When a Dog Goes Blind

Barbara Wicklund is the founder and past president of Tri-State Basset Hound Rescue and Greyhound Friends of New Jersey.

Text Copyright the American Kennel Club, Inc., 2097. No portion of this article may be reproduced without permission of the copyright holder. Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, May/June 2009.
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“We agonize over what we don’t have, dogs appreciate what they do have.”

That’s the way one owner of a blind dog summed up his pet’s remarkable ability to function without eyesight.

In this ease, the dog-a Basset Hound-lost both eyes to glaucoma when he was 6 years old. With real-looking prosthetic eyes in place, most people he encounters
don’t believe Nestor (at right)is totally blind

. “He can see a little, can’t he?” is the usual reaction when strangers are warned not to startle
him. Contributing to the misconception is that this dog, when spoken to, looks up into the face of the speaker. The glass eyes, darkened to normal color,
add to the illusion that he can see.

Nestor’s ability to cope with blindness is not unusual for a dog. But the owners of many a dog on the verge of sightlessness think their pet’s quality
of life is over and the kindest option is euthanasia.

Not so, insist the experts as well as those who have adjusted to living with a “disabled” pet.Ears Looking at You: Although his eyes are not real, most people believe that Nestor (above) is gazing into their faces.“Dogs
don’t drive, read, write, or work, so their lit really don’t change if they can’t see,” says Michael Ringle, DVM, a veterinary ophthalmologist associated
with New Jersey’s Red Bank Veterinary Hospital. “Their keen senses of smell and hearing help them compensate and they can have a good quality of life.
Blind people are productive; so are blind dogs.”

Sore Eyes

Ringle says that many of his patients surprise their owners, who are expecting the worst. “An overwhelming number of clients come back and tell me I was
right . Their dogs are playing, they’re happy, and they’re leading normal lives.”

The most important thing: “Don’t change their environment. Keep their food and water dishes in the same place keep everything as constant as possible.”

Gasserian D. Aguirre, professor of genetics and ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees.

“Dogs with vision problems do just fine,” he says, explaining that the real issue is pain. If the pet has a painful ailment that cannot be controlled with
medication, removal of the eye is the only option. Among the painful conditions are intra-ocular infections, tumors, and ulcers, as well as glaucoma.

Aguirre runs Penn’s Inherited Eye Disease clinic. He made headlines in 2001 when he was first to use gene therapy to restore vision in Briards blinded
by a rare retinal disorder.

Cataracts need not be surgically treated, both veterinarians agree.

“If a dog is a good candidate for surgery, I’ll recommend it,” says Ringle. Neither is likely to go that route with a senior dog.

Of course, Agony concedes, finances can be an issue with a per owner facing a large surgery bill. For cosmetic reasons, many owners choose to have prosthetic
eyes implanted, a more costly procedure and one that requires a specialist. If the eyes need to be removed, the less-expensive option is to have the
lids sewn shut.

Don’t Move the Furniture

Early detection is a key to possible treatment, Ringle emphasizes. “It’s not normal for a dog to walk into walls. If that happens, don’t wait to seek attention.”

Both veterinarians recommend Caroline D. Levin’s Living With Blind Dogs: A Resource Book and Training Guide for the Owners of Blind and Low Vision Dogs
(Lantern Publications, 2004). This manual contains a wide spectrum of tips for helping dogs and owners adjust.

Levin recommends teaching a vocabulary of commands that can play an important role in helping sightless dogs navigate. The commands up, curb, climb, or
step can signal that the dog needs to step up a curb or climb a flight of stairs, with words like descend or drop to signal to step down.

She also suggests capitalizing on the exquisite canine sense of smell to help blind dogs make sense of their surroundings. Levin says that scent marking,
using several different kinds of perfume, can help dogs maintain mental maps of their living space.

There are countless stories of blind dog successes, including Isobel, a Siberian Husky in Churchill, Manitoba. Totally blind, she relies on other senses
to continue in her work as a sled dog taking tourists to see the region’s famous polar bears.

One of the most famous blind dogs is Norman, a yellow Labrador Retriever who graced the cover of People magazine after he rescued a teenage girl. Levin
cites his story as a prime example of how a dog can use other senses to compensate for loss of vision.

In August 1996, Norman, who had lost his sight due to progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), a generic condition in which retinal cells degenerate, was running
on the beach along the Necanicum River, in Oregon, when he suddenly leaped into the water. His owner, Annerre McDonald, didn’t realize what he was
up to, until she heard faint cries for help. A 14-year-old, Lisa Nibley, had fallen into the rushing waters and was drowning. Although sightless, Norman
used his sense of hearing to find her. The blind dog dragged her to shore, saving her life.

Brighter Future

Cataracts are one of the major causes of blindness in dogs and humans. Scientists are probing the generic causes in breeds that have a tendency to develop
the condition, with hopes of developing a DNA rest that will help breeders eliminate cataracts from their pedigrees.

Bancha, a cattle-dog mix, was picked up off the street at about 6 months of age, and ended up living in a shelter. Her potential for finding a new home
worsened when she began losing her sight, probably from cataracts, at about 9 years old.

Bancha’s future seemed as dim as her vision, until an animal lover from New Jersey, Karen Quigley, took the time to get to know her. Soon she was on her
way to her first real home. Quigley was surprised by how

the dog rapidly adapted to her surroundings, using her sense of smell and her smarts to learn her way around. The other dogs in the household accepted
this newcomer without incident.

 When she arrived I walked her through the house, and after that I just never moved anything,” Quigley said.

While Quigley thought she would give Bancha a home for a couple of years — she was already 11-Bancha had other ideas. She lived to be 19.

In harness, dashing down a snow-covered path, Isobel looks like just another member of the Bluesky Expeditions (blueskymush.com) dog team that takes tourists to the polar bears in the wilds around Churchill, Manitoba.

It’s hard to. believe that she can’t see a thing.

“Isobel went blind almost four years ago,” says Jenafor Ollander who, with Gerald Azure, runs the Bluesky team. Ollander was certain Isobel’s working days were over, and brought her home to be a pet. But Isobel would have nothing of it. She stopped eating an drinking. The Ollander and Azure brought another dog, Thunder, tin to the house. Isabel perked right up. “I said to Gerald, That dog misses other dogs,’ “Ollander recalls.

They took Isabel back to the dog area, where she immediately started to eat and drink. Then, because the dog went so wild when the team got into harness, Ollander hooked her up as well. Isabel has been pulling the sled ever since.

“She goes by sound, feel, touch, and smell,” says 0llander. ‘She’s turned out to be our strongest team member. We’ve made our weakest link into our strongest one.”Testing

Glaucoma is another common cause of blindness in dogs, usually undetectable until it’s too late for corrective surgery. A tendency to develop it appears
to be inherited in several breeds, including Bouviers des Flandres, Dandie Domineer Terriers, Welsh Terriers, and Basset Hounds, but it strikes all
kinds of dogs, purebreds and mixes alike.

Meghan, a Basset Hound, was diagnosed with glaucoma in one eye. The eye was removed, and the dog went into a temporary home to recover. As often happens,
the family fell in love with this very personable girl and considered keeping her. Their plans went awry when the other eye failed and had to be removed,

“I don’t think we can live with a totally blind dog,” was the first reaction. Nevertheless, Meghan’s temporary home became a permanent one.

Shortly after that, she accompanied her multi-dog family to their summer-vacation home. A neighbor told them they were crazy.

“Why are you keeping a blind dog?” the neighbor asked. By the time the vacation ended, the same neighbor had done an about-face. She approached Meghan’s
owners. “If you don’t want her, we’ll be happy to take her,” she said.

Meghan lived a long life, spending many happy hours in the yard listening for the sound of apples falling from the trees and running to retrieve them.
Blind? You’d never know it.

Pearl was another Basset who was blind from glaucoma. After seeing her picture on a rescue group’s web site, a young woman called to inquire about her.
Admittedly, her physician husband was less enthusiastic but agreed to meet Pearl. Within minutes, Pearl’s engaging personality and ability to function
won him over.

Pearl became a fixture in schools, meeting with young children and reaching them it’s OK to be less than perfect. When Pearl died, this couple opened their
home to another sightless Basset Hound.

Leaping Over

Among the “spokesdogs” for Maryland-based Pets With Disabilities are two blind Collies, Lady and Emma, owned by volunteer Virginia Johnson.

Lady lost her vision as a puppy from retinal detachment. Her sire and dam had been tested prior to the breeding but, like most tests, it was less than
perfect. Blindness has not deterred Lady from leading an active, fun-filled life.

Now 10, Lady not only does therapy work and makes appearances for Pets With Disabilities (petswithdisabilities.org).
Originally afraid to walk up stairs, Lady now practices agility, in which dogs jump, scale an A-frame, and go through tunnels, among other feats.

How can a sightless dog accomplish this? By using her acute sense of hearing and focusing on her owner-handler, Johnson explains.

“I tap the obstacle and give her the command,” she says. The hardest one is the jump, but by walking Lady up to it rather than running her, Johnson is
able to tap the jump and over the dog goes.

Later, Johnson adopted 6-month-old Emma with no reservations because she had already had learned from Lady that living with a blind dog was not so difficult.

Sue Schrock discovered this when her miniature Poodle began to lose his sight. “At first it was night blindness, but then he gradually began bumping into
things in daylight. Our veterinarian referred us to the university, where he was diagnosed with PRA.”

PRA results in total blindness and is untreatable. The veterinarian’s sage advice:

“Take him home and don’t move the furniture.”

The Schrocks did just that. Despite a double whammy-blindness and epilepsy-Minoche (French for “brat”) lived happily ever after, to the ripe old age of

All of these clogs had three things in common: loss of sight, owners who gave them a chance, and long, happy lives.

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