In 2011, my 7-year-old dog Trudy lost her sight from SARDS (sudden acute retinal degeneration syndrome). I took her to veterinary specialists frantically seeking a cure for her blindness but there was none.
At first, Trudy bumped into walls trying to find her way around the house. She got anxious and confused easily. I thought our good life was over. I forgot that dogs don’t feel sorry for themselves. They don’t think about the future. They figure things out the best they can and get on with it.
Online experts agree that blind dogs shouldn’t be treated with pity. This makes them think that something really bad is happening. The experts say, “Don’t rush to help your dog because his blindness makes you sad.”
I followed their advice even though it was hard. When Trudy couldn’t find the door, I’d stand there and say in a cheerful voice, “Over here, Trudy,” until she found her way. If she missed a treat I’d thrown her, I’d let her sniff around until she found it. Like dogs everywhere, she has a great sense of smell.
Over the last two years, Trudy and I have grown closer and happier. Strange as it sounds, Trudy is more full of life than ever. She’s become more obedient, probably because I take more time with her. I never thought I could teach this crazy dog to “sit” and “stay,” but I did.
Since she became blind, Trudy—an escape artist—has found her way out of the yard at least four times. Her sight may be gone, but her love of adventure isn’t. After she ran off six months ago, I decided to paint the words “I am blind” on her harness. Since then, neighbors have either called or brought her home within an hour or two.
If you have a blind dog, here are some suggestions:
• Teach your dog to recognize words and phrases such as “Watch it!” or “Over here!” and important commands such as “Sit” and “Stay.” Trainers say that dogs can understand over 20 words and phrases. One blind border collie has been reported to understand more than 200 words.
• Spend more time walking your dog, going places, and playing games. Trudy likes to hunt for her supper outdoors. I make a ball of dry and wet dog food and throw it across the backyard. Her tail wags until she’s found the last crumb. Dogs love scent games.
• Buy a Kong and other toys that hold treats. Dogs enjoy working for their food. It keeps them busy and happy for long periods.
• Be sure your dog has plenty of water. Dogs with SARDS-related adrenal problems tend to be abnormally thirsty. They pee often and their urine is dilute.
• Install at least one doggie door in your house. Many dogs get upset when they can’t wait and have an accident in the house.
• If your dog has trouble getting to the doggie door in time, put down carpet runners or other cues that lead to the door.
• If your dog has an accident in the house, don’t scold. Just clean it up.
• Don’t leave your dog in places where it’s too warm. When dogs with adrenal problems get hot, they pant more than healthy dogs and are more prone to heat exhaustion.
• Don’t move furniture around or leave large objects on the floor that might confuse your dog. Blind dogs make mental maps of their environment and depend on them.
• Keep a collar or harness with an ID tag on your dog at all times. A microchip is a good idea, too. Many owners find harnesses more effective than collars, because they offer better support and give the owner more control in tricky situations.
• Label the harness “I am blind.” People will treat your dog with understanding without your having to explain. Also, it almost guarantees that some dog lover will bring your dog back if she wanders off.
• If your dog is older and can’t get around easily, use a sturdy harness with a handle when you’re going someplace he’s not familiar with. You can give him a lift when needed. These harnesses are made for dogs with arthritis and other mobility problems.
• Keep a short hand leash—12 to18 inches—attached to the dog’s collar to help guide her in confusing or upsetting situations when she’s too anxious to obey commands.
• When walking your dog, look for grates in the pavement or other things that might make him stumble. Get him used to words of warning such as “Watch it.”.
• When you approach a strange dog, take a slight detour. Your dog can’t see the stranger and doesn’t respond like a sighted dog. The other dog doesn’t understand why yours is acting funny. Dogs meeting each other send signals about who’s going to be dominant, and misunderstandings can cause trouble.
• If you have a pool, put a fence around it. Trudy fell in my pool twice until I put a barrier up. Luckily I was there to fish her out.
• Buy a pet gate and/or collapsible exercise pen to keep your dog away from dangerous areas.
• If your dog spends time outside in a fenced yard, be sure it’s escape-proof. Inspect it carefully for loose boards, gaps, and tempting openings between the fence and ground. If your dog likes to dig, install chicken wire from the bottom of the fence into the ground. This requires digging a trench for anchoring the chicken wire.
• Keep an eye on your cat, if you have one. Some cats take advantage of a blind dog and swat its face with sharp claws, causing painful damage to the cornea. (My cat has tried.)
• When your dog has to stay at a kennel or with a friend for a few days, leave her bed or blanket and perhaps an unwashed personal garment for comfort.
Two excellent internet forums for owners of blind dogs are http://www.blinddog.info and http://www.blinddogs.net. The highly rated book Living with Blind Dogs by Caryn Levin RN gives owners detailed practical advice about helping blind dogs adjust (2004, 188 pages).
BeaconStreetUSA.com blogs from 2011 describing Trudy’s and my early experience with SARDS appear at https://beaconstreetusa.com/wp/?s=sards&submit=Go.
If your dog has lost his or her vision from SARDS, you might be as heartbroken as I was. Hang in there. You and your dog can have a happy life together again. It will just be a little different. Blind dogs take advantage of their sharp senses and smell and hearing to make up for their lost sight. You’ll be amazed.