Guest blog- Sharon Alton
Updated: Feb 4, 2021
Launching a series of contributions to The Bloghouse by some amazing people, we are delighted to share this piece by the best behaviourist I know.
Well known to those in dachshund circles, Sharon has an interesting spin on "future proofing"!
Going blind? How can we make their lives better?
My grandfather lost the majority of his sight in his 80’s, he started losing his hearing and he then developed dementia, and it was pretty tough going, but in my research into dementia whilst he was with us, we made adaptions to try and keep his life enriched. He lost his sight and could not read the paper, so we read it to him and got him one of those little radios to listen to, he lost his hearing – here things got tricky as all his stimulation from the environment was gone – or was it? Watch a blind person, their sense of touch is increased. We started helping him learn to use his hands to continue to be able to live independently. And then dementia hit, with minimal sight and hearing memory work was out of the window, so how could we provide mental stimulation? We have 5 senses yes, he still had his sense of smell and sense of touch, so as much as possible we utilised that. From watching my grandad, I thought, what if we had known his sight was going, what could we have done??
And that got me onto thinking about dogs with failing sight…….
Over the years I have had several of our older dogs gradually lose their sight as they aged, we made adaptions, made sure we did not move anything and just let them get on with it. We would gently advise people with incoming dogs, “oh be careful, she’s blind.” It never really crossed my mind to teach the dog “be careful, there’s a dog approaching,” that is until I was in contact with Barbara over the beautiful Cookie. One of the 100 dachshunds rescued by the RSPCA and under The Red Foundations Care as she is a blind and deaf Double Dapple.
Blind dog training has always been a training area I have been interested in. With our elderly dogs, I would wrap them in cotton wool, try and modify the environment to keep them safe, and ask others to be aware of them. I think that is what most of us do, isn’t it? Being honest, it’s still something I’ll do with my next aging dogs….but with some changes.
Now, as my dogs get older, I will start putting in place cues and commands to help them adapt before that happens rather than when that happens. Rather than control the environment, I will give the dogs every opportunity to be in control of their environment and provide them the tools to continue to enjoy their environment.
How? By enabling them. I have an advantage with these older dogs, I can anticipate their aging and teach them steps are coming, teach them there is a wall there or a different surface or a step before their senses are reduced. I can teach them I am about to pick them up with a tap to the shoulder, or a stroke down their back and then my hand lingering on their shoulder. I can do all this much quicker and easier because they still have their sight and hearing.
Barbara and anyone with a born blind dog have a bigger challenge, these dogs are already lacking the visual cue so are reliant on their experiences and cues associated with them. A lot of time and work goes into ensuring these born blind dogs understand “careful” means a hazard is coming, “step up” or “down” means they should start slowing and lifting their legs to prepare for a step, and teaching off lead recalls? Yes, off lead – well that’s pretty amazing right?? The trust between dogs and owners enabling their dogs is remarkable, and we can all learn from it. One day we will all, hopefully see our dogs age disgracefully……but can we help them remain completely disgraceful?
After working with a few born blind dogs, and talking to Barb, who thinks outside of the box I had an epiphany of my own– by training our dogs at any age and introducing cues and refreshing them throughout our dog’s lives, we can prepare for the day they may go blind and/or deaf. Using clicker training to give a clear signal to those that can hear but introducing torchlight to those that are deaf and of failing sight can help the dogs learn new skills or associate visual or verbal signals with a tactile one. If we taught our dogs before the inevitable happens, we could make their later years a lot easier for them and us. We can teach them a touch to the left shoulder means to stop, a touch to the right means I am going to pick you up now. You don’t need to teach lots but teaching some emergency protocols can make things easier for everyone, especially your dog.
As our dogs age, we tend to see them withdraw a bit, become quieter, and then we see their eyes cloud, and they become less responsive, and perhaps a bit of dementia sets in. It is sad to watch our soulmates age, sometimes it seems to happen overnight. But, as loving owners, that’s part of ownership and its highly rewarding. I cannot say I know the answer yet as the dogs I am training for those older days are still hearing and seeing. But I really hope just teaching these extra things will help them retain some of their young selves. Perhaps like with humans with dementia, blindness, and deafness we can adapt their mental enrichment to try and keep their minds active and slow down the progression of those age-related issues we dread? Divide their meals into four or five, I noticed my grandfather started to want more snacks, finger foods etc. His palate changed and he enjoyed things with strong flavours – by translating this for dogs….activities such as free work (scent work/food obstacle course at its simplest use), snuffle mats etc using a combination of their high quality food and extra yummy treats can be used to provide mental stimulation….their noses are not blind after all! There is a lot we can do, and there is so much more they can do.
By being prepared we can ensure we can create “the confidence to let blind dogs lead full and happy lives” regardless of their age.
Sharon Alton UDIP, M.I.S.A.P, Cert HE (Law), PPDTI Adv
Perfectly Polite Dachshunds
The Red Foundation – Emergency Dachshund Rescue Behaviour Advisor
Dachshund Health UK Trustee