By Miki Saito
Unfortunately, even knowledgeable and experienced trainers sometimes hesitate when it comes to working with a blind dog. It is as if they consider the dog’s blindness an obstacle that cannot be overcome.
Since blindness cannot be changed, this mindset can lead trainers to believe that these dogs cannot be trained but this is, of course, untrue. The dog’s blindness does not inhibit training. His emotional state, however, may be preventing him from having a positive learning experience.
As explained by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz at the Clicker Expo in Portland, Oregon in January 2015, if the dog is feeling fear, he is in “escape contingency” because he is facing an unpleasant or harmful event. If he is feeling anxiety, he is in “avoidance contingency” because he is anticipating that an unpleasant or harmful event is going to happen.
If the dog is feeling frustration, he is in “negative punishment” or “extinction contingency” because what he wants is unavailable. Another possibility is that he has not learned how to cope with the aversive state. Dr. Rosales-Ruiz states that emotions arise from contingencies; as such, the blind dog’s environment produces his fear, anxiety and frustration.
As trainers we all know that we can successfully modify a dog’s behavior by changing the environment appropriately. In the same way, we can change a dog’s emotional state. Environmental change plus using the knowledge and skills of positive reinforcement can eliminate fear and anxiety, the enemies of fun training.
To help a dog who is overwhelmed you need to provide a safe environment, as well as time and positive reinforcement. This is true regardless of whether or not the dog can see. You just need to exercise a little more ingenuity if the dog is blind.
Before you invite a blind dog and her owner to your training facility, you should literally crawl around on the floor so you can observe it from the same height as a dog’s eyes. Look for sharp objects and corners that could injure the blind dog’s eye, face or body. If you see any, remove them or cover them with cushioned material such as a yoga mat.
It would be best to put your training equipment in one place and put ring gates or visual barriers around it in order to prevent a blind dog’s access. If you invite a blind dog to your yard or outdoor area, check first for holes and plants. Stepping in a hole can cause serious injury. Bumping an eye into a plant can injure the cornea which causes severe pain.
Blind dogs are prone to bumping their faces and heads on the legs of tables and chairs. Tables and chairs must be put away or their legs covered with cushioned material. Chair covers for weddings, which cover a chair entirely down to the floor, can make it easier for a blind dog to be aware of the chair and prevent her from getting injured by the chair’s legs.
Scared and Confused
It is important to remember the three kinds of places where blind dogs are prone to feel scared and confused: crowded, narrow spaces; large, high-ceilinged spaces; and novel spaces. If a blind dog is in a narrow space surrounded by lots of objects, she can feel like she will get stuck. To help her walk through a narrow space safely, have her come between the handler’s legs and have them then walk together.
As you can see in this video, I use a verbal cue for moving forward together. After that I replace it with a tactile cue of my leg movement, so that she was walking while I was walking and when I stopped, she stopped. Later on I added another tactile cue which involved a different leg movement for u-turns. Consequently, there is no longer a need to say anything except when I invite her to position herself between my legs.
This cue is very useful when I need to control my dog’s movements and my hands are full. It is also useful when she is confused and scared in large or novel places. I can help her feel safe enough to walk using this method.
The second type of place that a blind dog may need your help is a large space with a high ceiling, like a gym or dance hall. Echoes occur in this type of space.
The echoing of a person’s footstep and voice or a dog’s barking makes it difficult for a blind dog to determine relative distance. She will struggle to figure out the distance to the other dog or person, as well as the number of dogs and people. This can make her anxious.
The third is a novel place. A blind dog has a map of a familiar place in her head. She can follow this map, which makes her feel secure and competent. But she does not have a map of a novel place. This makes her feel anxious. She does not know the size and shape of the place, where she should be more careful or where her safe place is.
When a blind dog comes to a novel place, she needs to have the time and opportunity to safely explore, in order to create the new map in her head.
Freedom to Explore
To help a blind dog truly know the new place and situation, she needs to be given enough time and freedom to “see” with her nose and ears, check around with her muzzle or face, and decide for herself whether she wants to explore or not.
A blind dog must be given the opportunity to explore your facility before each of her lessons. As I wrote in my previous article, Empowerment for a Better Quality of Life (BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, pp. 32-34), a blind dog’s muzzle and face are important tools for understanding the shape of an object and for measuring the height of a step.
To help the blind dog create the map of your facility, you need to maintain the same conditions. This means always putting equipment in the same place and not moving furniture.
Some blind dogs feel safer when on a leash, especially in an unfamiliar place. Whether it is better to have a blind dog on or off leash when letting her explore a new place depends on the dog. A blind dog can know in which direction she should go, as well as what distance she should be from her handler, by a tiny change in the tension of the leash. I taught my blind dog Nono micro-leash signals and used them to help her feel comfortable walking.
I have found the following method is best to help a blind dog get up a step safely and comfortably. I walk with my dog on a loose leash. When we reach a step, I slow down and stop in front of the step and say, “there’s a step” as a notice cue. This makes her aware of the step so that she does not bump into it and gives her the opportunity to measure its height with her muzzle. For details about a notice cue, which lets a blind dog know what is going to happen, see my handout Blind Dog Notice Cue.
A blind dog will learn by experience that she can get what she wants by using senses and abilities other than eyesight. The more frequently good outcomes occur while she is using her remaining senses and abilities, the more she will build skills to use them. This develops her confidence. Those positive experiences will help her adapt to her condition and cope with a difficult situation.
As Dr. Rosales-Ruiz says, “If you are feeling happy, you are in a positive reinforcement contingency.” Positive reinforcement affects not only behaviors and skills but also emotional states.
Fortunately, you have as many chances to reinforce the dog’s behaviors as the amount of kibble in the dog’s meals. You can provide positive reinforcement by changing the way you give the meal: subtract some of the daily meal from the food bowl and use it to fill food puzzles such as a Kong, or to play nose games and do training sessions.
You can sprinkle kibble on the floor of your facility and let the dog search and eat it on a loose leash or off leash. The dog’s owner can put pieces of kibble one-by-one on the floor while walking backwards, encouraging the dog to follow while eating the kibble.
If the dog manages these games easily, you can make it a little more difficult. You can cover some sprinkled kibble with a paper cup or wrap some kibble up with hand towels or handkerchiefs and put it around the room.
Next, you can start to teach simple behaviors which are prerequisites for desired behaviors or useful tricks for daily life: turning the head or face to the direction of a hand-clap or the dog’s name being called; turning in response to being touched with the finger tips; hand targeting; chin rest; and the dog going between his owner’s legs.
You can also teach a spin starting with the behavior of looking at the direction of the touch and then shape the turn. In addition to all of this, it is helpful to teach various sound signals to let a blind dog know where he should go.
My aim is to show owners and trainers that teaching a blind dog is similar to teaching a fearful, sighted dog. Both types of dogs need help to improve their emotional states. This approach will help dog trainers feel empowered to confidently work with a blind dog if they are asked.
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, September 2015, pp.28-29
Rosales-Ruiz, Jesús. The Quadrant Quandary: Clarity and Perspective on an Icon. Presentation at Clicker Expo, Portland, Oregon, January 23-25, 2015.
Saito, M. (May 2015). Empowerment for a Better Quality of Life. BARKS from the Guild, pp.32-34
Handout Blind Dog Notice Cue
Video Blind Dog Walking with Trainer
Video Chin Rest
Video Hand Targeting
Video Shaping the Turn
Video Teaching Sound Signals
Miki Saito CPDT-KA is a dog training and behavior consultant at Mark and Reward dog training and education, in Yokohama, Japan. She is considered an expert in training blind and visually-impaired dogs. Her dog Nono is the first and only blind dog who has passed the D.I.N.G.O. Master Handler test. She shares ideas for helping and training blind dogs on her website Blind Dog Training, and her YouTube channel.