When I take a walk with that little fluff ball of a foster puppy above, we don't get very far. It's not because Galen is blind. It's because everyone wants to stop and pet him because he's so darn cute.
I'm fostering Galen for Speak! St. Louis, a rescue that specializes in blind and/or deaf dogs. He's my second special needs foster puppy. My first, Whibbles Magoo, was blind and deaf, which was a little more challenging. Both of them are double merles. Merle is a beautiful mottled pattern in a dog's coat. Some disreputable breeders will breed two merles together hoping to get merle puppies. Those puppies have a 25% chance of being double merle — which results in a predominantly white coat and usually means they have hearing or vision loss or both.
As I've been talking to potential adopters, there have been so many questions about how to prepare for a blind dog. It's like getting ready for a sighted pup, but with a little extra special planning.
Create a safe zone
You'd never know Galen was blind by the way he races all over the yard and house. (Photo: Fred Strobel Photography)
Whether your new blind pal is a puppy or an adult dog, you'll want to make an area for him where he feels safe. It should be a place where he can't hurt himself or anything in your home and where he feels comfortable. Some people gate off a room in their homes or use a pen and crate.
I work from home, so Galen has a metal exercise pen surrounding a crate in my office. He can sprawl out or play in his pen or sleep in his crate. He has toys and there's plenty of room for him to do what he wants, but he can't gnaw on baseboards or electrical cords. At night, I put him in the crate to sleep.
Blind-proof your home and yard
Look for any sharp edges or stairs where your pup could get into trouble. Install baby gates to block off rooms or staircases. A recent applicant climbed around her home on her hands and knees to see what perils might be at Galen's level.
Consider using carpet runners and mats to define specific areas. At our house, there's one at the back door, one near the kitchen and a runner that goes down the hallway to the office. When I recently cleaned the kitchen floor and picked up the mats, Galen stood frozen and confused in the room as if his world was turned upside-down. When I placed the mats back down, he raced around again, now that everything had returned to normal.
Similarly, make sure your yard doesn't have any hazards and is securely fenced. If you have a pool, fountain or electrical outlets, be sure they are puppy-proofed with fences, gates or locks. Walk your dog on a leash for the first few days and stay nearby after that until you know he has the yard mapped. Once he does, you'll be amazed at how deftly he will navigate. Galen zooms around the yard, avoiding bushes and fences, gleefully running at full speed.
Resist the urge to move things around. Keep the things at dog eye-level where they are so as not to confuse your dog. Your pet will learn landmarks and maneuver around them, quickly learning the locations of doors, walls, furniture and anything that could potentially be in his way. Be careful about remembering to push in chairs or ottomans after using them so they don't become new obstacles.
Work on training
It's always smart to take training classes with a new dog, but especially important to work on training with a special-needs pup. It's key that you have a strong bond, and working on games and commands is an excellent way to get there. One of the first commands to teach is "watch!" whenever your dog is about to get too close to something like a wall, a bush or even your legs. You'll find that soon he'll put on the brakes when you say it.
When a dog doesn't have one sense, his other senses are often heightened. He may be really tuned in to smells so you might want to try playing games that use stinky treats to get his attention. (I use soft treats that I can cut up in small pieces like venison and even watermelon-flavored dog treats.) Using a snuffle mat is also a good way to serve meals because it works on your dog's sense of smell. It's a homemade toy that lets them use their noses to sniff for treats or their dinner.
A note on scents and devices
A halo worn around a dog's head can keep him from bumping into things. (Photo: David Goehring [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
If you research blind dogs, you'll find suggestions that you mark certain areas of your home with unique scents. Maybe the back door is marked with a drop of vanilla and your pet's feeding area has a dash of peppermint. But your dog's sense of smell is remarkable and he'll be able to smell his water (and food!) and he'll quickly figure out the back door and bed and toys. Everything already has its own special smell. One story I read suggested that an owner always wear the same body lotion or perfume, but as a rescue friend pointed out: We all have our own personal odor. Your dog isn't going to get you confused with anyone else.
You will likely also hear about devices like halos — which are sturdy circular loops that hook onto a dog's collar, encircling his head to keep him from bumping into things. Some people in the special-needs world say this keeps dogs from learning spacial recognition and some dogs just "freeze," not wanting to move when this unwieldy device is attached to their heads.
I've found that Galen is actually pretty careful. He doesn't go barreling full force in areas he doesn't know. Occasionally when he's playing hard with Brodie, he might lose his bearings and bump into the couch or forget that's where the toybox is. But all puppies do that when they're caught up in the heat of the moment. Dogs, and especially puppies, are incredibly resilient. He shakes it off and jumps back into the wrestling match.
But it all depends on the dog and the owner. If your dog is tentative in new places and doesn't like to explore when he's unsure, you may find that these aides help. You may decide that you like the idea of scent mapping and using a halo, but I'd suggest letting your dog figure it out by himself first.
If your dog has very limited vision, some vets suggests doggie sunglasses like Doggles. It helps with light sensitivity when they are out in bright sunlight. Plus, they can help protect your dog's eyes if he bumps into things, and it just looks really cool. Like anything new — a collar, harness or even a leash — it will take a while for your dog to get used to wearing something new, so be patient.
Get ready to talk ... a lot
Because your blind dog can't see you, you'll need to let him know where you are in different ways. The easiest way is by talking.
When we take a walk, Galen will bump into me every few feet to check in. He used to try to weave between my legs to keep track of me to make sure I was still there. My trainer friend suggested I carry a bell, but I found that it's just as easy to keep up a running conversation with him. He seems to like it and has his ears constantly going back and forth as he's listening to my reassuring stream of babble.
In addition to saying "watch!" I say "step up" and "step down" to navigate curbs. I tell people he is blind when they want to approach him and pet him so a strange hand doesn't just come at him out of the blue. Then when he hears someone cooing to him, his tail and his whole rear ends starts wagging with joy.
Even if you're not a chatty person, you'll likely find yourself talking more with a blind dog in the house. When you leave the room, it's a good idea to call out to your four-legged pal so he knows where you went. I've found that Galen listens much more intently to me than Brodie, who has definitely learned to tune me out unless I'm saying something about treats or dinner.
You might want to leave on some music or the TV for your blind dog when you're not home. Also, try squeaky toys that make noise. In our house, the louder the toy, the more enticing it is.
Size up your pets
If you have other pets in your home, consider their personalities and how accepting they'll be to a new blind family member. My long-suffering dog Brodie doesn't love that we have a parade of foster puppies in and out of the house, but he tolerates them with incredible patience.
A blind dog can't pick up on warning signs like pinned-back ears from a fellow canine or a twitching cat tail that mean it's a good idea to back off. How would your current pet feel if a blind dog bumps into him or stumbles upon his favorite toy or food dish? If he's snapped at in those situations, a sight-impaired pup won't have any idea what he did wrong.
Even if you have a laid-back pet, always keep an eye on him around your new addition. It can take a few weeks for everybody to figure out their spot in the family.
If you aren't sure if your pets or your family are a good fit for a blind dog, check with a trainer or a vet you respect.
Sometimes, you'll have to count to 10. For me, the laces of my new sneakers were mistaken for a chew toy and have lost their fancy tips. Searching for me in the yard, Galen came racing at me mouth open and collided with my shins, leaving a puppy-tooth puncture wound. He's afraid to walk down stairs (imagine how scary it must be to take that step into nothingness) so I'm still carrying all 18 pounds of him down the steps many times each day. It's a great workout but not so great for my lower back.
But man, is he awesome. I'm amazed every day how happy he is and how much he loves everything and everyone. Squeaky toy! Person! Snuggle! Grass! Just because he can't see something doesn't mean he doesn't adore it. When you add a blind dog to your life, you'll be amazed at how much it opens your eyes to the wonder in the world.