Fostering, Adopting and Living with Blind/Deaf Dogs
Some of what is covered here will seem very basic to people with any kind of training background or who have lived with deaf/blind animals before. I’ve started from a “square one” approach to make sure I haven’t assumed anything about anyone’s knowledge or abilities. Much of what is covered here is based upon my own experience living with deaf, blind and deaf and blind dogs. And I’m opinionated. I was lucky enough to grow up with deaf Dalmatians and a father who was way ahead of his time in terms of his training with his dogs.
My most current blind dog was Hazel so you will hear me reference her and refer to dogs in the feminine.
Training blind/deaf dogs is not much different from training sighted hearing dogs except that you have to do some creative thinking and modify your timeline expectations. But the basic premises of all dog training hold true:
1. Trust and the relationship are key
2. Boundaries (for the humans—especially children—as well as dogs), consistency, patience, kindness and safety should be the hallmarks of your training.
3. You are the one who is there to protect, advocate for your dog. They rely on you to have their back—especially when it comes to dogs with sensory deficits.
4. Every dog is different. Some will be more resilient than others. Don’t make assumptions about the dog in front of you because of your experience with another or previous dog.
5. Baby gates are your best friend.
In its simplest form, training a deaf dog is the same as training any dog except you don’t use the words. Blind dog training is the opposite—you use words and touch rather than hand signals.
I have found that the dogs born deaf and/or blind are both the easiest to train and the ones I worry most about. The born deaf/blind can be wildly overconfident (assuming no previous traumatic experiences) and much of my work with them is teaching caution. The dogs that have gone deaf/blind over time cope well, but may need some encouragement. The dogs that have suddenly lost sight and/or hearing can be the most traumatized by the experience and may need more encouragement than others. And our own reactions to their loss can greatly influence their abilities to cope.
One last word about blind dogs—don’t be afraid of enucleation. Humans have a very visceral response to removing a dog’s eye(s). In many instances, enucleation can be the answer to many painful eye problems and in a very busy blind dog, can make the difference between repeated eye poking and none.
Causes of Blindness/Deafness in Dogs
Any condition that blocks light from getting to the retina can impair a dog’s vision. This includes diseases of or damage to the cornea, retina or other structures of the eye. Blindness can be caused by cataracts, glaucoma, uveitis, corneal trauma, corneal ulceration, lens luxation, retinal detachment, retinal hemorrhage, retinal degeneration, retinal atrophy, cerebral (brain) lesions affecting the optic nerve (congenital optic nerve hypoplasia, inflammation [optic neuritis], neoplasia [cancer], trauma, atrophy, abscess, optic chiasm lesions), cerebral swelling (edema), ivermectin toxicity, lead toxicity and inflammatory, infectious or neoplastic diseases of the brain.
Many causes of canine blindness have a suspected genetic basis and may be highly breed and age-specific. Vision disorders seem to be more prevalent in white-colored dogs, including white Boxers and white Great Danes. *from PetWave.com
Causes of Deafness:
What causes a dog to lose its hearing? A lot of the same things that cause hearing loss in humans. Genetic defects can cause a dog to be born deaf; this is known as congenital deafness. A dog can also lose its hearing due to an ear infection, injury to the ear, or may experience gradual (or sudden) hearing loss due to old age. Exposure to loud noise can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss, as can certain drugs.
The most common cause of congenital deafness is pigment related. (There is some talk about a recessive gene as well, but most researchers do not believe this is the case.) Some dogs have white coats, but still have pigmented skin (Samoyeds, West Highland Terriers, and White German Shepherds fall into this category). Although they have white fur, they have black noses and eye rims (their fur is actually not pure white, but a very light buff color). Other dogs normally have colored coats, and white trim (this includes Dalmatians; the white is actually not their real coat color, the "spots" are). The "trim" comes from areas of unpigmented (pink) skin, which produces white hair. If there is unpigmented skin in the inner ear, the nerve endings atrophy and die off in the first few weeks of the puppy's life, resulting in deafness. Please note that you cannot tell the color of hairs in the inner ear by looking at any visible part of the dog's ears (including the hair around the ear canal). Although many dogs with white hair on their ears will be deaf, many deaf dogs have colored ears as well.
Hearing loss affecting both ears is called Bilateral Deafness. A bilaterally deaf dog is completely (or mostly) deaf in both ears. Hearing loss occurring in, or affecting only one ear, is called Unilateral Deafness. A unilaterally deaf dog has hearing loss in only one ear and has full hearing in the other ear. *From the DDEAF website.
Impacts of Vision/Hearing Loss on Behaviour in Dogs:
The impact of vision/hearing loss varies from dog to dog, but tends to be most dramatic in animals that have had sudden loss of sight/hearing.
The most common behaviours noted in dogs with vision/hearing loss are:
1. Barking: both blind and deaf dogs can become nuisance barkers. And dogs born deaf can make very odd noises.
2. Startle responses may become dramatic—common in dogs who are both blind and deaf. Use a stationary hand touch rather than a poke to awaken a sleeping deaf/blind dog or place your hand in front of the nose and leave it there.
3. Separation Anxiety—This is largely a matter of prevention, but should SA arise, the methods of dealing with it are the same as in hearing/sighted dogs.
4. Depression/Anxiety—most common with sudden loss. I see this with SARDS dogs most often.
5. Reactivity on leash/being carried or picked up: The leash reactivity is dealt with in the same manner that one would deal with it in a sighted/hearing dog with an emphasis on breaking up staring behaviour in the deaf dog. I have found blind and deaf/blind dogs can be reactive to being touched when being carried. I think the sense of being suspended in the air can make them feel more vulnerable and they have no ability to engage a flight response. I always cue that I’m going to pick a dog up and I generally don’t let people touch a deaf/blind dog that I am carrying unless I’m absolutely certain that the dog won’t react and then I insist that the person give the dog ample opportunity to figure out they are there.
6. Resource Guarding. Again, this can be a startle response reaction.
Startle Response Work:
Desensitization Exercises to Reduce Startling
These exercises are nothing more than training your dog how to handle, and respond to, various situations. They are no different than teaching a dog to sit. Your dog's personality will determine how much time you need to spend on these exercises. Some dogs are easy-going and fairly unflappable. Others are more sensitive, and will require more work.
To desensitize a deaf dog to the startle effect of being touched unexpectedly, begin by walking up behind the dog when he isn't looking. Gently touch the dog, then immediately pop a treat in the dog's mouth when he turns around. The dog quickly associates good things (i.e., the treat) with being touched unexpectedly, and learns to respond happily.
To condition your deaf dog to wake easily in response to a gentle touch, start by first placing your hand in front of the sleeping dog's nose, allowing him to smell that you are near. Next lightly touch the dog on the shoulder or back, pretend you are trying to touch only one or two hairs with your fingertips. Then gently stroke the dog with two fingertips, then with your entire hand. Most deaf dogs will awaken during some part of this exercise. When they open their eyes, their owner's smiling face, and perhaps even a treat rewards them. In a matter of weeks, the dog becomes accustomed to waking up when the owner places a hand in front of his nose, or lightly touches his shoulder or back. Waking up becomes a gentle, positive experience.
As a deaf dog matures, he gains self-confidence and experience in a wide variety of situations. With many dogs, the likelihood of being startled generally decreases with age.
I tend not to touch the front end of the dog and always use my whole hand placed in front of the dog’s nose then gentle placed on the rear flank and left there. People tend to want to poke dogs awake and this is unhelpful.
I also cue a pick up or a put down with my blind dogs—I use a verbal cue of “Going up” while placing my hands on her body before I pick her up. And I cue putting her down the same way with “Down we go”. Hazel and I have lived together long enough that I don’t have to cue her any longer as the placement of my hands tells her she’s going to get picked up. I do ask other people to verbally cue her if they are going to pick her up. Since I live in a multi-dog house, I always use the name of the dog I want before using a cue—this is more of an issue with blind dogs than deaf ones.
Behaviour of Sighted/Hearing Dogs Around Dogs With Loss Of Vision/Hearing:
One of the things I have to be most careful about with my vision/hearing impaired dogs is the reaction of other dogs to my dog’s behaviour. Confident blind dogs won’t see the signals given by other dogs and can be seen to be “rude”. Confident blind dogs can also slam into other dogs while running around and this is interpreted by many dogs as an attack. While my own dogs don’t wear collars generally, when I’m introducing a new blind dog to the crew, I put bells on my other dogs so that the blind dog can find them and it reduces the chances of slamming incidents.
With deaf dogs, we train them to focus intensely on us and some can use that same focus on other dogs and elicit a negative response.
Dogs who are both blind and deaf have a particularly high risk for negative interactions with other dogs. I am very careful to monitor closely all interactions between a blind and deaf dog and other dogs. I use body blocks to keep overly inquisitive dogs from startling a blind and deaf dog.
Training with sensory impaired dogs must be consistent with an eye to their safety and comfort. Owners can tend to underestimate the dog’s ability to cope, but can also underestimate the potential risk their impaired dog can experience at the paws and jaws of other dogs.
Training the Vision or Hearing Impaired Dog:
People who have never shared their home with a dog with sensory deficits often see training the dog as a monumental task. It isn’t. My personal opinion and experience is that training a deaf dog is easier than a blind one and training a dog that is both deaf and blind is the hardest of all, but can be done with some patience and creativity.
Training Using Aversives and Aversive Equipment:
First and foremost, I cannot emphasize enough the need to ONLY use positive training methods. Sadly, it is very popular to use electronic collars on deaf dogs, especially. My perspective on this is—your hands are your primary method of communication with a deaf dog and so those hands should never be used to inflict pain, fear or to express anger. Non Reward Markers (I use words and sounds like “Oops” and “Ah ah” with the blind and hand signals like a wagging finger or a head shake with the deaf) can be used, but jerking, hitting, poking are to be avoided at all costs.
Blind dogs cannot see an aversive coming and rely entirely on your voice with some touch added (potentially). For a blind dog, the use of aversives is especially worrisome to me. I reserve any loud or “aggressive” voice with my blind dog for emergencies—like the dog is about to ram into something or fall down stairs.
Some people do advocate the use of vibration collars for deaf dogs and I’ve known some folks to use them with blind and deaf/blind. I have three concerns about the use of these. First—many of them are quite heavy and can’t be used on small breeds. Two—the collars are most effective when fastened very tightly and that can be uncomfortable for many dogs and can pose choke risk. Three—timing with vibration collars has to be very exact for the dog to make the correct association between the vibration and what you are vibrating for. My opinion is if you have the skills and timing to effectively use such a collar, then you have the skills and timing to NOT have to use such a collar. I’ve seen quite a few dogs become collar reactive due to the poor use of the vibrating collar.
Other than the above discussion about collars, there are some pieces of equipment that can be very useful when training a dog with sensory deficits. I prefer to use harnesses on all my dogs, regardless of their ability to see or hear. In deaf dogs, I find the front fastening harnesses particularly useful as it helps re-direct the dog back to me. I find them somewhat less useful for blind dogs as most of my blind dogs had to be encouraged to walk next to me rather than behind. Most of my blind dogs have started off wanting to walk with their noses touching my calf. I have had to work pretty diligently to encourage them to walk beside me.
For that I’ve found the back fastening harness more useful. I’ve not had many blind dogs that pulled and many that found me pulling them from the front scary and would elicit a full stop and/or pancaking behaviour. A back fastening harness (depending on type) can also help you “steer” the dog more effectively. I like the Walkeez harness by Releashme.
When I am working with a deaf dog, I find a hands free leash system very useful. This is partly because I am just not always as coordinated as I’d like to be so having both hands free to mark and reward behaviour is helpful. I have used a hands free leash with blind dogs, but I find that many blind dogs start to circle when bored, confused or uncertain and this tends to negate the benefits of the hands free system.
For blind dogs, there are several harnesses that include a “halo” that extends out in front of the dog to prevent them from running into things. I’ve not used one fo these, but have known several dogs that did well with them. There is one company—Little Angel Vest—that has been quite popular. Where this vest can be most useful is in an environment where a blind dog may risk poking themselves in the eye due to branches, sticks or other protruding objects.
Attention and Recall:
This is the single most important command in training any dog, but is especially important in training deaf and blind dogs—deaf dogs really need to have a strong “watch me” and “check in” behaviour. I train this much like I train it with all my dogs—but I also focus a lot on capturing check in behaviour with deaf dogs. Any time a deaf dog checks in with me, I reward it with a treat and a “thumbs up” hand signal. When my blind dogs check in with me, I click and treat. I use long lines frequently and never ever have my blind/deaf dogs off leash in any area that is unfenced. There is some debate about the use of laser lights or flashlights with deaf dogs and that is a personal decision you make based on your own experience and knowledge of your dog. I’ve used turning outdoor lights off and on quickly as a recall signal when deaf dogs are out in the yard at night.
Some of this is covered above in the equipment section. But the one area I find I have to really work on with the deaf dogs is not letting them develop the same focused intensity on other dogs that I have encouraged them to have with me in terms of eye contact. Many deaf dogs will use the same staring behaviour with other dogs and will get a negative response as a result. I work on re-directing intense staring at other dogs back to looking at me. This takes some time and practice. Some people train blind dogs for leash walking using a rigid leash (piece of dowling or stick plastic pipe) to help keep the dog from zig sagging as easily. I haven’t used this method so far, but see no reason why it couldn’t be successful.
Special considerations for the dog that is both blind and deaf:
1. Give your dog a safe place in your home, and ensure that his or her belongings are always in the same place to minimize potential stress. For example, keeping your dog’s kennel, his favorite toy, food and water dishes, as well as a pee pad if necessary in a gated area can offer a safe and predictable retreat for your dog, especially if you have a lot of guests or a busy home.
2. You may want to get a doggy water fountain to help direct your dog to where his or her water dish is. Even if he can’t hear it, he will be able to sense the vibration of the running water.
3. Block off any stairs in your home using a baby gate.
4. When your dog is outside, ensure that you either keep your dog on a leash or in a fenced-in area. Letting your blind or deaf dog run loose is a recipe for danger, especially because a dog who cannot see or hear can easily become confused and overwhelmed by new smells and sounds.
5. Get your dog a special collar or bandana! A company named “Thankful Paws” makes collars and bandanas specifically for deaf and blind dogs. They are brightly colored and read “I am a blind (or deaf) dog,” so if your dog gets lost, people know that your dog has special needs and can take this into consideration when helping him or her. You can also purchase vibration collars for deaf dogs from Gun Dog Supply, which help you to communicate with your dog without sound.
6. HandicappedPets.com is a wonderful resource for a wide array of other specially designed pet products for dogs with special needs.
7. Vibration is your friend with a deaf and blind dog. For example, clapping loudly or stomping your foot will allow your dog to feel the vibration of the sound and find you again.
8. Some dogs, although mostly blind, can see bright lights. Observe your dog carefully to see if he or she seems to be drawn to bright light, and if so, you can use this to help guide your dog to you.
9. Touch is also a valuable communication tool for the deaf and blind dog. For example, if you want your dog to follow you, you can touch your dog’s chin gently so he can pick up your scent, and he will be able to follow you more easily.
10. For feeding time, simply touch your dog’s food bowl to his chin to help him to pick up the scent, and then place the bowl on the floor.
11. Use carpet runners to help guide your dog through commonly-trafficked areas of your home. If your dog still seems to get lost or confused in different areas of your home, using a unique, but subtle, scent in each room (achieved through a scented candle, air fresheners, or potpourri) can help your dog to distinguish between the different rooms.
12. Warn visitors that you have a deaf and blind dog, and let them know if you have specific routines (it’s much easier for visitors to adapt than to ask your dog to)!
13. Ensure that you remove objects around your home that may be dangerous for your dog. Anything with sharp edges, particularly at your dog’s eye level, can be particularly dangerous. It may be helpful (if not entertaining) to get down on all fours and ‘experience’ your home the way your dog does to help to eliminate any potential dangers.
14. Training a blind and deaf dog poses unique challenges. However, touching your dog in a specific way to communicate a command will help your dog to easily understand what you want him or her to do. For example, you can teach your dog to sit whenever they feel a quick, light-pressured touch on their lower back.
15. Before you take your blind and deaf dog out for walks, ensure that you have practiced clear communication and commands with your dog before leaving your house or yard. When you feel confident that you can communicate clearly with your dog, start with a short walk the first few times, ensure that you always walk your dog on the same side, and stick to the same route each time if possible to help your dog to become more familiar with the area.
16. Play is a wonderful bonding experience for you and your deaf and blind dog! Interacting closely with your dog in a fun, positive way will help to deepen your dog’s trust in you and help your dog to come to see you as the source of all things fun and good. Particularly with a dog who is blind and deaf, it’s important to capitalize on your dog’s amazing sense of smell during play. For over 50 games and challenges you can play with your dog, be sure to check out our My Doggy Genius eBook and DVD series.
Although our first reaction is to feel sorry for a deaf or blind dog, the truth is that they really don’t know any difference and just need a little extra help from you to gain confidence to navigate their surroundings. Working with dogs who have special needs requires extra time and patience, but with these simple modifications, they can lead full, happy lives! For more information about how to work with and train a blind and deaf dog, visit “Paws to Adopt,” a website which offers a wealth of wonderful information on positively training your dog with these special needs.
Blind dogs are very sensitive to changes in the textures under their feet. Don’t expect a blind dog to blithely walk from one surface to a different one without some braking and pancaking. It is usually something they adjust to with time and patience, but any new surface will bring Hazel to a stop until she figures out how safe she is or isn’t. Tile/linoleum/highly polished wooden floors will stop her in her tracks in a new environment.
By the same token, I find blind dogs aren’t great at navigating a backyard that is covered in snow and many have trouble even with shoveled paths. I tend to shovel out a square in my yard for my blind dog to use. Hazel gets utterly befuddled by simple paths and hates going head first into the sides so a shoveled out square of yard works best for us.
The first obvious safety consideration with blind dogs are falling hazards like stairs, deck edges, even sidewalks. I teach a “careful” cue. What I am seeking with “careful” is for the dog to slow way down or stop until I cue them to move forward. I also cue stairs initially with “step up” and “step down”. My eyeless pug does stairs easily without a cue in the house, but I still cue her in strange environments. At home, she finds the wall by the stairs and uses it as a guide. Extra caution should be taken with stairs that are open at the back.
Objects in house and yard that can poke eyes are a big one—especially with brachycephalic breeds or the impaired dog that lives life at full speed. Make sure your yard is free of low branches, nail ends sticking out of fencing, etc. A blind dog can easily puncture an eye.
Don’t leave shoes, boots, or other trip hazards around the floor.
Remember that if you renovate or rearrange, the blind dog will need time to re-map the environment.
Dog Park safety is a biggie for me. I do use dog parks, but I scrutinize them for weeks in advance at different times of day before I ever bring my dogs. I am ultra careful about dogs I do not know in any case and I work on a “by me” command with my blind, deaf/blind dogs so that I can have them close while assessing the temperament and energy of the other dogs in the park. It is easy for a blind/deaf dog to get hurt or end up in a fight in a park that is busy with many rambunctious dogs and you can inadvertently set up an impaired dog for dog to dog aggression. I do use a collar or bandana that marks the dog as hearing or sight impaired. I find this useful in situations where people may be meeting my dog(s) for the first time and I’m careful to always tell people well in advance of them touching my dog(s) that they are blind and/or deaf.
I also bring a trowel to any dog park to fill in holes that have been dug. I walk the perimeters of all fenced parks (the only kind I use) to look for protruding branches and sticks.
When a new blind dog comes into my house I may attach bells to my pant leg so they can find me. I’ve also used a strong scent dotted on my pant leg or the top of my shoe.
I place small rubber backed mats in front of the back door, the deck stairs, etc to cue my eyeless pug that stairs are coming up or the doorway is close.
One of my foster parents built her back deck with the boards going one way for the part of the deck closest to the house and boards going the other way for the half of the deck closest to the stairs. Ingenious.
I have also used scenting the top stair and bottom stair to help a blind dog, but you need to be sure it is a unique scent not contained in cleaning products, scented candles, etc. I have stopped using this over the last few years and work more on training verbal cues.
Blind dogs can be taught virtually anything a sighted dog can, but it may take more repetitions (“stay” for instance can take some time and patience).
Feeding sensory impaired animals in a multi-dog household is one thing to be extra vigilant around. Impaired dogs can easily become food guarders if other dogs are allowed to interfere/steal from them. Make sure the dog has a safe space in which to eat undisturbed.
The less drama in an impaired dog’s life the better, in my opinion. Dogs are very acute and sensitive to our verbal and non-verbal cues and this is doubly true of sensory impaired dogs. Work to keep your own emotions in check as much as possible. Deaf dogs get quickly used to sudden hand and arm movements in my house as I talk with my hands a lot. But I’ve had to watch any new deaf dog in the house who may have had punishment as it can elicit a negative reaction when I start waving my arms. I’ve also seen a negative reaction to spray bottles by deaf dogs where I suspect they’ve been sprayed for barking.
With deaf dogs, the key is keeping them in the loop so they don’t suddenly find themselves alone with no idea what has happened or find themselves startled. Much of what I have had to do with deaf dogs is habituating them to movements that are sudden or appear in their peripheral vision.
Aggression in Blind/Deaf Dogs:
I want to talk about this with some caution as there are myriad myths about how blind/deaf dogs are destined to be aggressive. This is not, in fact, true. What IS true is that you can set a sensory impaired dog up for aggression by not desensitizing them to startles, by using aversives and not monitoring the interactions of other dogs. I do find that if a dog is inclined to be snarky before they lost their sight or hearing, they will continue to be snarky after the loss and you may see an increase in the level of nastiness. I would say that whatever the dog is when they have sight or hearing, especially if that is anxious or fearful, the loss of sight/hearing can magnify those behaviours.
If you see sudden aggression in your blind/deaf dog, do not automatically assume that it is related to the vision/hearing loss. It may be, but it may also be related to a thyroid issue, pain from other medical conditions or they may have had an unpleasant experience that you didn’t notice or were not witness to. I have also seen some aggression in dogs that was related to medication. Although I haven’t seen it in person, I have heard anecdotal information about aggression as a side effect of some Heart worm meds. I do see some aggression in dogs that are on steroids like prednisone.
Dealing with aggression in a dog is not for the amateur. If you have concerns about the reactivity/aggression in your dog, then call in an expert to help you. There are many excellent behaviourists out there who use positive/non-punitive methods for helping you and your dog. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the need to avoid using behaviourists or trainers who talk about “balanced” training or who advocate a dominance model in working with your dog. The use of the word “balanced” has become a bit of a trend with dominance/correction trainers. When I see that word in any description of a training model, I ask a lot of questions.
A word of caution on resources for working with deaf and/or blind dogs. Not all helpful suggestions are created equal. And many resources have lots of good suggestions with some appallingly bad ones sprinkled in. Read everything with a jaundiced eye. Training methods that refer to dominance, pack leadership, or the use of aversive equipment should be avoided at all costs, in my opinion. Don’t be surprised if you find people very rigid about what they consider “the best” way to do things. I can be this way myself around the use of anything aversive.
1. Living with Blind Dogs—Caroline Levin. A good overall resource for the new owner of a blind dog. Has some suggestions on living and working with a deaf/blind dog as well. This book does tend to talk about pack order and dominant/submissive dogs so be prepared for that.
2. Living with Deaf Dogs—Susan Cope Becker. This book is a bit of a mixed bag. She has some very useful suggestions, but is also okay with using shock collars and spends a lot of time talking about dominance. Read with caution.
3. DDEAF—Deaf Dog Education Action Fund: http://www.deafdogs.org/
A useful website on many levels. Again, approach any suggestions of using aversives with caution.
4. Deaf Dogs Rock: Has both a facebook page and a website. While they do not encourage the use of aversives, they don’t discourage them either.
5.) Blinddogs.com : Lots of helpful and supportive ideas and info exchange for owners of blind dogs.
6.) Some useful videos on training blind and deaf/blind dogs. The woman who focuses on blind dog training has a website: blinddogtraining.com
7.) Deafdogsforever.weebly.com. This is one of the oddest websites I’ve ever found. There are quite a few useful training tips and discussions about working with sensory impaired dogs, but there is also a lot of just plain odd/weird things in it as well.
8.) Teaching tricks using touch cues:
Deaf Blind Dog training:
Training tips for working with a newly blind dog:
Website called Blind Dog Training
9.) Some fun and interesting videos on training deaf dogs:
Conditioning a positive interrupter:
Conditioning a marker:
ASL signs for deaf dogs:
Deaf puppy training:
10. Clicker training for Deaf dogs: http://www.myaussies.com/clicker.html
11. Angelvest.homestead.com—website for the halo harness. There is also a website that can show you how to make your own harness: www.handicappedpets.com