They say you can learn from kids, and I’m sure that’s true (the definition of winning is getting to stay up late) but it’s also true you can learn a lot from animals, even in tragedy. Several years ago one of our dogs, Saatchi, a Shih-Tzu, lost his eye after a scuffle with another dog. We found him in a terrible state in the backyard, with his eye barely hanging on, yet as animals do he wasn’t complaining – just disoriented and confused.
July 2015: Saatchi passed away at the ripe old age of 15 – we can only hope that we gave him the best life he could have – we miss our little buddy
A late night rush to the all-hours vet ensued where they fought to save the eye. Sadly the operation was unsuccessful, and to make the situation even worse we found out he had lost his one good eye. Unbeknown to us, he had been functioning perfectly fine with just one eye. But no more – now he would come home totally blind.
We consulted with a local canine ophthalmologist (yep I didn’t know they existed either) and we received some handouts and advice on living with Saatchi, along with the offer of creating a prosthetic eye to replace the missing one. At over $1,000 we decided not to, and besides we think he’s cuter with just one eye, and it tells people straight off he has sight issues.
Living with a blind dog
In an ideal world I would get Saatchi to write this section, since he would be a lot more qualified to explain what it’s like living as a blind dog. Sadly, without opposable thumbs and a developed frontal lobe his written communication is rough at the best of time, so I’ll have to do my best to describe it from an owner’s point of view.
We’ve lived with Saatchi as a blind dog for over three years now, and rather than just blurt out three years of blind dog experience I’ll try to summarise it as best I can into bullet point form. If you’d like to know more, just contact me, or leave a comment.
1 – Dogs are great at adapting – We all adapt to changing circumstances but dogs are amazingly remarkable. If any of us lost our sight for starters we’d probably drown in our own sympathy for at least six months before attempting to live with it. Not so with dogs. From day one, he quickly learned, building a mind map of the house and the surroundings, learning to find things like his food bowl by gently nudging into objects and changing direction accordingly. As a kindness to a blind dog its a good idea not to move the furniture too often!
2 – Blind dogs love to do all the normal things – Like most people with limitations, blind dogs don’t want to live a sheltered life, different from all the other dogs – they still want to run, bark, play and go for walks – so don’t pack them in cotton wool and treat them like they’re in intensive care for the rest of their life. Sure they’ll bump into stuff, fall down steps or walk into doors – don’t worry they bounce back quickly and like to be treated like a normal dog.
3 – Compensate for their lost sense of sight – Dogs receive a lot of visual cues from their owners (pack leaders). Without that to guide them blind dogs need additional voice and touch reassurance and instruction. Maybe invest in a clicker or some other noise-maker that they associate with you, and use it to reassure and communicate with them.
4 – Keep them interested – The world can be a far-less stimulating place for a blind dog. Keep it interesting by creating other activities that can help them avoid getting bored while you’re away. Treat toys, chew toys and other interactive items can work well. Anything that engages the heightened sense of smell is a good idea, which leads me to my next point – walking.
5 – Don’t stop taking them out for walks – It can be tempting to think that it would be unsafe for a blind dog to go walking but to keep them stimulated with new smells it’s vital to give them time away from the home turf. True, for someone not use to taking a blind dog walking it can be dangerous for them. They can forget the dog has no idea what’s in front of them until it’s too late – holes in the road, deep gutters, other pedestrians – a walker needs to be watchful. Some blind dogs are understandably timid when walking, particularly soon after losing their sight. Don’t force them. If they are still uncomfortable on the lead why not consider a dog backpack? We use one for Saatchi and it makes life easier for both of us. We can ride, with our other dog Harry running beside, get to a spot and let Saatchi out for a sniff and a wander off the lead – everyone’s happy!
Having a doggie bag will get you noticed – I’m positive we’ve become well-known in the area as ‘those people with the fluffy thing stuffed in a backpack’ – Saatchi doesn’t mind, he just sits there happily staring out the front, the wind in his hair and not a care in the world.
6 – Do keep an eye on them – While dogs are incredibly adaptable and coordinated, even with a disability, it’s always a good idea to be mindful of where they are, and what they’re doing. Saatchi has a tendency to very quickly find an open front door, or gate, out to the road. He’s generally fine but he’s not bullet-proof so we always try to make sure he’s in a safe area where he can’t hurt himself (like walking into pointy sticks or big holes).
7 – Try not to play favourites – This is a tough one if you have other dogs. I’m still working on this and regularly get told off for giving Saatchi special attention, (a) because he’s so cute and (b) well you can’t help but feel sorry for a blind dog. But that can backfire with the other dogs who can easily get jealous and take it out on the blind dog, which is especially rough because they’re obviously a lot less able to defend themselves. Share the love evenly among the pack!
Caring for a blind dog is not always easy and there’ll be some challenges along the way but like all animals they deserve the best care we can give them. With a little bit of understanding, compassion and practice you’ll help your blind dog to enjoy the best possible life despite being visually challenged.