Jordan was blind and deaf, and he was fetching (in both senses of the word)! Quality of life was not an issue for this dog, and I was thrilled about it. His guardians were following my fundamental rule for dogs with challenges: Decide that this dog is going to have a full and happy life, just as you would with any dog. With this family, I was truly preaching to the choir.
Most dogs have a cue to go fetch: the sight of you throwing the ball, or maybe the sound of you saying, “Go get it! Go get your ball!” Jordan’s cue to fetch was two strokes with a ball down the length of his body. He then moved in the general direction that he was facing and tracked a scented ball. The backyard where he played had grass surrounded by a border of bark chips, and then gravel-sized rocks around that and next to the patio and the fence. The grass and the patio were his playground, while the bark chips and rocks served as a warning track. He had a good idea where he was by what his feet were touching.
Jordan played tug, too, which was the same for him as any dog, except that he smelled the tug toy rather than seeing it, and sometimes it took him a couple of tries to grab it with his mouth. He even played with the other dogs in his household by leaping, chasing and wrestling, including using play bows. The other dogs didn’t play bow to him much, apparently having learned that Jordan didn’t respond to them. Instead, they initiated play with him by mouthing at his legs or leaping onto him—signals many dogs use. If he got carried away, the cue for him to stop playing was to touch him just above his tail and squeeze gently. His exuberance was probably a combination of youth, a naturally effervescent personality and an inability to understand the other dogs’ signals to back off.
Over the years, I have met dozens of deaf dogs, quite a few blind dogs, and three dogs who were both blind and deaf. Simple adjustments allow them to do most of what other dogs can, but for some issues, living with such dogs requires special techniques.
Scenting items in the house will help blind dogs keep their bearings. A touch of an essential oil on a few items of furniture allows them to orient. Use trace amounts—dogs have sensitive noses! Also, avoid citrus scents, which many dogs dislike. If you do move things around, lead the dog to the new items and guide her around, starting from a familiar and unmoved item, such as a step down into the living room, or the back door.
Clear vocal signals are even more important with blind dogs than with sighted dogs. Blind dogs can’t see any of the cues other dogs sometimes use to figure out what you want—like turning your body toward the house when you call “come” or tilting your head when you say “sit.”
Because dogs primarily use visual cues in their social interactions, protect your dog from making any “faux paws” that can lead to awkwardness or even aggression from another dog who may misinterpret your dog’s inappropriate response. Let blind dogs play with very social dogs who are nonreactive even to dogs doing odd things. Teach your dog to do a play bow on cue so she can tell the other dog she’s interested in playing. Also, teach her to back off on cue to help remove her from awkward situations gracefully. Many dogs will naturally perform these behaviors in response to other dogs’ visual cues.
Scent toys for blind dogs so that they can find them, or use toys that make noise, though they do not need to be loud. Toys that rattle, ring or squeak are often fun, but a lot depends on the individual dogs. Blind Terriers, for example, are just as apt to love squeaky toys as Terriers who can see, but there are always exceptions, and some blind dogs may be too sound-sensitive to enjoy noisy toys.
Use a flash of light as a marker when training a deaf dog, just as you would use a clicker. You can use a different light signal as a cue for the dog to give you her attention. Once you have it, you can be more specific about what you want. Obviously, using visual signals rather than vocal ones is the only way to go with a deaf dog. Many people still use the vocal cue for their own benefit, and that’s fine as long as you don’t expect the dog to respond to the cue, which she cannot perceive.
Dogs who are blind, deaf or both are more likely to be fearful because to them, the world is less predictable. Specifically, dogs without one or more senses are more likely to be surprised when approached or touched than dogs who can see and hear. Though they learn to depend on their existing senses more than other dogs, they are still surprised sometimes. These surprises can be scary, and dogs often react badly out of fear. Reacting badly can mean mild behavior such as yelping and hiding, or more troublesome reactions such as defecating or biting.
To avoid surprises and fearful reactions, use a cue meaning “I am about to touch you.” Cues can be vocal or visual depending on which sense the dog has, or two taps on the floor near the dog for those lacking both hearing and sight. If dogs are alerted that a touch is coming, they are protected from being startled. I also recommend counterconditioning dogs to being touched. Basically, teach your dog that a treat follows being touched unexpectedly. With enough repetitions of this lesson, the dog’s response to a surprise touch will be more of “Oh boy, that means I get a treat! Fun!” and less of, “Aaack! What was that? Scary!”
Lots of tactile contact can be beneficial for your relationship and for your dog’s well-being. When missing the use of one or more senses, communication can be compromised despite your best efforts to work around the issue, and that can cause stress. Physical contact such as TTouch or other forms of canine massage can help your dog feel less stressed, repair any damage to the relationship and make you feel closer to each other. (Even for dogs without these challenges, massage and touching tends to be a good thing as long as they enjoy it—there is, however, the rare dog who doesn’t.)
I urge everyone who has a dog with challenges to remember that the most important aspect of living with, loving and training these dogs is remembering that they are dogs just like any other dogs. It’s easy to remember that they are blind, deaf or both, but it’s essential, whatever abilities they may or may not possess, that we never forget their true essence. Five senses or fewer, they are dogs.