When Rosie lost her sight suddenly we were devastated. I think I may even have started to grieve over the (perceived) loss. This wasn’t the loss of her sight but the thought that we were going to lose her (again). Rosie is a 9 year old retired racer and since we adopted her 3 years ago we have had some real scary moments (a corn cob, poisoning, not to mention a few ripped nails). It is fair to say she has cost us more money than possibly all our previous dogs put together.
Earlier this year she was rushed into the emergency vets after becoming seriously ill. We were convinced we were going to lose her after her balance deteriorated over a matter of hours, resulting in a total collapse. She spent the next two days on fluids, antibiotics and then blood tests over a couple of months to keep a check on her kidney functions. So when it seemed to be happening again …
On this fateful night she had stood in the kitchen, shaking uncontrollably because of the fireworks (as she had over the previous week as she is terrified of the noise).
Then she started to have problems with her balance again, back legs became uncoordinated and then she started to “step across” herself (almost like being drunk – the only way I can come close to describing it). Then she bumped into a wall and tripped over her water bowl and I began to think it might be eyes instead. I settled her upstairs (had to carry her up) and waited for my wife to finish work (she had the car) so we could decide what to do next.
After a cursory check of her vision (menace response, pupil tracking), we both agreed her vision had “gone”. As she wasn’t showing any other symptoms, we decided to wait until the morning to see our local vet. Needless to say, neither of us got any sleep that night.
The vet diagnosed progressive retinal atrophy (which affects the photoreceptors of the retina), resulting in total (or almost total) loss of her vision. The sudden onset may have been caused or exacerbated by extremely high blood pressure and it would be easy to blame the previous 5 nights of fireworks but we can’t be sure this wasn’t coming anyway. We were sent away with tablets to reduce her blood pressure and told to come back in 3 weeks or sooner if she deteriorated.
That first day was terrible. As she lay on the sofa not wanting to move we were heartbroken, convinced this was the end for our beautiful girl (side note: it doesn’t seem to matter how well you know dogs and their behaviour, your brain consistently tries to prove you wrong). Eventually sense returned and we started to encourage her to do things, supporting rather than comforting her. Each time we moved we spoke, so she knew where we were, going outside with her to toilet (walking in front with my hand on her collar or back), giving her time and praising her whenever she did anything. Fortunately she was still treat oriented so even though she didn’t want to eat her normal food, I made sure she could find the snufflemat which was full of really smelly treats. I helped her upstairs to be with us at night, fully intending to have to carry her down again (if she needed to go out in the night).
Over the next few days she started to find her way around downstairs, and could go outside to toilet on her own without bumping into the garden walls or falling down the steps. There were a couple of issues with the stairs, but (more often than not) she manages to get up them on her own. 6 days later and you could forget she is blind (or almost so), the only signs are the way she sometimes looks past us, the extra use of her nose and some uncertainty when she is outside on walks.
Talking of walks, we have limited these for now as we want her to adjust to this new life in her own time and she seems happy with this. The last time I walked Stom (our lurcher) on his own, I was acutely aware of how many hazards there are at eye/head level which she will need to negotiate on a daily basis. There are things you can buy to help protect their eyes (see below) and we are still thinking which would be best.
I haven’t yet spoken about how Rosie’s impairment has affected our other dog. He knows something is different, but I don’t think he knows what. He spends more time sniffing her now. We know dogs communicate using vision, hearing, touch and smell. We also know they secrete pheromones which convey information about their physiological and emotional states. Therefore it is reasonable to presume that Rosie now smells different even if she looks the same to Storm. As her visual communication decreases, he is having to adapt as well. For instance, if he is laid on the mat, she will often just attempt to lie on it instead of the communication which would normally have taken place between them. We are all having to adapt to the changes …
As we move forward, we are no longer heartbroken and are returning to a sense of normality, albeit a changed normal. We have made some changes around the house to support her and I have no doubt there will be other challenges ahead. For now, this is not the end … it is just a new chapter.
Helping her to adapt
There are many aids you can buy and things you can do to help support a blind dog adapt and navigate the changes. I am going to list some of the things we have done to help Rosie, in the hope it may help someone in a similar position. Remember though, all dogs are individuals and what worked for us might not work for you.
1. Talk to her – after my facebook post about talking too much when training, this is a time we need to talk. Talking lets her know where we are (relative to her position) and also provides comfort. This is calm speaking (like gently rousing them from sleep), not hurried/worried high pitched talk which can cause them to become anxious (“what’s happening?”) . Paired with a steady hand resting on the their neck or side, this gives them all the comfort they need (we started this on the first night to help ease her anxiety).
2. Keep a good routine – don’t be tempted to baby her. The more normal her life is, the quicker she will adapt. Encourage her to do her normal things in the normal place, but provide support so she is able to do them.
Encourage her to explore around the downstairs in her own time (leave doors open where possible so she can find her way outside). Make sure you are close by to provide support and praise her as she explores.
Help her to toilet by going outside with her (walk in front, warn her of steps, and possibly guide her with your hands on collar/harness).
Place treats in front of her (instead of handing them straight to her mouth), this encourages her to use her nose to find them (keeping her mentally stimulated). We have a snufflemat in a fixed place and regularly drop treats on it – it was one of the first locations Rosie found!
3. “Don’t move the furniture” – This may sound obvious, but once she is able to find her way around, anything “out of place” will disorient her, causing confusion and stress (we hold mental maps of our location in our heads and dogs are no different).
Keep fixed places for food and water bowls – these will help to orient her position with doors etc.
We don’t really like our house layout but it actually helps Rosie as the rooms tend to flow naturally into each other, leaving a large “pathway” of space with few obstacles for her to navigate. Most of the furniture follows the room edges and we only have to remember if we get things out.
4. Stairs – you can block off the top of the stairs with a baby gate (while they get used to going up and down). We didn’t bother as she is only upstairs with the bedroom door closed and we support her going down them (see sensory help, below). Going up, we tend to let her work it out for herself as any intervention from me seemed to cause more problems. A shut baby gate at the top would also be an issue for a blind hound travelling at speed.
5. Sensory help – sighthounds like Rosie normally rely mainly on their vision, so we have to help her “see” using her other senses instead.
Sound – we use a verbal “stairs” cue just before going down the stairs and a “slowly” cue to help moderate her descent. We will use another one for stepping on/off curbs and any others we feel will help.
Touch – we use a soft guiding hand on her collar/harness to help her navigate unusual places. On the stairs we pair this with “slowly” to help her not go down too fast.
Different floor textures help her to locate where she is and orient herself. Our landing and stairs have a textured carpet, the main floor is wood laminate and we have purchased a runner which provides a pathway from the lounge, through the dining room, to the patio door (her normal exit and next to the water bowl). The kitchen is vinyl and leads to her food bowl (raised off the floor and on a rug). There is a large dog bed cushion in the lounge (on a rug) near to the sofa and the runner. You can almost see (no pun intended), the mental layout plan forming.
Different rooms have naturally different temperatures (especially in our house) and this also helps her “feel” where she is.
Smell – you can help dogs to orient themselves by introducing specific smells to particular areas in the house. A few drops of an essential oil can be placed low down on doorways to designate different rooms or areas of danger (steps, table edges etc.).
Instead of using a baby gate at the top of the stairs I have placed a few grains of celery salt near to the edge so Rosie can recognise when she is close. This smell is not used anywhere else in the house (even the kitchen lol) and only needs a tiny amount (refreshed after cleaning).
We are currently using Pet Remedy in the lounge (was for the fireworks) and this is close to the lounge door.
Smelly treats (the smellier the better) – helps her locate the snufflemat.
The main thing is to let her know you have her back!
There are other things we have (and may) purchase (links are to UK Amazon but shop around). Anything “worn” by the dog needs to be introduced slowly and positive associations made before use.
Muffin Halo – not really suitable for Rosie but may be useful for others.
Doggles – these may be useful to help to protect her eyes while walking.
Raised Bowl – gives a sturdy frame for the bowl which reduces risk of the bowl moving away from the “fixed location”.
Carpet Runner – goes from our lounge to the patio door to provide a recognised “path”.
“Blind” Dog Collar & Lead – to help other people notice she is visually impaired and help me to encourage them to leave her alone (or adapt their greeting).
There are many facebook groups and websites that have lots of useful information for people with blind dogs. Unfortunately they are just too many to name here, but I suggest you search a few out if you want more ideas.
We are just starting out on this journey, but if anyone has any questions or thoughts, please feel free to email me and I will get back to you as soon as I can.
Think, Dog Positive