Tips for living with a blind dog

What is it like to live with a blind dog? If you’ve met Charlie he makes life as a blind dog look pretty easy. If you found your way to this page my guess is that you have questions about ways to help your blind dog or maybe prepare for life as your dog goes blind. Here are some a few helpful tips that I’ve learned from Charlie, my blind dog, over the years.

First and foremost, it is important for you to know that Charlie is a happy dog. Being happy is what makes people love him. People forget that he is blind because he is happy. Being blind is not synonymous with living a sad, frightened life.

Charlies journey-40
Charlie – happiness in the gardens

Often people’s concerns about their dog being blind is tied to their own fear of not being able to see. It can be hard for us to imagine being happy in a world of darkness. Charlie helped me overcome my fear of being blind (which is good since my grandmother was blind). I know that if I were to be blind my world might be a little more challenging, but my life would not be sad.

The key is that I’ve treated Charlie like he was any other dog. Perhaps that’s because my grandmother was blind and she made it clear that she while she was blind that didn’t mean she was couldn’t take care of herself. Sure, she needed you to tell her where food was placed on her dinner plate, or where things were located when we went somewhere new, but that is not the same as treating her like a second-class citizen. Trust me, if she thought you were treating her as a disabled person you were in for a tongue lashing that you would never forget! She expected the same amount of respect you would give any other grown up. She had just as much dignity that any other grownup. Thanks to my grandma it is no surprise that when Charlie came into my life I applied the life-lessons she taught me about blindness to dog training. You know what? It worked. Today Charlie is an inspiration to so many people.

Charlie shortly after he came to live with me
Charlie shortly after he came to live with me

My basic philosophy is this: I treat Charlie the same as my other dogs – with trust and respect. In return Charlie trusts and respects me as well as the world the around him.  Do I modify Charlie’s training? I do modify some things, but my training philosophy is that we should always modify training  to best the needs of the dog. Charlie has had some terrific accomplishments. He received his CGC (Canine Good Citizen) when he was 2 years old and has been my registered pet partner (with Delta Society and now Pet Partners) since he was 3 years old. He has been nominated twice for the AKC ACE Award in the Therapy Category and has the AKC Therapy Dog title.

Charlie's official photo for Pets At Duke, photo credit: Diane Lewis Photography
Charlie’s official photo for Pets At Duke, photo credit: Diane Lewis Photography

Here are some insights that I’ve learned from talking to people who are blind and working with a lot of visually impaired/blind dogs.

Scent not vision is the most important sense for dogs. Many people have a hard time understanding and sometimes accepting this fact, because sight is our most important sense. The fact remains that we are not really capable of understanding the full extent to which a dog can sniff out things. Many dogs are lazy about using their nose and we have to remind them so if you have a newly blind dog don’t worry if he doesn’t find his food bowl right away – he will, be patient.

It helps to have a sense of humor….

Feathers? What feathers? I don't see any feathers!
Feathers? What feathers? I don’t see any feathers!

In reality Charlie wasn’t responsible for this – a foster dog created the mess, it was a great photo op though!

While we are talking about senses hearing is important as well. However, sounds can be overwhelming especially in crowded places. Think about it – have you ever been driven down a long stretch of highway and ended up in the middle of nowhere? You are flipping through radio stations trying to find a radio station/song (before there was all the fancy types of radio) and the most you can find is mostly static… oh then wait – you can barely hear a country music station (you know the ones!) and probably a Willie Nelson song! The song is really faint, but you recognize it and because you recognize it you find some comfort. You leave the station on with the hope that the signal will get stronger. This song is your beacon and helps you stay awake as you drive down that road. You are wondering – how is this relevant to your blind dog. Imagine being blind. You are in a busy place and all the sounds you are like the static on the radio. What can you do to help your dog find you in those busy places? How can you be that country song on the radio station? Well, I wear little tiny bells in the form of a bracelet. I call them my “Charlie Bells.” They are fun and cheery and help Charlie know where I am when we are out and about. A charm bracelet could be just as effective.

When Charlie was a puppy and until he was about 4-5 years old I wore “Charlie Bells” all the time. Now I only wear them when we go on therapy visits or if we will be in a busy place. (Note, I happen to be touching Jade in this photo, not Charlie – didn’t want you to think Charlie had something weird going on with his fur!) In case you are wondering, I have a crafty side to me – I made the “Charlie Bells

Charlie running on the beach
Charlie running on the beach. He has so much trust and faith in the world around him that he is happy doing things like running through the surf!

Some other helpful tips:
Use surfaces to your advantage. A blind dog uses the pads of his paws to feel the surface to give him a clue as to his location.

Outside ivy is the ground cover in the woods with a pine straw path. There is a transitional area between the woods and the grass where there is a combination of pine straw and mulch.  As you get closer to the house there is a brick path before the cement sidewalk that leads to the back door. The sidewalk is right next to the house. If we didn’t have these different surfaces Charlie might be running around in the backyard at full speed and hit the sidewalk and not be able to stop in time which would result in a hard whack into the house – OUCH! Actually this happened when he was a little puppy (sorry guy).

Changing surfaces provides information so Charlie knows where he is and when he needs to turn or slow down. This is very helpful information for a blind dog. The best part is that it helps Charlie be independent and gives Charlie confidence. These are good things.

Different textures outdoors to help Charlie know his location.
Different textures outdoors to help Charlie know his location.

This brick path runs straight for a bit and then makes a turn and runs parallel to the house. In this photo Charlie is training with Abby, our Portuguese Water Dog.

Inside the house we use surfaces too- rubber backed bath mats are really helpful.  instead of putting them in front of a doorway I put them next to the wall beside the door so that Charlie doesn’t run into the wall.

Charlie has been blind since birth so teaching him to “go to mat” was a little more challenging than it has been for me to teach other dogs. Until recently Charlie had two favorite mats in his life. He had one mat until he was about 8 years old (he still has it). At 8 he got a memory foam mat. He loves the memory foam so much that refuses to go back to his old flat mat – silly boy! Charlie’s newest mat is microfiber and very fluffy. He in in mat heaven! If you haven’t used a microfiber mat you need to get one – they are great for dogs!

Charlie loves his mat and always goes to mat when he is uncertain about life. It is important to have a safety zone – a place where no one else is allowed to bother a blind dog
insert photo Charlie waiting for his dinner bowl
insert photo Yum – happy things happen on the mat!

Charlie practicing mat work with Jade
Charlie practicing mat work with Jade (Jade’s paw is on the microfiber mat)

When Charlie was a puppy his favorite safety zone was the laundry room when he but once he learned how to go up AND down the stairs it changed to the middle of the stairs. For the longest time I was at a loss for why he thought the middle of the stairs would be a safe place. Then I talked to a several blind friends who explained to me the importance of vertical surfaces. It just so happens that my staircase has the most vertical surfaces to his body mass in the entire house. When he is scared he doesn’t want to budge from the stairs instead I sit there and talk to him until he is ready to move on his own.

To help you understand why vertical surfaces are important to your blind dog try this exercise. Close your eyes. Imagine being in the middle of a very large room and there is nothing that you can touch – no chair, sofa, person. You have nothing to touch or help you navigate to find your way to the door. All around the walls of the room are people and they are talking – some rather loudly. They might even be giving you instructions about which way to turn and how far to move. But what is your point of reference? Things can come at you from all directions – go right, go left, turn around, and go back – it is a very vulnerable feeling when you get conflicting information and you can’t see. You know that if you can get to a wall – or a sofa – or a chair (big stuffed chair that is very stable) then you will be safe. Because you will have a point of reference and you can figure out which direction to go.

Here is video of Charlie doing one of his favorite activities

Did you notice  I had on  Charlie bells! Also, my treat pouch is up high (attached to my shirt instead of my waist) because if I had it on my waist he would steal the treats out of my pouch – he is a thief!

I would like to thank, on behalf of Charlie the three dogs that have had the biggest influence in his life.

Sophie, our Dalmatian, taught him everything he knows about body language and how to fit into the world.

Charlie and Sophie at play.
Charlie and Sophie at play.

Abby, a Portuguese Water Dog, came to live with us after Sophie passed away. Abby’s most import job was to be Charlie’s guide in the world.

Charlies journey-67-5
Charlie and Abby during a training session

Currently Charlie’s buddy is Jade who is also a Portuguese Water Dog. Jade joined our crew to be a therapy dog, but when Abby passed away about a year and a half ago she stepped up to the role of helping Charlie navigate the world.

Charlie and Jade - they love to go for walks through public gardens.
Charlie and Jade – they love to go for walks through public gardens.

If you would like to hear Chris Downey speak on his experience about sudden blindness I would recommend the TED Talk Design With The Blind In Mind. It will give you a whole new perspective about being blind.

I hope you found this helpful and enjoyable.

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