Helpful Tips, Hints, and Products to Help Care for Senior, Blind Dogs
Adopting a Blind Dog
There are lots of gushing articles about how it's noble to adopt a blind dog. This isn't going to be one of them - the focus here is more on practical things you can do to care for a blind dog! Frankly, having a blind dog is a lot of work with a learning curve if you haven't done it before. That said, most dogs adjust to blindness just fine and are wonderful companions, the same as any other dog - they just happen to be blind!
I never specifically set out to adopt a blind dog. I do adopt senior dogs, though, and I suppose that chances are that I would eventually get one that's blind. Quill was adopted at 15. She had very limited vision when she first came home with me. She's now totally blind, unless you count seeing vague shapes if the light is absolutely perfect. Quill is a lovely dog, utterly loyal and sweet. She has adapted just fine to her lack of vision and continues to do everything a sighted dog does, only sometimes in a different way.
Is It Cruel To Keep a Blind Dog?
We tend to project how our dogs feel based on how we ourselves, as people, think. For dogs, vision isn't their primary sense - they use their noses much more, in addition to the other senses of hearing, touch, and taste. They are still interested in being a part of the family and participating in life. There are many ways to help a blind dog maintain a good quality of life.
My own blind dog, Quill, does not let her blindness affect her enjoyment of every single day. She is more cautious moving around in places she's not familiar with, and she relies on me to give her cues to help her navigate the world. But these are little things to her (although undeniably important); she still goes for hikes every day, she travels with me, makes new friends, greets old ones, plays with her food toys, eagerly awaits her meals and asks for more snacks (please and thank you).
I've met a few other blind dogs too. One of them is a regular hiker on the same trails we use every day. He is old and has been blind for many years, and yet he happily sniffs his way down the trail, wagging and greeting everyone he comes across.
Best Products for Blind Dogs
Safety is important when living with a blind dog. Without their sense of vision, they are more at risk of hurting themselves by mis-stepping or mis-judging distances, or bumping into things. Some of the best products to help protect blind dogs include the use of safety gates, halo vests, harnesses, textured mats, and back seat extenders for the vehicle.
Child / Dog Safety Gates
Stairs are always a concern when you have a blind dog. You may have felt that nervous flutter when you watch your blind dog casually amble by a staircase, seemingly a single paw-step from plummeting over the edge. Safety gates prevent accidental falls and gives peace-of-mind to us humans.
If your blind dog likes to follow you around, you'll probably need a safety gate at both the top and bottom of the stairs. I'd go broke if I had to buy gates for the top and bottom of every single staircase in this home. So I compromised by buying a couple of different types. They work great and give me peace of mind that Quill will be safe. These gates are:
- Safety 1st Easy Install Extra Tall and Wide Baby Gate - adjustable width, including for wider-than-usual openings. There's an opening in the gate so you don't have to fiddle around with moving it, so it's great for those frequently-used areas. It installs fast without tools, and is pressure-mounted. Opening the gate is a bit tricky until you get used to it. I will say, though, that if you have arthritic hands or are otherwise weaker / stiffer in your hands, you might have trouble. Otherwise, I love this gate - it's sturdy, and Quill can't open it!
- Safety 1st Perfect Fit Gate - this is the gate I recommend if you're going to be moving it around a lot. I move ours from the top to the bottom of the staircases, depending on where Quill is at the time. The great thing about this gate is that I can operate it with one hand. All you do is set the width, then press a lever to "lock" it into place. When you release the gate it remembers the last width setting so that you don't have to fiddle with it again. I use the pressure-mount, but if you don't plan on moving it around, you can use the hardware mount (there's a "pass-through" feature if you hardware mount it). Note, I wasn't able to find this on Amazon.com, so I bought it from Amazon Canada - click on the photo to go there.
Note, I use all pressure-mounted gates because Quill doesn't attempt to push the gates. They're really only there to give her a cue that something's there and she needs to reset her path. If your dog will attempt to push past the gate, a fixed-mount gate is much safer for the top of the stairs. The second gate mentioned above (the Safety 1st Perfect Fit Gate) has a fixed-mount option. Lots of different dog safety gates are available to fit a variety of purposes.
Use a Halo Vest for Blind Dogs
The best known blind dog halo is Muffin's halo. The idea is that the ring (or "halo" that extends to the sides and in front of the dog's head) will prevent the dog from bumping it's face into things, since the halo gives the dog notice that there's something there.
I know someone who's used a halo with her little blind dog, with great success. I haven't yet found that Quill needs one; she seems to have been able to "map" the house pretty readily in her mind, and along with guidance outside, she doesn't seem at all hesitant to move around. If you're hesitant about spending the money to get a halo when you don't know if your dog needs one (or if it will better her quality of life), you can make one yourself if you're handy, using supplies from a home improvement / supply store.
Use a Harness for Guidance
Blind dogs can be very much interested in participating in every part of life, including following their humans all over the house. A sturdy harness is helpful for guiding them down the stairs. It's much safer, as you can keep a firm grip on your dog to ensure her paws are safely on the step instead of inadvertantly misjudging the location of the step and potentially falling.
I have both the Kurgo Dog Harness and the Canine Equipment No-Pull Harness. They're both great, and pretty similar: they both have a padded chest piece for comfort, and with both, you have the option to clip either to the front (on the chest - handy to help prevent dogs from pulling) or to the back (for dogs that don't pull; or for clipping into a seat belt).
(If you're wondering why I have two harnesses, it's because I'm lazy - I don't want to go up and down the stairs if I accidentally forget the harness on a different level of the house, so I keep a harness on each of the two floors we use the most.)
Use Textured Mats or Cues
A change in surface texture, such as flooring, are great for helping blind dogs navigate. There are lots of different types of rugs or mats that can be used indoors or out. Be consistent in using texture cues. For example, you can use one type of mat to indicate that there's a staircase ahead (including outdoor steps, like porches), and another type of mat to mark the presence of a water bowl. Make sure rugs and mats are non-slip and cannot easily slide into a different position, and check them regularly. Even a difference of few inches can make things more confusing for a blind dog.
Keeping a consistent rug rugger on the most-used paths throughout the home is helpful too. It gives blind dogs a way to "get back on track" just in case they get lost.
Make sure that the edges of rugs do not curl up and cause a tripping hazard.
Outdoor Texture Cues in the Snow & Ice
This can be more challenging if you live in a climate that gets a lot of snow. Mats will often get covered in snow & ice, no matter how often you try to shake them out. You may need to instead use something like sand. The problem is that you'd have to keep doing it over and over again.
There's a great product called an ice carpet mat that works really well and is simpler than trying to maintain a safer, sandy surface. I've had them for one season and wish I'd had them earlier. I place a series of mats on Quill's ramp, as well as at the head and foot of the ramp so that she can feel the difference in texture and knows where to walk. The bonus is that the ice mats are non-slip. If you decide to give them a try:
- Put them down after there's some snow (they're meant to stick to snow/ice). I found that when I initially put it down on bare wood, it would slide.
- Give them a good shake to clear off snow/ice or use a broom. Don't use a shovel on them or you can damage them. You will have to maintain them by keeping them relatively free of snow/ice, otherwise they are a slip hazard (and your blind dog won't be able to feel the texture of the mat if it's covered in snow/ice).
- They come rolled up, which means that the ends will curl up when unrolled - this can be a tripping hazard for blind dogs. I rolled them out upside down, put a bunch of heavy stuff on top for a couple of days, before laying them out. So far, I haven't had any issues with the ends curling up again.
Back Seat Extenders or Bridges (for the Vehicle)
You know that empty space between the front and back seats? Yeah, that can be a hazard for any dog that's not as mobile or who can't see. All it takes is one mis-judged paw-step to fall into that space. A back seat extender or bridge eliminates that space so you won't have to worry about your blind dog falling into it. Plus it gives them more room to move around comfortably. This is another product I consider a "must-have" for those of us with old or blind dogs.
- Carefully measure the back seat of your vehicle, including the distance between the front and back seats. Choose an extender that can easily cover this gap, with room to spare. Even a few inches can make the difference between whether the extender or bridge fits properly.
- Pick an extender or bridge made up of sturdy material - not the soft, fabric type that's only meant to help keep the seat clean. The soft kind can be treacherous for old dogs who aren't so stable on their feet; they might not realize that they're not stepping onto a solid surface and can mis-step and sprain a muscle. The one I have is the FrontPet Backseat Pet Bridge - it's sturdy, easy to install and to move from one car to another, if need be.
- There are a couple of types of extenders: the platform type, which simply extends over the gap between the front and back seats; and the type with storage.
- You might need to clip a blanket (or other non-slip material) onto the extender if your dog finds it slippery. I just place a non-slip mat on top. I use these because they're thin, absorbent, and machine-washable.
Use a Drinking Fountain
If your blind dog still has decent hearing, the use of a drinking fountain will allow her to locate her water dish by following the sound of running water. I have the PetSafe Drinkwell 360 Fountain, which is great for my large dog. It has a large capacity, it's easy to take apart and clean, and as a bonus, it also has a number of different types of "streams" for the fountain - something my old cat really enjoys.
How Do I Help A Blind Dog?
The most important thing you can do to help a blind dog's life easier is to be consistent. Consistency in everything will help her to navigate her world, both inside her home and outdoors or in less familiar environments. Consistency helps to keep her safe and give her confidence, since she will better know what to expect.
Scent vs. Sound Cues
Some people recommend using scent markers to help blind dogs navigate their surroundings. Unfortunately, scent is hard to control - scents can "bleed" onto other pets or humans, or get tracked onto other surfaces or objects. Scents must also be renewed every so often. Sound cues are more useful for these reasons.
If your dog still has decent hearing, sound cues can tell her what to do or where to turn. Dogs navigate a lot with their noses as well, and often don't need cues; they're perfectly happy to explore. But there are some situations in which cues come in handy.
There are lots of ways to use sound cues. The key is to be consistent with how you use them. For example, with Quill, I always use a short, low whistle when I want her to turn towards me (towards the sound). When I want to tell her to move forward - that it's safe - I make a short series of "clicks" with my tongue. To make her stop, I say, "Ah-ah, wait".
Be consistent, use lots of encouragement and praise, and give your dog time to learn what the sounds mean.
How to Make Your Blind Dog's Life Easier
In addition to the using the products mentioned earlier, there are things you can do around the house to help make it easier for your blind dog to navigate and adapt.
- Don't move the furniture. This makes it easier for a blind dog to make a "mental map" of the layout of the rooms, so that she can move around more confidently.
- Buffer sharp corners. Drape a blanket over pointy things to prevent your dog from accidentally bumping into them. For example, I have a blanket chest by my bed; since Quill likes to sleep by me, I drape a pretty blanket over the chest just in case she mis-judges the distance.
- Teach verbal (or touch) cues. If your dog still has her hearing, train her with verbal cues to warn her about things like stairs or uneven or dangerous surfaces. For example, when we approach stairs, I tell her "ah-ah, wait" at the edge of the stairs, and then say, "step", to alert her that she needs to step down, or "up" to alert her that she'll be going up steps.
- Set up a "comfort station". This is an area which has everything your blind dog needs, with everything always placed in the same order in relation to one another. For instance, a comfort station could include a bed (and/or padded crate), water and food bowls. It can even include a "potty break" area with pee pads, if need be. Whenever you bring your dog to a new place, set up her comfort station in exactly the same way so that she has some place familiar to "ground herself" until she's ready to explore her new surroundings.
- Tell others that she's blind. Many friendly, well-meaning people (and dogs) want to say hello and may quickly
approach your dog. Blind dogs can startle more easily. A quick warning to others gives you the chance to let your dog
know that others are approaching. You can also ask them to approach more slowly and speak to her, to lessen the chance
that they'll startle her.
You may also want to add to her ID tag, "I'm blind", just in case she ever gets lost. Some pet supply stores have a machine that will engrave tags on the spot, otherwise you can also buy engravable dog tags online.
- Make sure you're prepared to help. Take care of yourself! Sometimes we pet owners get so focused on our pets that we forget that we can help them best when we're healthy and feeling strong. Use the right tools as well - for example, if you live in a cold, winter climate, wear a pair of snow & and ice grips for your shoes. That way, you can be sure you're safe and steady on your own feet when you're guiding your blind dog.
Living with a blind dog has its challenges. Fortunately, there are lots of great ways and helpful products that can help both the blind dog and her owners navigate life together more easily.