Training a blind dog does not take any special skill or magic. Blind dogs are still dogs, and they are more than capable of learning. Just last week my dog Asher, a 12-year-old Rottweiler, missed his turn and plowed into a wall. I had noticed changes in his eyesight over the past month or so. Heading out into the yard, I gave him a couple of hand signals. He only responded to one of the three. That one was the signal I gave while he was right in front of me. Then he was off running in the yard again. This time I repeated the same cues verbally, and he got them all. Asher is my retired show dog. So although we do not train to compete anymore, we do train for fun. He still loves to work and loves our training time together. Now it will simply be a matter of adjusting how I work with him.
Jimmy was an older male rescued Pit Bull who I had the pleasure of working with. Blind when he was rescued, Jimmy did not know that he was any different. He needed to learn some basic manners and needed behavior modification for separation anxiety. Again, with just a few adjustments he was quickly learning what his new family was teaching him.
Give Your Blind Dog A Scent Map
Asher, Jimmy or even a puppy blind at birth can learn as well as any other dog. The first adjustment I make when training a blind dog is to scent corners of rooms, walls, doorways or even furniture with a little lavender or vanilla; less than a drop will do. This gives your dog a pathway of scent to follow to quickly establish where everything is. You can also scent your dog’s toys with vanilla so they are easy to distinguish, too!
Choose A Training Method
So where do you start? Clicker training is a great method to use with a blind dog. The “click” makes a very short and concise noise that is easily distinguishable from anything else. Use the click to mark the exact moment that your dog does the right thing. Then follow this with a reward; most commonly a small, soft piece of food is given. The two easiest ways to teach a dog using a clicker are:
1. Luring: This is when you take a small, soft piece of food and use it to lure your dog into position. For instance, if you want to teach your dog to sit, take the treat and put it front of your dog’s nose and then slowly move it up and over his head. As his head goes up to track the food, his rear end naturally hits the floor. When this happens, you want to “click,” marking the exact moment your dog sits. You then immediately follow the click with the reward.
2. Capture: This is when you click and treat a dog for doing something on his own that you like. If you want to teach your dog to lie down, then click and treat the very moment he lays down on his own. If he continues to lie down, then click and treat a few more times while he remains down. With consistency, he will soon realize that lying down causes good things to happen. Soon, when you are around, he will begin to offer this behavior, hoping to get a click and a treat!
Basic Training Commands For Your Blind Dog
Once your dog is responding to the clicker, you are ready to start!
1. Name Game: This is a great way to teach a blind dog to orient to you. Start with 10 small, soft treats. Say your dog’s name and give him a treat. Repeat 10 times. Do this a couple of times a day over a period of two or three days. You want to see your dog get visibly excited when he hears his name. Next, when your dog is not paying attention to you, say his name. As soon as his head turns around and he is facing your direction, click immediately and follow with a treat. Soon he will respond and come to you every time he hears his name.
2. Come: I teach this the same exact way as I teach a dog to respond to his name in the Name Game above. Not only can you teach this using the word come, you can also teach it using a whistle sound as your cue. This way you also have an emergency recall as well.
3. Sit: Using luring, follow the same steps as described above.
4. Down: Have your dog sit. Then take a small, soft treat and put it in front of your dog’s nose. Slowly move your hand with the treat straight down between your dog’s front feet. Letting your dog smell or even lick at the treat, hold it there until he crouches into a down. Click and treat. You can also capture the down as described above.
Tips For Training Success
Here are some things to keep in mind when training your blind dog:
- Keep your verbal cues simple. Use single word cues such as sit, down, lay, etc.
- Keep your cues consistent. Dogs who can see our faces or body language rely heavily on what they see when learning verbal cues. Sometimes they never truly learn the word but are responding to our body language. Blind dogs do not have that advantage, so we need to help them out by keeping our cues simple and precisely the same each and every time.
- Consider using a unique sound. Instead of using words or hand signals, you can also use novel sounds for each exercise you teach your dog. A shepherd’s whistle, a whistle that you can make different tones and sounds with, would be great for using with a blind dog.
With just a few adjustments you will find that training a blind dog is not really any different than working with any other dog. With patience and consistency, your dog will be learning all the things that you are willing to teach him. And as the people around you watch your dog respond and grow with training, I am sure more than one person will be shocked when they realize you are training a blind dog!