Living and Learning with a Blind Dog
Summary: Blind dogs can live full and happy lives, but they need some special attention to their training and behavior. Whether they were born without sight or lost their vision later in life, blind dogs can respond well to behavior modification protocols that were developed for dogs with full vision. Even “Look at That” can have a beneficial effect on reactivity not based on sight!
In January of 2021, my partner and I fostered a blind mixed-breed puppy from the local shelter where I used to work. As her foster mom, I transported her to the specialty clinic in our area for an eye examination appointment with a specialist at Oregon Veterinary Referral Associates. They determined that Helena, called Kelli by the shelter, was completely blind and had most likely been born that way. They also determined both of her malformed eyes needed to be removed. We chose to adopt her and care for her post-surgery. Over the past year and a half of watching her develop from a puppy to a confident young adult, I have been constantly reminded of the resilience of dogs and their ability to adapt and use the senses they do have to navigate their environment. I have also gotten to observe firsthand how innate and instinctual behaviors express themselves in dogs who cannot see, and this has informed my work elsewhere with other dogs. I have become a true admirer of dogs without sight.
Behavior professionals like me regularly encounter dogs who are blind, deaf, or both, or who have other characteristics that may change the way we use our training and behavior modification skills. It is crucial for the welfare of blind dogs that we have open discussion about what effect their lack of sight has on their behavior and the need to treat them like whole dogs living a slightly altered existence compared to other dogs. We can also open the door for more people to accept blind dogs into their homes if we dispel some myths and provide education on how whole, happy, and healthy dogs without sight can be. Helena was not only born blind, but she also came to me reactive to other dogs and resource guarding at 9 weeks of age. My background as a professional trainer and behavior consultant has provided valuable experience in reading dog body language and modifying problem behaviors. I have applied these skills to help Helena, and I would like to share my experience with others so they can take what I’ve learned and build on it with the blind dogs they encounter.
Additionally, I’ve added Angus’ story to contrast Helena’s. Angus is a client dog I have worked with off and on since he was a brand-new sighted puppy. Over time, Angus’ owner, Anne, saw the decline of his vision due to a genetic problem common to the Entlebucher Sennenhund. Instead of adapting to his world without sight as a young puppy, Angus adapted much later in life when he went partially blind at the age of 4 and fully blind at the age of 5.
When I brought Helena home from the shelter to foster, her eyes were red and weepy, and one appeared very indented. There were no obvious pupils. The canine ophthalmologist concluded that they were most likely either painful or at a minimum uncomfortable. She recommended enucleation, or the surgical removal of the eye and its associated structures. According to Veterinary Practice News, this surgery is indicated in the following cases:
- In case of severe, intractable pain.
- When the eye is blind.
- With severe proptosis.
- In case of endophthalmitis.
- With chronic, blinding glaucoma.
- When there is severe ocular trauma with hemorrhage.
- In case of intraocular neoplasia.
- In case of intractable infection.
- In case of chronic active uveitis (painful globe).
- With phthisis bulbi (small shrunken globe) with excessive ocular discharge.
In these cases, the patient is best served with removal of the globe.1
Post-surgery, both of Helena’s “globes,” as I learned they were called, were sent for pathological study at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin, Madison to determine the cause of her condition. I received the results of their analysis with comments some weeks later:
- Shelter dog with unknown history
- Both globes:
- “Microphthalmos” with cyst
- Diffuse conjunctivalization/symblepharon
- Left globe:
I received comments about the globes in an email from the Department of Pathobiological Science, UWM: “Thank you for getting in contact with us about submitting these very interesting globes! They have a fairly rare malformation in which the eye consists entirely of a cyst that is lined by primitive neural tissue (like retina) and only small foci of uveal tissue. We don’t know the cause of these lesions and they are not always bilateral as for Kelli [now Helena]. We don’t know if they are typically associated with other systemic abnormalities. The prognosis for Kelli is excellent as far as the ocular disease goes.”
Given this report and glowing prognosis, the only thing left has been to help Helena be the happiest and most content dog, who happens to be blind, that she can possibly be.
Innate, instinctual, adaptive: Blindness versus other causes of behavior
Much of Helena’s puppyhood was very similar to that of other puppies. She learned to navigate play with her canine brother, explored her environment including different surfaces and terrains, met new people, went on car rides, and attended puppy classes.
In this video, you’ll see that Helena’s learning was largely uninterrupted by her surgery. She is just post-enucleation and wearing a cone to protect her surgery site. We were still able to practice hand targeting, and she is able to locate my hand without sight.
Helena also continued exploring her environment immediately post-enucleation in typical ways for her stage of development. Here she is exploring a new surface and texture by using her sense of touch and smell.
In this video, Helena is learning to play with other puppies at a small puppy play group.
Helena learned to navigate her environment through exploration and interacted with new objects eagerly, like this soccer ball, whose movement she followed along the ground. She has always been motivated by motion, much like other dogs.
As with all puppies, Helena self-selected species-specific enrichment opportunities.
I was able to observe several very obvious behavior patterns in Helena in just her first weeks with us. Since she was just 9 weeks old when we adopted her, these behaviors were possibly more innate than any adaptations she had to make due to her blindness. Since her early days with us, Helena has exhibited a partially intact predatory sequence and the tendency to hunt. She will freeze, stalk, crouch, and pounce in the grass and bushes on our property. She has yet to catch an unsuspecting snake or mouse, but when this behavior has been directed toward her canine brother, she has followed through with a mild neck bite. She began these behaviors in her very first days with us and continues to show these hunting modal action patterns frequently. When she was about 9 months old, she put her excellent predatory skills to use when she started to fetch and bring back a ball. In this video, you will see Helena as an adult dog pouncing on creatures in the grass.
Helena also showed a tendency as a brand-new puppy to become very frustrated when she was prevented from interacting with her canine brother due to an injury he had sustained at the time. She would bark repetitively, pant, and lunge at the baby gate that separated them. She attended a puppy play group with just a few other puppies; she played roughly and fear barked at new puppies when they came into the group. I did not have her attend the play group after she was 5 months old, as these behaviors seemed to be increasing. I knew these behaviors would most likely develop into dog reactivity, which they have. Helena requires slow introductions with new dogs, and we have and will work extensively on her leash reactivity into the future. Additionally, she also already tended to mildly guard found objects. She would hunch over the object and quickly turn her head away from a human or dog near her with the object.
I often encounter the perception from others that Helena’s behavior is largely rooted in her lack of sight. When I explain that she needs slow, repeated introductions with other dogs in order to be comfortable around them, people often say, “Well of course. She is blind.” I present them with the question, “Then why does she not require the same introduction format with new people?” They don’t have an answer for me, and that is okay. In reality, I will never know how much of Helena’s behavior is due to her blindness and how much of it would be apparent were she sighted. But since many of her behaviors, including a partially intact predatory sequence, fear of dogs and tendency to arouse quickly in their presence, and mild resource guarding were all apparent at 9 weeks of age, it leads me to believe the root causes are largely genetic, as well as potentially products of very early learning. Attributing these behaviors simply to her lack of sight would be very essentialist, reducing her behavioral characteristics to one cause – her disability.
Training and learning
Teaching blind dogs new behaviors can be done using the same methods as sighted dogs. Occasionally these methods may require slight modification, but you’ll see here that Helena has learned behaviors both through luring and shaping.
Here Helena is learning “spin” using luring. I am able to fade off the food lure quickly and just use the hand motion.
Helena is learning a paw target using a yoga block in these videos, and I am using shaping as the training method.
By changing where Helena receives the reinforcer, she begins to put weight on her paws instead of just touching the yoga block with her paws, and achieves the paw target:
She drills the skill here, and she uses her paws to locate the block tactilely.
Use of auditory cues and cue transfer
Sound is a powerful piece of learning for a blind dog. One of Helena’s preferred reinforcers is meat baby food, which is kept refrigerated. Initially, if she had an object I wanted her to leave, I opened the refrigerator to get the baby food in order to trade. The refrigerator makes sound as it opens, and she noticed this noise and left the object each time. Once I realized she was responding to the sound of the refrigerator, I decided to transfer this auditory cue to a verbal cue. I did this by saying the cue, pausing, and then opening the refrigerator. Now Helena knows “leave it” means something good will happen if she leaves an object, and this was all taught using the subtle yet audible sound of the refrigerator door opening. You’ll see us practicing a set-up of this exercise in these videos.
Leslie McDevitt’s “Look at That” protocol adapted for blind dogs
The cues we select and teach sighted dogs are individual to their circumstances and behaviors. We decide what they will be via observation and human desires. It is no different with blind dogs. I have chosen behaviors and cues based on the behaviors I have observed in Helena. Given that she will bark and lunge at other dogs, I have utilized the cue “there’s a dog” to tell her if I see a dog before she smells or hears the dog. I taught this through classical conditioning. I gave the cue “there’s a dog,” clicked, and fed when Helena turned to me, resulting in “there’s a dog” cueing the behavior of turning to me. When working on her dog reactivity, watching Helena’s body language is very important, as she may notice the dog before me, and even before my other dog, who is sighted. Her tail will go high, I’ll note piloerection at her shoulders and rear, and her head will go tall. The trick then is locating the other dog, as it may have already passed, or it may be coming. In the instances where I am able to notice the other dog first and cue her to be aware that it is in the environment, Helena is markedly more calm and quicker to recover than when she notices it first.
I often couple “there’s a dog” with the Look at That (LAT) concept coined by Leslie McDevitt in her book, “Control Unleashed.”2 With both Helena and my client dogs, I’ve come to think of and apply this skill as “Perceive That” or “Notice That.” I mark and reward when Helena perceives a dog or other stimulus, whether by scent or sound.
Here’s a video showing Helena listening to other dogs. I mark and reward when her ears move to indicate she’s heard them, or when she orients in their direction.
Here’s a clip showing the “there’s a dog” cue with LAT. We are coming up on a dog we often encounter behind a fence on neighborhood walks, but he’s still quite a distance away. Helena expects him to be there, evidenced by pulling hard on leash as we get close to him and orienting in his direction with her head tall. On this particular day, however, the dog barked before we reached his stretch of the road and Helena had not yet shown obvious signs of “looking” for him yet. When he barks, I cue “there’s a dog” and Helena comes back to me and gets her reinforcer. I mark and reinforce her for hearing the dog and offering a sit. Then we play a short game of Look at That, and I mark and reinforce when Helena “looks” in the direction of the dog, and when she “looks” in the direction of the dog and then back to me. You’ll see she orients toward the other dog just as a sighted dog would actually look at another dog with their sense of vision.
We have progressed the “there’s a dog” cue to also involve introductions via scent. When Helena is going to meet another dog she may encounter frequently in her life, we start with a scent introduction inside our house via a towel rubbed on the other dog and, without the dog present, cue “there’s a dog.” After she has sniffed the towel as long as she would like, she then goes outside to meet the dog, and we give the cue once again. These “scentroductions” seem to help Helena be aware she will be meeting a dog and reduce the element of surprise. In this video, she is “meeting” Maisie, a family member’s Border Collie, via scent.
After the scentroduction, Maisie and Helena took a short leashed parallel walk, and after a brief time, were able to wander together peacefully despite Helena’s initial over arousal:
Modifying Helena’s dog reactivity and working with her on safe dog introductions using this formula has been very successful. By adapting the Look at That Protocol, cueing her to be aware of a dog in the environment, and having her meet dogs through scent first, I have seen a marked decrease in her stress level both on walks and when actually meeting a new dog.
Resource guarding management and modification with a blind dog: The name of the game is consent
When working with Helena’s resource guarding, routine protocols of item exchanges, teaching drop it and leave it, and conditioning an emotional response to being approached with an object have worked as well as with sighted dogs. However, I have observed over time that her blindness does seem to affect her resource guarding in that it complicates her ability to fully perceive a resource has been removed from the environment. This can also increase her need to guard the location. I note that she goes back and seems to “check” a location for the resource that had been there even if I thought it was clear to her that it was being removed. This is usually instigated by the presence of a person or dog approaching the area where she had the resource. She quickly moves to that area, nose to the ground, seemingly searching for the item in order to keep it safe. For this reason, it is even more important to get the full CER (conditioned emotional response) to removal of objects rather than just trading quickly.
To help Helena know a resource has been removed and is no longer in the environment, we have worked the cue “mine.” In this video, I am using the cue “mine” to make an exchange with Helena. I have conditioned this cue to indicate “I am coming toward you while you have that resource and I intend to take it and trade you.” What I am looking for is a body language indication that she is ready for me to take the object, which also tells me she has full comprehension that I am taking it. Note that she uses her mouth, open or closed, as well as her paws and other parts of her body to “check” that the object is still there and to say, “I’m not ready for you to take it.” When she relaxes her body away from the object and no longer “checks” to make sure the object is there, I remove it in exchange for the food reward. I want her to fully realize the object is being removed. I emphasize this with clients with sighted dogs as well, but it is easier to know that a sighted dog is aware an object is being removed from their space due to the direction of their gaze. Helena and I usually do several repetitions of the “mine” exchange work before she shows relaxation and thus, consents to me taking the object.
Getting consent from Helena has been an important part of our training together and is very important when working with blind dogs. We as humans can get objects away from blind dogs without them knowing because they cannot see. But we can explain to our clients that blind dogs do realize when something is no longer there and of course it is unfair to trick them in this way. When Helena started playing ball around the age of 9 months, she had no problem following the ball and then bringing it back. She did not however find it easy to relinquish the ball for another throw, and these behaviors are consistent with her tendency to hunt (chase, catch) and resource guard (not relinquish item). In order to work on being able to pick the ball up, I tossed treats away from the ball and allowed her to come back to it. We did this until she moved away from the ball or lifted her head or paw from the ball. As this skill strengthened, I put it on the cue “ready?” This is now the cue that I’m going to pick up the ball and throw it, and she can back away or lift her head or paw from the ball as consent that she is ready. I wait to pick it up until she does this.
By waiting for and recognizing consent in blind dogs, we can help our clients avoid inadvertently increasing their dogs’ need to resort to higher-level resource guarding episodes.
In 2022, my client Anne’s dog Angus went completely blind after a prolonged battle with glaucoma. We worked together to help both of them learn to cope with his new status as a fully blind dog. I have worked off and on with this duo since Angus was a brand-new puppy, and he has always loved playing ball — and Anne has loved playing ball with him. She has also worked with him extensively on reactivity toward dogs and cars and has been very dedicated to his overall training. Angus is a Swiss Entlebucher Mountain Dog, or Entlebucher Sennenhund, a breed prone to cataracts, glaucoma, and progressive retinal atrophy.3 Angus progressed from fully sighted to partially sighted when his right eye lost vision in 2019. His other eye followed in 2021 despite the best attempts of the same ophthalmologist who saw Helena.
According to the specialists at Veterinary Vision, “glaucoma is a condition associated with elevated pressure within the eye. The aqueous fluid which fills the eye is constantly being produced by the ciliary body. It circulates around the lens and exits the eye through the iridocorneal angle (see drawing). When fluid is produced and drained from the eye in equal amounts, this results in a stable, healthy intraocular pressure of 10-30 mm Hg. Impaired drainage of fluid from the eye results in an abnormally elevated pressure or glaucoma. This in turn damages the retina and optic nerve, resulting in loss of vision and pain.”4
In an email, Anne described Angus’ progression: “The first sign of any problem was back in July 2019 when he was only 2. He is now 5. He was diagnosed with glaucoma in his right eye. His symptoms came on overnight and consisted of the standard — redness, pawing at his eye, obviously in a great deal of pain. Dr. M. prescribed a number of medications, but nothing succeeded in bringing the pressure down and he was blind in the one eye. She gave us a couple of options including taking the eye out, but we went with a ciliary body ablation which of course did nothing to restore vision but did bring pressure (and therefore pain) down. She warned that it was likely the other eye would go at some point and I was giving him drops in his “good” eye and naively thought we had beat the odds until this past fall when again overnight he showed the same symptoms as before. Again, we tried really aggressive treatment, but the story was the same, couldn’t get the pressure or pain down and he lost vision in the second eye. Dr. M. did another gentamicin injection (ciliary body ablation) on 11/17/2021. It worked for the second eye as it had for the first — pressure way down, no pain.”
Ciliary body ablation is performed by administering an intravitreal injection. The injection destroys the ciliary body (where aqueous is produced), and permanently reduces the intraocular pressure.5 This is different from enucleation, when the entire eye is removed. For this reason, Helena and Angus differ in physical presentation, as Angus has retained his eyes while Helena did not.
Angus is now enrolled in a study through University of Wisconsin Madison focused on the genetic basis of glaucoma in Entlebuchers. According to their website:
“Recent research reveals that the Entlebucher Mountain Dog is one of the breeds which is at higher risk of being affected by this painful and rapidly blinding disease. This study will harness the power of new canine DNA sequencing tools and technologies to try to identify the genetic mutation (or mutations) that cause glaucoma and, in turn, develop a genetic test for the disease in this breed and possibly other affected breeds.
The study goal is to identify the mutation (or mutations) in DNA that cause glaucoma and, in turn, develop a genetic test for the disease in this breed and possibly other affected breeds. Due to the current lack of effective treatments for glaucoma, a DNA test would provide an invaluable tool in efforts to fight this disease as dog breeders would be able to avoid affected dogs and carriers of the disease in their breeding strategies and ultimately could eliminate this exceedingly painful, disabling disease from the dog population.”6
While this study will not help Angus at this point, his enrollment will help Entlebuchers in the future.
Since Angus was previously sighted, unlike Helena, Anne and I focused our work on simply adapting. Anne had not played ball with Angus as a fully blind dog yet, so we explored this together. It didn’t take Angus long to get right back into the game he had always enjoyed so much, and he played with zest. This buoyed Anne and helped her move forward with the same dog she’d always had, enjoying the same activities dogs and owners love to share together.
One significant difference between Angus’ and Helena’s stories lies not in their physical or behavioral maladies or adaptations, but in the owner experience of the situation. It was hugely relieving for me to learn that Helena had in fact been blind from birth and suffered no traumatic event causing her blindness as a young puppy, and then to see that her procedure and recovery were fairly quick and uneventful. Anne, however, had to cope with a major change in lifestyle with her adult dog. While he adapted quite quickly and quite well, she still had to cope with the loss from her perspective. For this reason, trainers and consultants should prepare for ways to help the human half of the equation adapt and cope, both practically as well as emotionally, when a dog is losing their vision, much like when a dog’s mobility or cognition are dulling from age. In a very small 2011 study “Owner Survey of and Response to Behavioral Changes in Dogs Without Vision,” the authors surveyed 15 owners with dogs who had gone blind, and they noted things like an increase in sleeping as well as an increase in collisions with objects. The authors recommend that “veterinarians inform owners of our results, as this will help them deal with the sorrow they feel when their dog is diagnosed as blind, and will also provide them with the appropriate understanding of the needs of their pets.”7
For Anne, the emotional and psychological adjustment she had to make was very difficult when Angus first lost his sight. Seeing him run into objects as he adjusted took a huge emotional toll. The fact that Angus adapted to playing ball, an activity he loved as a sighted dog, was a major milestone on Anne’s journey to adapting to her new life with a blind dog. It allowed her a sense of normalcy and continued connection with him despite his altered ability.
When I checked in with Anne recently, here is what she had to say about Angus and his adaptations: “He has a great mental map of our house and the frequency of his crashing into things is not zero but way less than in the beginning. I particularly like to see him go up and down stairs with no problem. He also jumps on and off the bed and in and out of the car like a champ. We walk and run together and hike as well. He even navigates on the trail off lead but I think he is more comfortable to stay on lead. Fine by me. Helena was such an inspiration. I wouldn’t have thought it possible. Can’t tell you how uplifting it is to see Angus run flat out and present as the joyful dog he was prior to going blind. Hoping to take him backpacking and camping this summer. We’ll see.”
Welfare: Safety cues
I like to do internet searches on various training and behavior modification procedures and other dog-related topics in order to see what my clients and the general population are accessing. When we first got Helena, I Googled information about blind dogs. One hit that came up often was “Is it cruel to keep a blind dog?” Of course, quality of life is paramount for every animal, whether they have a disability or not, and the reasons leading to a dog’s blindness are individual. I can conclude that Helena’s quality of life is exceptional. She learned and is learning about her environment in the same way all puppies do, through exploration, trial and error, and as many positive experiences as we can give her. She regularly engages in species-specific activities, such as hunting, digging, scavenging, and interacting with conspecifics. All young animals must learn to rely on the senses they can access to interact with their environment, and blind dogs are no different.
Treating blind dogs as normal dogs by helping them build confidence, affect their environment, and experience species-specific activities certainly increases their welfare and quality of life. It is true that safety cues also come in handy. As behavior professionals, we can help clients sift through their dog’s known cues in order to utilize ones that are still applicable to their dog’s new status as unsighted. Anne has continued using Angus’ previously taught “back” cue, saying, “It turns out that is super useful now. So if he goes to a door and I tell him back, he will back up so I can open the door without hitting him in the face.” She has also utilized the cue “steps.” Anne says, “‘Steps’ was initially quite useful in the house. By now he runs up and down steps with no problem, but in the beginning it was scary. Now I continue to use ‘steps’ when we are out walking and there are curbs he needs to navigate or if he is in a new place for which he has no mental map. “
People ask me often if Helena runs into things. She came to me fresh with no previous learning of cues under her belt, and I found that teaching her a cue to help warn her something was in front of her was in fact important, as she does occasionally run into things. Our intention as a household was to teach this through positive reinforcement. We were still discussing what cue we wanted to use, when out of necessity, we started blurting out “CAREFUL!” when Helena was about to run into something. Inevitably, she would run into the thing, thankfully with little injury and never catastrophically. The cue was then very quickly acquired through positive punishment. While never the first tool in my toolbox, positive punishment is, of course, an inevitable part of life for all creatures. Helena now knows the cue very well and will stop, slow down, or swerve in response to it. This could easily be adapted for clients in the future to ideally be taught in a positive reinforcement format!
Anne also mentioned to me that Angus, who has in the past been a dog who struggled with reactivity to a variety of stimuli, is seemingly actually less reactive since the loss of his vision. This could also be attributed to his age (he is now 6 years old) or the extensive amount of training he has had, or most likely, a combination of many factors, as is usually the case with behavior. The fact that it is so hard to know for sure is similar to my observations about Helena’s reactivity and the assumption people have that she is reactive due to her blindness. Ultimately, it is very hard to make generalizations about blind dogs and their behavior because they vary as much as sighted dogs. The factors affecting their behavior are as nuanced as those of all other dogs. Can we really say whether genetics, early learning, owner perception, age of loss of vision, or any other factor can be more heavily weighed than any other when considering the behavior of blind dogs? I don’t really think so. But I think we can say with confidence that this conversation is not really about “blind dogs,” but about the many nuanced and dynamic aspects of the behavior of dogs who hunt, fetch, learn, train, sniff, play, grow, and flourish — and who also just happen to lack the ability to see.
Blind dogs use their remaining senses to adapt to and navigate their world. Behavior professionals working with blind dogs — whether blind from birth or having newly lost their sense of sight — can use their skills creatively to help these dogs and their owners. Modifying “problem” behaviors and teaching basic training skills need not require special protocols, just perhaps special adaptations. Consideration is necessary for the owner’s learning curve and whether they are experiencing the loss of their dog’s sight or are just learning to live with a blind dog from the start. By applying the same skills as one would with any dog and adapting protocols to meet their needs and the needs of their owners, we can help blind dogs live long, happy, enriched lives.
- Zeltzman, P. (2011) The Fine Art and Pitfalls of Enucleation. Veterinary Practice News. Last checked 10/11/2022
- McDevitt, L. (2007) Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog. Clean Run Productions, South Hadley, MA.
- National Entlebucher Mountain Dog Association. Eye Health in the Entlebucher. Last accessed 10/11/2022.
- Veterinary Vision Animal Eye Specialists (2022) Glaucoma. Last accessed 10/11/2022
- Animal Eye Consultants (2022) Veterinary eye services: Enucleation/intraocular prosthesis/ciliary body ablation. Last accessed 10/11/2022.
- University of Wisconsin Madison Veterinary Care (2021) Call for participants: Entlebucher Mountain Dog glaucoma study. Last accessed 10/11/2022
- Yanagi, I., Maehara, S., Kikkawa, A., Uchida, Y. (2011) Owner Survey of and Response to Behavioral Changes in Dogs with Vision Loss. Journal of the Japan Veterinary Medical Association 64:1, 51-55.
- Blind Dog Rescue Alliance website
- Levin, C.D., (2003) Living With Blind Dogs: A Resource Book and Training Guide for the Owners of Blind and Low-Vision Dogs. Lantern Publications, Oregon City, OR.
- Richmond, M. (2019) Tips on living with and training a blind dog. Whole Dog Journal, last accessed 10/11/2022.