When a Dog Can’t See

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When a Dog Can’t See

by Tracy Vogel, Staff Writer

Blood started pouring from the dog’s nose.

It was the middle of an obedience class, and Lea Slaton’s hound dog, Peanut, was learning to heel. She called the trainer over to look. A few minutes later, the bleeding stopped.

It was the only indication they had that something was wrong, and it happened just a couple of times—once in the summer, and once in December. Both times, Lea Slaton took the family’s five-year-old dog to the veterinarian and had her checked out. Nothing showed up.

Then, one June morning, Ms. Slaton roused Peanut from her bed in the laundry room to make the morning trek outdoors. She watched with increasing horror as Peanut bumped into the sofa leaving the laundry room, then a small table in the living room.

"Her tail was still wagging the whole time—that was the saddest thing," Ms. Slaton recalled.

Ms. Slaton scooped up the 45-pound dog, took her upstairs and placed her on the bed, to best examine her. She brought her hand sharply toward the dog’s face. No reaction. And realization hit.

Oh my God, Ms. Slaton thought. She can’t see.

The family rushed the dog to the veterinarian, who in turn sent them to the North Carolina College of Veterinary Medicine, located in their hometown of Raleigh, N.C. There Peanut was diagnosed with a tick-borne disease, ehrlichiosis, which causes inflammation of the eyes. Veterinarians treated the disease, but the retinas had detached. Peanut’s vision was gone.

Blindness hits dogs from many different angles: cataracts, diabetes, disease, hereditary ailments. It’s traumatic—and not just for the animal that has lost its vision. The owner suffers too—feelings of grief and loss, pity for the pet, uncertainty about the future.

Caroline Levin, author of Living With Blind Dogs, noticed something during her time managing a veterinary eye clinic. "Every one of the owners leaving, whose dogs were diagnosed blind, were in tears," she said. "Even the big, macho, 250-pound men were in tears."

Around the country, veterinary opthamologists say they’ve seen the same reaction. "It can be more stressful for the owner than the dog," said Dr. Annajane Marlar of the Animal Ophthalmology Clinic in Dallas, Texas.

In Peanut’s case, it seemed particularly unfair. The blindness was a blow at a time when it seemed like the worst should already have been over.

New ways of seeing

Ms. Slaton had found Peanut abandoned and starving, pawing at a covered fish pond, trying to get a drink of water.

A neighborhood man said the dog had been around for weeks, but he wasn’t about to feed it and have it decide to stay. When Ms. Slaton called to it— "Want to go home?" —and opened the back seat of the car, the dog jumped in without hesitation.

She meant to drop the dog—malnourished and missing hair—off at the shelter. It didn’t work out that way.

Many veterinary bills later, Peanut had been cured of heartworms, a hernia, and a couple different types of internal parasites—and the Slatons had a new dog. Peanut’s personality —her gentleness, her trusting nature, her habit of touching people with her paw when she wanted something—had won the family over.

Ms. Slaton took Peanut for training, and the dog got good enough to earn a few titles at obedience shows. The family told show organizers she was an American foxhound—she had beagle markings, but was too big for that breed.

Trained though she was, Peanut wouldn’t give up her mischievous side—she liked to root through the trash, steal food from the other family dog, Liesl, and she would chase anything that moved. "If you didn’t have a hold of her, she was gone," Ms. Slaton recalled.

Ms. Slaton wondered how much of that vibrancy Peanut could retain without her vision. "I wondered about her quality of life," she said. "I was concerned that that was all going to be gone, and she was not going to be the same dog again."

It’s the same question everyone has. Occasionally a client is so upset that he or she considers putting the dog to sleep, said Dr. Eric Smith of the Animal Eye Care Center in Gaithersburg, Md.

Dr. Smith tells them to put off that decision for at least six weeks. "I don’t know of anyone who then decided to put the dog to sleep," he said. "The large majority of dogs still lead a decent, happy life."

And that, blind dog owners and dog care professionals say, is the key point people eventually come to understand.

"I’m not saying it’s not traumatic for the dog. It can be a very stressful event for the pet," Dr. Marlar said. "But generally dogs cope very well with no vision at all."

Dr. Marlar owns a Labrador retriever, Hershey, that has been blind since the age of nine weeks because of a disease called oculo skeletal dysplasia. Hershey’s owners donated her to Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine after her retinas spontaneously detached.

Dr. Marlar, then a student, took the dog home nights to care for her. The two developed such a bond that the school gave her the dog.

Blind though she might be, the dog was going to have a real canine life, Dr. Marlar vowed. "The deal I made for myself was that she was going to be a normal dog—she was going to be disciplined like a sighted dog, and she was going to get to do all the things that, as much as I could let her do, she would do," she said.

And Hershey, like many blind dogs, was willing. "It’s amazing how they adapt," Dr. Marlar said. "I’ve had arguments with owners who refuse to accept that their pets are blind."

Part of that disbelief is due to the way dogs deal with blindness.

For a human, sight is the primary sense, Dr. Marlar said. For a dog, the primary sense is smell, followed by hearing. Vision is a dog’s third most important sense—that’s relatively low on the list.

Dogs also possess a skill called cognitive mapping, Ms. Levin said. It’s the same instinct that allows them to find an object they buried weeks ago. "That’s really handy for blind dogs," she said. "They have the house and yard mapped in their mind, and they can run full speed around the house."

If a dog gradually goes blind—if, for example, it loses sight in one eye and then starts losing it in the other—owners might not even notice until the day they move the furniture and the dog starts walking into things.

One of five senses

"If it wasn’t for her eyes looking the way they do, people would never know she’s blind."

Nine-year-old Chelsea, a weimaraner, trotted over the lawn outside Vicki Worden’s Annapolis, Md., home, dipping her nose often to the ground to touch base with the smells that guided her. She lacked the loping run of the family’s other dog, four-year-old Hans, but she sniffed her way out with confidence.

The eyes Ms. Worden referred to were startling in the gray canine face—milky white with a bluish glow, streaked with radiating glimmers like a star sapphire. Double cataracts.

Chelsea has a hereditary degenerative retinal disease, probably the result of puppy mill breeding. The Wordens fostered her for two weeks for a weimaraner rescue program, fell in love, and adopted her.

When they first got her, Chelsea was about 90 to 95 percent blind—she could still see lights and shadows. The only outside indication of her blindness was her pupils—constantly wide to let in as much light as possible.

The Wordens initially were nervous at the idea of fostering a blind dog. Would it affect their lifestyle? Would it be fair to Hans, who loved to take long walks, to care for a dog limited by blindness?

Chelsea turned out not to have a problem with that. She stubbornly wanders off into the trees during walks, occasionally getting tangled in the brush, but usually finding her way. She ignores the helpful sound cues her owners supply, like clapping and calling out. "Like any dog, she wants to sniff out her own way," Ms. Worden said.

Upon encountering a person, the dog snuffles wildly, pushing her snout over the subject as her flaring nostrils vacuum in the scents—the canine equivalent, it seems, of a sightless person’s fingers fumbling to identify a face.

Chelsea’s sense of smell amazes the family. One day, the dog was digging and pawing at the couch. The family checked underneath it, and saw nothing. Chelsea wouldn’t give up. Finally, they moved the couch for her. Underneath was the cause for all the excitement: a single dead fly.

In a strange place—a new house, a different yard—Chelsea will sniff her way around the perimeter, memorizing it. After that initial tour, she’s able to run and play without problems, Ms. Worden said.

Difficulty comes when objects are moved around—a necessity in a household with a two-year-old boy and eight-week-old baby. On this morning, the older boy, Gavin, was playing with a large wooden boat, big enough for him to sit in. It had been pulled out into the middle of the living room.

Chelsea entered the room cautiously, placing her feet tentatively on the few short steps to the floor, her nose to the ground. But then she bumped into the boat and stopped, confused. She tried a few different ways, but was trapped between the boat and furniture.

"Here, Chelsea. Here, Chelsea," Ms. Worden said, snapping her fingers to help her find her way. But after a few seconds she had to reach out and tug at Chelsea’s collar, directing her out of the quagmire. Free of the boat, Chelsea wound around the sofa and coffee table without trouble.

Coping lessons

Not all dogs cope well. A small number—perhaps five percent—have severe problems, Dr. Marlar estimated.

Dogs adjust better in situations where they go blind young, not when they are old; when the blindness is the sole factor, and not paired with hearing or senility; and when the blindness onsets gradually, rather than suddenly. Dogs accustomed to freedom—farm animals and outdoor pets—have more trouble than indoor dogs.

In the bad cases, the dog can just give up and sink into a depression, develop destructive separation anxiety, or become aggressive—but the aggressive ones tend to have that behavior before they lose their vision, Dr. Marlar said.

Dominant dogs in a multiple dog household also have problems, since the impulse of the other dog is often to try to take over, Ms. Levin said.

Even the dogs that cope often will have some difficulty, and may display new character traits they never showed before. Dr. Marlar’s dog has separation anxiety—bad, often panicked behavior that the dog performs when the owner is gone. "I couldn’t even take a shower without her being in the bathroom," she said. "If I was gone five minutes, she would start howling."

A limited amount of separation anxiety is a common problem in blind dogs—they depend on their owners more than other dogs, which means they become more nervous when the owner leaves. The behavior can be difficult to treat, because you can’t cure the root cause —the blindness.

For the same reason, kenneling isn’t an option for blind dogs when owners want to take a vacation. "We cannot crate her," Ms. Worden said. "I don’t know whether it was because she was never crate-trained, or because she can’t see out, but she is not at all comfortable in a crate. We always have to have a dog-sitter."

And then there’s the owner’s pain at watching a blind dog cope. "Yes, it will trip," Dr. Marlar said. "Yes, it will bump its head. You cannot pad the dog."

And that’s just something that has to happen, Dr. Marlar said, adding that she knows what it’s like to watch a beloved pet collide with a coffee table.

"If I worried every single time she bumped her head, I would go insane," she said. "It’s a question of having to have a point of what is tolerable. The pet is not going to function normally if you’re not going to allow them to learn."

It’s as though your child lost his vision, Dr. Marlar said. Your first impulse is to pick the child up, carry him around, give him everything he wants.

But eventually you realize that won’t work forever. "You have to push," she said. "You have to be the motivation for that pet to move around."

Don’t underestimate your dog’s ability to adjust, to cope, to rise above adversity, owners said.

For the first six weeks of blindness, Peanut was a subdued dog. Looking back, Ms. Slaton isn’t sure whether that was because of the disease she was fighting, or the sudden darkness around her.

Peanut used to invite her family to play in the usual dog way—a short, friendly bark, a bow and waggle of the rear. After the blindness crept in, she seemed lethargic and depressed, games a thing of the bright world of the past.

But one day Peanut greeted Ms. Slaton returning home from work. The dog waggled her hind end and gave a play-bark.

 Oh, Ms. Slaton thought in a wave of relief. I’m going to get my dog back.

A map of the senses

Owners can help their dogs adjust. Instead of taking over, they need to help the dog learn. To do that, they have to be creative.

Smell and hearing are vitally important to the dog now. Use that, experts said.

A dab of scent can help a blind dog identify an area. You can use that to direct the dog to the place where it should be, or warn it away from an area it has trouble with, Ms. Levin said.

A dab of vanilla extract on the dog’s sleeping spot, a touch of Pledge near the food bowl, and a drop of perfume near the door outside will help identify those key areas, Ms. Levin said. Don’t worry about whether you can smell the scent—your dog’s nose is much more sensitive.

Some people will use plug-in air fresheners or scented candles in each room to help the dog develop an olfactory map of the house, Dr. Marlar said. Scented oils can help warn the dog of the presence of a wall or furniture as it approaches.

The dog can still play fetch or tug of war—just find scented toys, add a scent to plain toys, or buy toys that make noise. One brand of dog toy, Look Who’s Talking, will babble for 30 seconds when squeezed. If owners can’t find those, shop for a child’s talking doll at Kmart, Ms. Levin recommended. Remove the plastic eyes and other pieces a dog can choke on, trigger the sound, and use that to play fetch.

Training is also vitally important for blind dogs. Instead of just heel, sit and stay, owners need to add commands like "step up," "step down," "slow down," and "stop."

Self-preservation helps the dogs pick up on those new commands, but the owners have to work at it too. "If she starts to sprint, and if she’s going to run into something, we yell and by the tone of [our] voice, she puts on the brakes," Ms. Worden said.

Chelsea has also learned commands like "step" and "watch out." "It’s pretty instinctual," Ms. Worden said.

You can teach commands like "slow" with the help of a simple collar and leash, Ms. Levin said. Never use a choke chain on a blind dog—the dog is going to be nervous enough.

As you walk, apply a little backward pressure on the collar, or touch the dog’s chest to slow it down, as you voice the word "easy" or "slow." Draw the word out so it sounds the way you want the dog to act—eeeaassssyyy. As the dog slows, feed it a treat.

Many blind dogs are afraid of stairs. For small dogs, practice on a short flight of one or two steps, Ms. Levin said. Put them on a leash and gently lead them up the steps, giving them a treat at the top. Coax them down the steps with another treat. Remember to use the word "step" with every stair.

For large dogs that are afraid of stairs, you’ll have to use the canine sense of hearing. Spread newspaper out on the living room floor, in a large open space. Drop a treat onto the paper. The dog will learn to identify the sound with the treat.

Now position the dog at the top of the steps and the newspaper at the bottom. Drop the treat onto the paper, signaling to the dog that a treat is available at the bottom—it just has to pick its way down the stairs to get it. Be patient and reassuring. Remember the step command.

At first, you’ll want to have a lot of control over the dog’s path outside, Ms. Levin said. Thread your leash through a length of white PVC plumbing pipe of about an inch or an inch and a half in diameter. The pipe will give the leash a rigidity that allows you to better steer the dog, until it learns confidence.

Use the slow and step commands as you near curbs. Work naturally—don’t set up an obstacle course for the dog. The walk will be difficult enough.

Blind trust

While the majority of blind dogs cope well, the effort still takes a toll on the owner. The strains range from small, like not being able to move the furniture around much, to significant, like separation anxiety that causes the dog to destroy doors.

Dr. Marlar loves her dog. She says she would adopt Hershey again in a moment.

"But if it was any other blind dog—at least not for awhile," she said. "It had a huge impact on what I was able to do, because of the separation anxiety.

"I don’t have a dog I can take and throw a Frisbee for. I don’t have a dog I can let off a leash. I can’t go running with my dog. It’s knowing that this pet is completely dependent on you."

But even that wearying amount of reliance has its benefits.

"When I look at getting another dog, I will strongly consider having a blind dog," Ms. Slaton said. "It’s been fine."

It took Peanut about two to three months to get back to her usual routine—playing with the other dog, chasing the cat. It took Ms. Slaton longer.

"There are still some days I just feel so sorry this happened," she said.

Peanut had been on tick preventatives, she said. But the what-ifs still haunt her. "There are still some days when I wish I’d insisted on more blood work—though that might not have shown anything," Ms. Slaton said.

"I can see she’s happy, and I don’t know if she misses her sight," she said. "They say they adjust a lot quicker and better than we do, and I think that’s true."

Ms. Slaton still goes jogging with Peanut, though she has to do it early in the morning to avoid the lawn mowers—Peanut is now afraid of loud noises that come at her.

But the dog rarely bumps into anything anymore. And the dependence on her owner only makes the connection between them tighter, Ms. Slaton said.

"I love both of my dogs so much, but the bond you form with one with an impairment is amazing," she said. "They trust you enough to run beside you, to step up when you step up. The blind trust they put in you is incredible."

Owners of newly blind dogs need to hold on and let that develop, she said. "The dog will adjust," she said. "It’s a horrible thing, but it’s not the end of the world."

For more information:

Over the past two years, thousands of e-mails have passed through Linda Glass’ website, Owners of Blind Dogs. "Some are really frantic about their dogs losing their sight," she said. "There doesn’t seem to be much information out there."

To visit the site, go to: http://www.blinddogs.com/

Ms. Glass started the web site when her miniature schnauzer, Tyler, went blind from cataracts. Five hundred people are currently on the e-mail list, she said. Visit the site to share your stories, ask others for advice, or find a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Information about Ms. Levin's book, Living With Blind Dogs, can be found at: http://www.petcarebooks.com.

Other helpful sites can be found at: www.eyevet.org and www.pepedog.com.

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