Your beloved companion for the past 12 years is showing her age. A 12-year-old, medium-size dog is 84 years old in human age. Like a human, dogs experience age-related problems, including loss of eyesight.
What should you do to help your dog when her eyesight is failing? And what should you not do, which may be even more important.
Your dog will begin to manifest the effects of decreased vision by behaving as if she is a bit disoriented and ungainly. She will begin to inexplicably bump into things and stumble, neither of which she has done before. She may have trouble zeroing in on her treasured stuffed rabbit that she’s hidden in the same place, behind the couch, for the past decade. She may struggle to find her water bowl and when she does find it, she may step right into it. She may pull back and appear to be startled when you reach out to pet her. All of this is because she can no longer see clearly and the visual ambiguity leads to her disorientation and surprise when she confronts something she didn’t see clearly ahead of time.
As a dog ages, the visual pathways gradually break down and the brain is unable to process images, leading to partial or full blindness. Dogs of any age can also experience acute blindness, meaning vision loss is swift, sudden and simultaneous, which is bewildering to the animal, regardless of her age.
If you use hand commands and signals with your dog, you will need to stop doing that. You should begin to use verbal commands before complete loss of vision so that you can transition from visual to audible commands. If your dog is conditioned to respond to hand signals she may take some time to adapt to verbal cues, but she will. Dogs have an amazing ability to adapt to human language, be it through visual clues or verbal commands.
Some people use clickers because they make a sound, which emphasizes the sought after behaviors. When re-training a vision-impaired elderly dog, you may want to try the clicker method as well as treats. Remember, however, that as your dog ages, she may lose not only her visual acuity but also her hearing so adapt your communication method accordingly. How to use a clicker? If you want your dog to lie down, as soon as her belly touches the ground, press the clicker and say ‘lie down.’ Give her a treat. Repeat this until she gets it.
Look around the house. Is there anything that could pose a danger to your visually impaired dog? If so, remove it. On the other hand, do NOT move your furniture around. Your dog has learned the layout of your house and every object in it. Moving something will only confuse her and force her to try to learn new pathways, something which can be difficult without the benefit of her vision.
Do not let your dog in the swimming pool area unless you are accompanying her as she may inadvertently fall into the pool and be unable to get out. Do not let her wander around outside on her own, especially in an unfenced area. Do not let your visually impaired dog wander alone in perilous areas, such as on the edge of a cliff or near an open window.
Remember that your dog’s other senses, especially her sense of smell and touch, can be employed to lessen the impact of losing her vision. For example, when you walk your visually impaired dog, do so on a short leash which allows her to ‘feel’ where you are and to smell you. You will notice that she will ‘check in’ with you by swiveling her head toward you and almost bumping into you with her nose. You will want to walk close to her and gently guide her by allowing her to smell you and bump your legs. She is using her sense of smell to locate you and get whatever reassurance she needs that you are close by and will guide her through the growing darkness she is experiencing.
Keep your dog’s toys, food and water bowls and bed in the same place as always. She will appreciate the familiarity. Life is going to be hard enough without trying to figure out where her bed has been moved to.
When you do reach out to caress your dog, do so gently and slowly, allowing her to smell your approach before you touch her. Remember that your dog’s nose is much keener than yours and she will smell you long before another person will.
The loss of vision is as devastating to an animal as it is to a human. Your dog will need time to adjust. If your dog is partially blind, leave the lights on in the area where she hangs out because she is going to have difficulty navigating in a completely dark room.
Lastly, if your dog has cataracts, she can undergo surgery, which can help restore some of her vision.
She remains your beloved dog and you still have her. With a little care, you can give her the quality of life she deserves, even as she ages and that’s what counts.
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