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Lessons learned from caring for a blind dog

As our dog progressively lost her vision, we adjusted. I adopted the habit of stepping between her head and obstacles, while trying to teach her the word "stop" means stop now, not after 5-10 more steps forward. She has always been stubborn, alpha-like and clumsy. I decided in the beginning that I would discover a balance between embracing her unique personality, while modifying her behavior if it gave her manners or added to her personal safety. Important issues for a big dog in a big city. We needed to do everything to keep her safe from being hit by a car to discarded chicken bones on the sidewalk.

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Now that Cleo's vision is almost completely gone, I've learned some important lessons about caring for an elderly blind big bossy dog.[...]

Here are six lessons from the past year:

Your dog may be blind, but she's still a dog

Your dog doesn't forget that she is a dog, even if you treat her like a teeny, tiny, fragile baby. If your dog can still hear, this means her instincts tell her to jump up and forward every time the door bell rings - at least if you have a Shepherd-Husky dog like mine. And that's okay. I want my dog remain the dog she was before her vision loss. I can modify my habits and her environment. 

Use your words

Teach your dog words to help them be safe, but be the dog they are. WAIT and STOP were game changers for us. By teaching Cleo to stop on a dime, we had a chance to prevent major head-on collisions, and falls. We also added the word STEP to her vocabulary because we live in San Francisco with a million curbs and stairs. 

Game changer

She may not be able to see the ball or toy, but playful game time is important for dogs of all ages. What does your dog like to do? Fetch, chase, chew? You can buy toys made for blind dogs or you can create your own. We've used our dog's favorite squeaky toys to lead her around the house, in a modified game of chase.

Smelly and stinky can be a good thing

A dog's sense of smell is beyond ours. As our dog lost her vision we noticed she relied more on other senses, like smell. Her nose shoots up, and lowers to become a living white cane. Senior dogs can experience a diminished sense of smell, but so far, Cleo's nose can still detect that smashed piece of sandwich or microscopic drop of ice cream on the curb during a walk.

Stick to the routine and don't move the furniture

As anyone who has gotten up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom knows, in the dark, your room seems filled with toe-stubbing obstacles that weren't there earlier in the day. It's the same for a blind dog. We learned quickly that if we wanted to keep Cleo's confidence up, it was important to make her feel secure. We did that by creating paths with tread and resting places big enough for her 90 lb. body. She needs to be able to move around without bumping into corners or edges every two feet. Her turning radius is good for an old dog but she's the size of a small pony. When we have people over, one of us is making sure chairs are pushed in.

Great expectations

Our dog expects a treat or some sort of taste, when she hears a plastic lid come off a container. Why? Because it happened many times in a row over the past eight years. This doesn't mean we always give her a treat, she'd be fat if we did, but it means that since she lost her vision we pay closer attention to habits and routines we create with her. Now that she is older and blind, it is harder for her to quickly change. It is a process if we want to modify her behavior. It is important to pay attention to how we set her expectations as well as our own. If you're curious how we handle not always giving in to her cute expectant face when it comes to food, I'll tell you. We acknowledge her interest, then give her some love instead of food. It's that simple. 

Since adopting Cleo, we've learned a lot about ourselves and about dogs. Over the years, our dog has taught us about diabetes, life as a senior citizen and now blindness. In a topsy-turvy world or lost Twilight Zone episode, I'm the teacher's pet.

What did I miss? What lessons has your dog taught you over time? Would you adopt a blind dog?

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