My recent posts have focused on ways we communicate with dogs. Let’s continue that exploration by looking at how we identify the areas on a dog’s body. You might think this is not a big deal because everyone knows eyes, ears, mouth, tail… but where is the stop or the croup? Are they near each other? If someone said their dog is biting her hock would you know what that means? I’ve never heard anyone say, that, but it is possible… dog’s do strange things.
When we identify our dog’s body parts it is important to be consistent with terminology. If we aren’t consistent the message can be lost. The attached poster provides names of the dog’s outer appearance. It doesn’t name the obvious – like “ear” but you know those parts. I hope you find it helpful as we continue on our journey to understand our canine friends.
Hastings PW, Wendy E; Rouse, Erin Structure in Action: The Makings of a Durable Dog Dogfolk Enterprises; First edition (January 14, 2011); 2011.
King HG. What’s Your Angle: Understanding Angulation and Structure for the Performance Dog CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2012.
Admit it – it’s fun watching our dogs because so often they are joyful. There is a big difference between watching our dogs and observing them. Let’s look at what it means to observe a dog.
Often when we look at dogs we see their love, joy and devotion. However, when we observe dogs we need to be to objective and consistent in what we see. If we are do this task well it can help us understand what our dog experiences as she faces each day.
Do you see what I see? It is easy to say that the dogs in this photo are happy and focused on the handler. But what does that tell us about each dog? It is more informative when we slow things down and take photos one frame at a time. You may find it helpful to know the dogs in the photos:
Jade (black and white Portuguese Water Dog)
Ryder (black Portuguese Water Dog)
Galley (black Portuguese Water Dog – white socks on front paws )
Rixa (gray Portuguese Water Dog) and
Charlie (beagle – blind, no eyes) appears in later photos
Background: We were playing retrieving games in the yard. The dogs would return to Louise and she would toss the dummy for them. They would all come, sit, and look at Louise. Once they were focused on her she would throw the dummy and the dogs had to wait until they were released from the “wait” to get the dummy after it was thrown. Galley and Jade took off to play right after the photo above was taken which isn’t surprising since they are the youngest dogs in the group. Rixa and Ryder are waiting for Louise to give them their next cue. Meanwhile Charlie is exploring the yard. Rixa and Ryder were focused on Louise when “out of the blue” Rixa lost her focus. The photos make it clear why this happened. When Rixa lost her focus it happened very quickly and it didn’t seem like a big deal. Looking at the photos it is obvious that there was a reason for Rixa to be distracted.
It is helpful to know:
Ryder is very stoic and when given a cue he does it and doesn’t usually move from that position
Rixa is older and deaf.
Jade: head up, ears alert, eyes round and focused on Louise (handler), mouth open panting, tongue straight out, sitting straight, tail not visible in photo
Ryder: head up, ears alert, eyes round and focused on Louise (handler), mouth closed, tongue inside, sitting straight,tail straight behind;
Galley: head up, ears alert, eyes round and focused on Louise (handler), mouth open panting, tongue out to her left, sitting straight, tail straight behind;
Rixa: head up, ears alert, eyes round and focused on Louise (handler), mouth closed, tongue inside,sitting straight, tail not visible in photo
Galley and Jade have run off to play. Charlie is wandering around and is coming toward Ryder and Rixa. At this point both Rixa and Ryder are still focused on Louise, but notice that Charlie is aware of the two dogs and his body language indicates he is concerned.
Rixa and Ryder are focused on Louise
Charlie is about 6 feet away
Charlie furrowed brow, ears are soft/floppy, mouth is panting – open with tongue out; body position is a cower (neck and back are level); tail down but not tucked.
As Charlie approaches Rixa moves her head away from Louise and toward Charlie. Ryder has not moved.
Charlie is about 4 feet away
Rixa moves her head to her left – the direction Charlie is approaching
Ryder does not move
Charlie, he is panting and has a furrowed brow. His cower deepens – his head and neck are lower than his back (previous picture they were level with his back), his tail appears to be tucked.
Charlie is almost behind Ryder.
Ryder moves his head to his left (the direction that Charlie approached)
Rixa moves her head to her left and down (toward Charlie) while extending her neck toward Charlie.
Charlie is panting, has a furrowed brow, is quite close to Ryder, and is in a a cower (not as deep as the previous photo), his tail appears to be tucked (from the position of his rump and prior photos).
Charlie is behind Ryder and is moving away – he is increasing the distance between himself and Ryder
Ryder moves his head to his right and slightly down (following Charlie) while doing a tongue flick (his tongue goes in and out very quickly – a self-soothing behavior)
Rixa moves her head to the left and up (toward Charlie) and extends her neck toward Charlie.
Charlie has a furrowed brow, is quite close to Ryder and continues to cower. His tail appears to be tucked.
Charlie is almost behind Ryder.
Ryder moves his head to the left (following Charlie)
Rixa moves her head to the left and down (toward Charlie) and extends her neck toward Charlie.
Charlie is panting, has a furrowed brow, is quite close to Ry.der and is in a bit of a cower. Cowering: Charlie’s neck and back are level. his tail is tucked
Charlie has passed Ryder.
Ryder moves his head to the right slightly (following Charlie)
Rixa moves her head to the right (toward Charlie) and tilts her head toward Charlie.
Charlie is panting, has a furrowed brow, is quite close to Rixa. Charlie is not cowering at this point. His tail is low medium – at a 45 degree angle. This information indicates that while he is in the caution zone he is transitioning away from caution toward the green zone- Life’s Good (a happy place). My next post will be about the zones – first you need to understand how to read the body language before you can place the animal in a zone.
Charlie is almost past Rixa.
Ryder moves his head to the right (following Charlie)
Rixa moves her head to the right and down (following Charlie).Did you notice that Charlie is panting, has a furrowed brow, is quite close to Rixa and is not cowering. Compare this photo of Charlie’s head, neck, back and rear to the others and you will see the difference in his body language. You may wonder why is there a difference. Often it is due to more distance between dogs.
Charlie has walked out of the photo and away from Rixa and Ryder
Rixa’s focus is back on Louise
Ryder’s focus is back on Louise
Definitions: Cower: Head and Neck are level with the back Tongue Flick: tongue goes in and out very quickly
dog bite prevention
We may not always realize why our dog is distracted and is unable to paying attention to us. We may think that our dog should be giving us his or her undivided attention. When our dog is distracted there is often a logical explanation. Our job is to find the reason and help our dog do the job we want him to do. Oh – don’t forget to have fun in the process!
How do we keep track of all of this? It looks so easy when someone else does it so here are a couple of forms to help you get started. If you want to ask questions along the way feel free to post here or on my Facebook page.
A completed form for you to use as a guide when you fill observe your animals
A chart that explains the questions you need to consider when observing animals. You may not have the answers to each question, but you want to consider each question when you observe your animal.
A practice quide – there aren’t any “right” or “wrong” answers here… just take a few minutes and think about what you observe in the illustrations and which zone your might place the animal in for the scenario you created. You can create multiple scenarios – how does that effect the zone placement? It is fun to see how each scenario influences the zone.
A blank form for you to use with your own dogs or clients
Once you become proficient at observing animals you won’t need the reminders of Head, Body, Rear, etc.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live with a blind dog? Charlie was only a puppy when I was told that he needed both of his eyes removed. I worried that I wouldn’t know how to read his facial expressions. Trust me, I was worried for no reason! Charlie is one of the most expressive dogs I’ve ever met.
Charlie was at the North Carolina State University in this photo. He was a participant in a research study. After he completed the study I met some of the research team that reviewed the photos from the project. These members of the team were not present during the testing. They told me that he was so happy which made his smile so big that his eyes were shut! I laughed and said “Yup, that’s my Charlie! He shares unimaginable joy everywhere he goes. But, his smile didn’t shut his eyes. His eyes are sewn shut because he eyes were removed due to complications from blindness…” The professor said he learned that after he reviewed the photos of Charlie, but it wasn’t the his first impression of the dog. I find this interesting because it often happens when Charlie meets new people.
Let me introduce you to puppy Charlie. When I learned he was losing his eyes I thought of the Velveteen Rabbit. In case you don’t the story there is a quote that reminds me of Charlie.
Charlie is very Real and incredibly beautiful. He is resilient and doesn’t easily break. He has taught me much over the years. He sees with his heart and soul. When people meet him they know that he sees them even though he has no eyes. It is a wonderful thing.
It took two different procedures to remove both eyes because there were complications after the first procedure. Charlie was a trooper and in this photo he is on the road to recovery after the surgery. You can tell he was a little wary here as the photo portrays one of Charlie’s more serious moments. This serious pup grew up to be very joyful.
Look at his face – my goodness! He is one of the most expressive dogs I know. Well, he is a beagle and isn’t shy about letting you know what he is feeling! In the photo Charlie is about 10 years old and is sharing his unimaginable joy. I am so thankful for his joy.
One of Charlie’s favorite things to do is the “Snoopy Dance!” Yup – up on his back legs … he stands to dance and he smiles a big goofy smile the entire time … it is a sight to behold when a dog with no eyes is dancing on two feet and laughing at the same time. He knows he will earn some sort of fabulous reward for this trick.
Charlie’s head tilt … everyone adores the head tilt. This is Charlie’s camera pose. If you say “Charlie, 1-2-3” he will stop, sit (or lay down) and tilt his head. You need to take the photo on 2, but keep counting to 3. Thank you Kristy for teaching Charlie this trick! Charlie was my active Pet Partner for 8 years and had a lot of photos taken during that time. The camera pose trick served us well. This is Charlie’s official Pets At Duke photo – thank you Diane Lewis Photography for this and many other amazing photos!
Don’t be fooled – the boy can get down and dirty. Somehow I think he is part duck because he almost never is muddy. However, one day he came inside so full of mud. He seemed so proud of himself for being so muddy, that I had to document his muddiness! Notice the ears – they are flipped back. I think the flipped back ears help him cool off, but they can also be a sign of arousal…
How did I ever think that a dog with no eyes would have a face that didn’t have expressions? Between his eyebrows, mouth, and ears there is a ton of information! (the flipped back ear in this case is arousal)
After a hard day’s work even Charlie gets tired and needs to go to bed! This photo is from his early years. You can tell he is younger because his face has ticking showing so he was between 1 and 2 years old.
One of Charlie’s favorite things – to sit on my lap and help me work. I find this photo fascinating because it is like Charlie is watching himself on the computer… only how can he? The photo demonstrates why people ask me “are you sure he isn’t faking being blind?” I know, the dog has no eyes, nothing connected to his optic nerve and yet people want to know if he is faking it… I’m tempted to ask them “what color is George Washington’s white horse?” Yes, he is blind … he just doesn’t need his eyes to see.
Charlie may be getting older but he doesn’t let that slow him down. He doesn’t let a little thing like the weather slow him down. If there was a thought bubble over his head it might be something like “what, you think a little snow is going to stop me? I’m blind. I might older, but I can still get around… I like snow. Let me play. Stop taking my picture already!” You need a Jersey or maybe Brooklyn accent in there too. And did you notice… head tilt…. what do you think – does he always tilt his head the same direction?
Happiness!! More of Charlie’s unimaginable joy.
We all need unimaginable joy in our lives.
Charlie is on the beach. His head is lifted into the wind, feeling the breeze and smelling all the things that a beagle can smell. Sheer bliss… He might not be showing unimaginable joy in the form of the Snoopy Dance or giving you a goofy grin… but this face, this is his bliss face. He loves the beach. I’m not sure if it is because he likes the water (he does) or if it is because he likes the variety of stinky smells! He loves smelling dead fish, all things about birds, people cooking out. You name it he can identify the smells. He can tell you exactly where it is coming from and more importantly where he might snag a tasty treat! If you happen to go to the beach with Charlie – you had better safeguard your burgers!
Charlie with a chin over Ella … Charlie and Ella are best buds and snuggle together all the time. The fact that they are looking in different directions could be that each dog finds different things distracting. This photo was taken on the main traffic circle at Duke on a Sunday morning. There were several cars that kept driving around the traffic circle watching as I took a series of photos which I found distracting. I can only imagine what the dogs thought! Charlie “watched” the cars go round and round!
Charlie still has the smile… and unimaginable joy… and can make you feel special just by being near you. I still get requests for visits with him, but he is retired and has earned the right to be a couch potato, prowl for critters in the back yard, open all the kitchen cabinet doors (and climb inside) and howl at strange sounds.
Charlie’s parting thoughts are for you to find your own unimaginable joy. The list below are some of things that are Charlie’s happiness which is why he wants you to know that you should feel free to add whatever it is that makes you feel unimaginable joy.
I ask everyone who calls as a new client “please tell me three things that you love most about your dog” because if you can do this than you haven’t given up hope. If there is hope then change can happen.
I find that even in the most worrisome of cases, people want to tell me more than three things they love about their dogs. This is great news because when a person remembers why they love their dog they will be able to face even the most challenging of situations. Many times when I get a new client it is because “they’ve tried everything else.” My clients need to be prepared to work hard. They need to have a reason why they are working through the issue at hand or we won’t be able to resolve the problem. Remembering why you love your dog is a critical part of the program.
In honor of all my clients and my own dogs I would like to take this opportunity to let everyone know how thankful I am for my own dogs. I want to share why I love each of my dogs with you.
Resilient and amazing – any dog that had both eyes removed by the time he was 4 months old and is able to bring love, laughter and joy wherever he goes – that is beyond amazing in my book!
Persistent – Can find anything with the super-power/bionic nose of his!
Trust and friendship – I’ve learned what it means to take a leap of faith from Charlie who will jump on or off a surface if I tell him it is all clear … he trusts me to tell him that take the jump without being hurt.
Loves to learn, play, and swim. These abilities make Jade a very fun dog to be around! Jade started hanging out on Duke University’s campus as a tiny pup – sometimes I wonder if she’s earned an advanced degree…
Makes sure everyone, human and canine alike, is safe and secure – no matter what we are doing Jade needs to be sure that everyone is safe.
Resilience, trust, and friendship – Jade has several autoimmune disorders but never lets them get her down for long. She is an amazing dog and friend that has taught me so much!
Courage and beauty combined – a brave little girl who reminds me every day that beauty is comes from the inside. We tend to focus on the outside, but when someone is truly beautiful that starts deep inside and pours out through depths of of every cell.
Her spirit – she sparkles … the only dog I know who is so proud that she can do a “down” that she adds a “twirl” to it! I’m not sure if this is because she loves to twirl or if it is because I laugh every time she does it. Either way it shows her desire to sparkle…
Trust and friendship and the fact that she is a love bucket!
A Photo to Make You Smile…
Now it’s your turn – what are some of the things that you love most about your dogs? I’d love to hear from you, if you are inspired to share what you love most with me here. ! If not, be sure to take a minute and write your list down for yourself. Remember to celebrate your dog. Go on a long walk. Play with your dog. Do something special for him or her. That is my wish for you, and all dogs, I hope that you are enjoying and loving your dog today.
It is our responsibility to make meals fun for our furry friends. Do you want to eat the same thing every day? When we were kids the cafeteria lunches were like that and we quickly figured how to rebel. By the time high school rolled around … let’s just say that there were times when the cafeteria ladies were not happy, the lunch line was shut down, and detention was served. While it was never my fault (believe what you will!) I remember each detention and I’m sure the cafeteria ladies do too! We don’t want want to put our dogs in detention…
Snuffle mats are cool for several reasons. When Ella searches through the fleece she engages the SEEKING system in her brain. There are many games and methods for feeding – but they don’t all engage the SEEKING system. I learned about the snuffle mats from a friend over at the North Carolina State University Veterinary School. Let me tell you – my dogs LOVE these silly things!
You may be wondering:
What is the SEEKING System and why do I need to engage it?
A Snuffle Mat? Really? What is it and where can I find one?
The SEEKING System helps us
keeps us interested in exploring the world
find things we want most.
Without the SEEKING System how would we ever find what we need to in order to sustain life?
There is a balance between what feels good and over indulgence. When we engage the SEEKING System for problem solving and searching for food it is a good thing for our dogs.
By using controlled activities we can encourage the right amount of SEEKING behavior without having our dogs to tip over into obsessive compulsive behaviors.
In case your were wondering – can multiple dogs find food on the same mat? Absolutely! Charlie and Ella finding food in their Snuffle Mat.
Look at how fluffy the snuffle mat is! Are you trying to figure out what it is made of and why is it a round fluff ball? The original design calls for a drain mat with pieces of fleece tied through the holes of the drain mat. I had trouble finding a drain mat and when I did I couldn’t cut it … so I improvised. I found a pizza pan with big holes. Yup – metal 13″ pizza pan. Trust me it worked better than the dish drainer which just curled into something that looked like a log when I tied all the pieces of fleece on it… Charlie thought it was his new toy and takes it outside to go potty with – not something I’m going to put food on 😉
What you need to make this particular snuffle mat – a bunch of fleece cut up into 10″ x 2″ strips.
Next step – pull the strips through the holes. I alternated colors but you don’t have to do that.I think it looks better and honestly, it is easier to know which pieces to knot together if they are different colors.
NOTE: I’ve been trying to come up with easy ways to clean and also make sure that the mat dries after my slobbery dogs sniff their way through it. For us it seems to work out best if we have every other row with fleece strips instead of every row.
Final step – tie the pieces. It’s a simple half knot. The knot is the same thing you use when you are getting ready to tie your laces on your shoes before you tie the bow. You are done!
These are so easy to make and the dogs have great fun finding their meals inside the mats. The dogs already knew how to search for food so maybe that was part of it, but I think most dogs would have fun with this game!
I haven’t had any trouble with my dogs eating the fleece. They know that these are for food, not fleece!
The other cool thing about Snuffle Mats – at least in our house – there is no resource guarding. Perhaps it is because not only do we have three snuffle mats but there is food hidden in all kinds of fun places from low to high. In bookcases under rugs, inside of blankets, boxes, oh my! My dogs know that there is plenty of food to go around for everyone. Jade is pretty sneaky toward the end though… she knows that a certain beagle has a bionic nose – you know – it is his super power because he has been blind his entire life! He might be slow at times but he always knows the obscure places I’ve hidden even just a single kibble. Or maybe a kibble got misplaced and I have to relocate the washing machine or refrigerator because all three dogs refuse to move until that kibble is rescued from it’s hiding place!
The snuffle mat is made with a 13″ Pizza Pan that has big holes – not the teeny tiny holes. Be careful – don’t get the little holes. You can also get a drain mat (the thick rubber mats) and cut them to whatever size you want for the mat. I put three mats down at breakfast and dinner and the dogs are ever so happy. I could even hide the mats – but I don’t. I bury the kibble deep down inside the fleece I think that is enough work for them!
It was an honor to give a TEDx Talk in Lizard Creek North Carolina. I was thrilled to be part of the day because the theme was “Shaping the Unseen.” If you aren’t familiar with my dog Charlie, let me introduce you – Charlie is my blind beagle and was my Pet Partner for over 8 years. Much of the work I do with animals is about shaping and since Charlie is blind all the work we do is “unseen.” I hope you take a few minutes and enjoy the TEDx talk – the video is embedded below.
Learning to See With The Heart: Brian Tarallo of Lizard Brain Solutions created illustrations for each talk. It was inspiring to watch Brian work as he captured the essence of each talk. I was happy that Brain was able to capture the heart of my talk in such a beautiful and wonderful way. Plus, I think Charlie would love knowing that he is illustrated as a super-cool hero dog that wears ray-bans!
It was a great honor to be one of the speakers at the Lizard Creek TEDx event. A special thanks goes to Randi and Kathy Dikeman who coordinated the event! There are some great pictures and all the bios of the speakers are listed on the Facebook page for the event.
Celebrate who you are
Trust and believe in yourself
Leave doubt behind
Engage others in your dreams
When you do these things, you will discover anything is possible.
Again, thank you to all who made the TEDx Lizard Creek event possible!
This post is dedicated to Charlie, my blind beagle, who was my pet partner for about 8 years.
When we arrive at a facility sometimes we don’t know who will benefit most from our visit. It may be a patient, a friend, or it might be a staff member.
This post focuses on our hospital visits. Most of the patients we see are on the hematology/oncology unit. Some patients may have just learned that they have cancer while others may be end-stage cancer patients. When we enter a room there might be just the patient or there could be a room full of people. The patient might have received good or bad news that day. Maybe the patient had some treatments that were particularly hard. Or, maybe she is thinking about her husband and young children and how she may not get to see her kids grow up. When we enter the room it takes Charlie seconds to know if the patient needs him to snuggle, play, be serious, or be silly. My job is to watch and follow Charlie’s body language.
Over the years my pet partners have trained the staff to bring them their favorite treats! Charlie started the tradition when the nurses would open IV bags and he begged. The nurses didn’t understand why he was begging when all they were doing was replacing an IV bag so I explained he probably thought they were unwrapping a cheese stick! Honestly, Charlie’s super power is his nose. He had to know that there was no food involved so he was playing the nurses big time. It didn’t matter to the nurses – they caved and brought him treats! When he did tricks and shared his joy with the nurses during our shift at the end of the day he brought much needed levity to the nurses before they went home to their families.
It is easy for me to forget just how magical Charlie is when he works as a therapy dog. I’m not immune to his wonders and I don’t have a shield up to his magical, mystical powers… it’s just that, he’s my Char-Char who snuggles with me on the sofa at night.
In my mind he is like any other dog which is why he is also my Char-Char the dog chases bunnies in the early morning or doesn’t come inside until he is covered in mud!
There is no doubt that Charlie is a special dog. He gives people hope when they have given up. Charlie inspires people to persevere on their path for healing. Charlie touches a person’s heart in places where others have had a hard time reaching. Everything he does is with love, laughter and joy. He does these things even though his world is a dark place which is why he amazes everyone he meets.
I salute my Char-Char whether he is cheering on a nurse, a patient, a family member or he is creating mischief at home. I know that Charlie has a very special gift. I am thankful every day that he is a part of my life.
The following is a story that shows how deeply therapy dogs touch a person’s life.
Jade and I were at the veterinarian because she needed some routine testing. One of our favorite nurses from the hospital came out of the ICU. It took a second for her to realize Jade was right there in the waiting room. As soon as she realized she was looking at Jade a slow smile formed on her face. Her smile started in heart and went to her eyes. She came over and gave Jade a huge hug. By touching and hugging Jade her mood brightened and her sadness seemed to float away. When she learned that Charlie was in the car she was happy! Her mood changed from sad to happy in a matter of a couple of minutes by seeing Jade and knowing that Charlie was nearby. At long last she could introduce these very special dogs to her husband for the first time. Both dogs made her feel better on a day when her cat was recovering from a very complex surgical procedure.
You see, our dogs aren’t just therapy dogs during visits inside of the hospital, school, prison, or wherever it is that we visit. Once our dogs become a therapy dog, they are always a therapy dog no matter where they are or what they are doing. It doesn’t matter if they are wearing a vest that says “Therapy Dog On Duty” or not… to the person who knows our dog as a therapy dog, our dog is always on duty!
Our dogs gladly do their job of relieving stress, lowering blood pressure, making people smile, and basically just sharing the burden of the day. The list of what these amazing dogs do for people is endless. When I first became a Pet Partner with Charlie I knew that people were inspired by him and remembered him, but I didn’t realize just how much he meant to them and their recovery until we had been visiting for about 3 years. The patient was in a hospital rehab unit for spinal cord injuries.We typically see the patients once since they only are there a few weeks at the most.
As we entered the patient’s room I didn’t know that Charlie had a fan. We were greeted with a TON of happiness because the patient and their family remembered Charlie. During our visit they shared with me all the joy he brought them before and wanted to know all the things that he had done since they last saw him!
The level of detail that they went into of our visit humbled me. We spent 15 minutes with them years before but the patient and their family remembered everything about our visit. Charlie was a turning point in their care. They could relate to Charlie and the struggles he had overcome in life. After meeting Charlie the patient decided that “if Charlie can do it, I can do it!” Charlie provided hope and the ability for the patient to persevere in their healing. Oh how happy that made me to hear!!
Over the years I’ve met quite a few people where Charlie has had a similar impact on their life by spending just a few minutes with them. Every time I hear a “Charlie Story” I am amazed and humbled by the impact one little dog can have on another person. One woman swears she owes her life to Charlie because he knew there was something wrong with her foot (at the time she didn’t know it, but her foot had gout, turned septic and needed to be amputated shortly after she met Charlie). Another woman adopted a blind dog in Charlie’s honor. I know there are many other stories and ways that Charlie has touched people’s lives but I don’t usually hear from people after we visit. It is enough for me to know that we make a difference.
Note: this post is adapted from a previous post. The posts about Charlie and therapy work were some of the most highly visited posts so I thought I would try get a few of them back up on the blog. As an update, Charlie is retired these days. He is almost 11 years old and has worked most of his life. He does “visit”with people when we go for walks through Duke Gardens but he no longer goes on official visits.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.