Living With Blind Dogs
How Dogs React to Blindness
If you have ever owned more than one dog, or if you have known several dogs, you’ve probably realized that they each have personalities of their own. Like humans, dogs are individuals, and as such they respond to hardship and stress in a variety of ways. The following factors may contribute to how well (or poorly) a dog responds to the onset of blindness:
The dog’s age — is he young and enthusiastic, or is he having to make this adjustment after spending most of his life as a sighted dog
His general health — is he fit and capable of learning new skills, or does he have health problems that will be compounded by blindness
The onset of blindness— was it sudden as with SARDS, or was the onset gradual such that the dog was able to compensate as the blindness progressed
Previous training experiences — is your dog used to having you communicate and “work” with him, or has he usually “been on his own” as a fringe family member
His “position” in the pack and his basic personality — is he a confident, dominant dog, a worried, submissive dog, or somewhere in between
The age, health and personalities of other dogs in the household
And the personalities and dedication of the dog’s family — how much are you able, and do you desire, to “work” with him
In general, dogs that go blind gradually, young in life and are not the pack leaders make a faster and easier adjustment to blindness. Older, frail, dominant dogs, and those that lose their vision suddenly, can sometimes experience more difficulty. Blind dog owners report this adjustment can typically take three to six months, but certainly there are instances where it has taken much longer. It is possible for you to help ease this transition
The Fight Or Flight Response
Dogs react to blindness differently. Some owners witness severe depression in their dogs. Some owners report aggressive behavior changes. And yet, other owners report that they never even suspected that their dogs went blind because nothing changed. Some dogs remain totally unfazed by the situation. As with humans, dogs may utilize a variety of behaviors to help them cope with vision loss. They may utilize more than one behavior at a time, and they may switch back and forth between behaviors. Typical behaviors a dog may display include depression, fear, aggression, and dependence. Since a dog cannot understand what is happening, and since we cannot communicate that to him, we can only surmise what is going through the dog’s mind. One animal behaviorist believes that animals perceive physical ailments akin to being attacked by another animal. There are similarities between the responses of a sick (or blind) dog, and a dog being attacked… so there may be some value in this concept. Dogs have a strong “fight or flight” response. Based on a variety of factors, a dog may stand up and fight challenges (attackers) or he may flee (run from attackers). Neither response is wrong. They are both survival mechanisms and don’t have any reflection on a dog’s intelligence or “goodness”.
Fear And Aggression
If indeed, a dog responds to blindness as though it was an attacker, he may try to “fight”. If your dog was a dominant, aggressive dog before the blindness, this may become more apparent now. Similarly, if your dog was a fearful individual before the blindness, this could possibly manifest itself now as aggression, as fear and aggression are closely linked. Without the ability to identify a true attacker, the dog may lash out at family members. The dog may snarl, snap and bite other dogs in the household, their owners and family friends. This is a common reaction. (See “Pack” section for helpful hints.) There is a fine line to handling these situations successfully. On the one hand, aggression is not behavior that you should encourage or accept. On the other hand, the dog is already stressed, and fearful. A strong reprimand could serve to escalate the situation into a full-fledged attack. Try to minimize whatever situations incite the aggression… other dogs sniffing him, neighboring children visiting. Issue a calm reprimand. Do not pet, cuddle, baby talk or otherwise reward the dog after the aggressive behavior. That will only encourage it to be repeated. As you progress into the training program, specific activities will be outlined to help you deal with this issue.
Dogs that try to “fight” the blindness obviously don’t succeed. And for some dogs, “fighting” isn’t their first choice anyway. These dogs would typically flee an aggressor. Unfortunately for these dogs, “fleeing” is not a realistic option, either. Obviously, the blindness follows them everywhere. Ultimately, for many dogs, their normal methods of coping are ineffective. Dog trainers know that show-ring dogs can have a very similar experience. Many dogs become stressed in the show-ring because there is no specific aggressor to fight, and there are unable to flee the environment. These dogs to become overwhelmed and “shut down”. They begin moving slowly. They lower their heads, ears and tails. In effect, they become depressed.Depression is a common and normal reaction to blindness. A few dogs have difficulty ever getting past this state. Dogs can demonstrate a decrease in appetite and activity (play) and an increase in sleeping time. They have less interest in toys or tasks that once brought them pleasure. One owner reported his dog standing in the center of the room and simply “crying”. If you are still coping with your dog’s loss of vision via a state of sorrow, it is possible that you could transmit these feelings to your dog as well. Most dogs take their emotional cues from us. While it is important for dog owners to let their own feelings run their natural course it may be beneficial to shield the dog from them. You might want to consider separating yourself from the dog when you feel especially sad, or need to cry. Give the dog a chew toy (see “playtime” section), and close the door into another room. You will have to decide where the fine line is between any benefits this might have, and any negative reactions your dog might have (i.e. separation anxiety, or the belief that he is being punished). Another option sometimes recommended by blind-dog owners is massage. There are several good books available on this topic, or consult your veterinarian for assistance. You do not need to be an expert at this skill to benefit your dog. Unless a dog experiences other physical discomfort, general massage over the dog’s neck and back can be an enjoyable experience for both you and your dog. It is believed that massage can both calm down a stressed dog, and energize a lethargic dog. It is also a way to “reconnect” with your dog since he can no longer see you, or see you well. Tactile (touch) stimulation is a good way to replace some of the stimulus loss that comes with blindness. Any additional stimuli the dog receives can help keep him “connected” to his environment and you.
Some dogs also exhibit an increased tendency toward dependency. These dogs become increasingly hesitant to perform tasks for themselves. They may be barely willing to walk across a room, let alone attempt a flight of stairs. In these situations, the owner finds himself doing more and more for the dog. Both blind and sighted dogs can become masters at manipulating their people. “Dependency” is a state which, unknowingly, can be rewarded by the owner. For many of us, our pets awaken our maternal, caring instincts. It is normal to want to help our blind animals. So while it is important to recognize handicaps the blind dog might have, it is equally important not to “coddle” the dog. “Coddling” is the enemy to any progress your dog might make. This is a sentiment repeated over and over, by blind-dog owners. Do not allow your dog to become dependent upon you. Once coddling stops, and training new skills begins, your dog can regain confidence in himself and the world around him. As you progress further into the training program, you will learn how to better deal with this issue.
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