special
friend in your life.

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You might also like:

Blog: Living with a deaf (and blind) dog: Keller’s amazing story

Blog: Adopt-A-Less-Adoptable-Pet Week is Sept. 19-25

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