Helping a Blind Dog Learn to Trust a New a Dog Walker

By: David Codr

Published Date: August 29, 2017

Mishka is an 11 year-old Border Collie / Chow mix who lives in Santa Monica. Due to a case of Glaucoma she had her eyes removed two years ago and is now a completely blind dog and fearful / anxious around people she doesn’t know. Her guardians set up this at home dog psychology session to help her learn to trust the dog walker her family has hired to walk and watch her when they are traveling.

I took my time during the greeting to give Mishka a chance to investigate and meet me with her nose. I used an old dog behaviorist trick, waiting for the dog to get a good sniff in and move away before I came into the home. This is a good way to meet any new dog, but even more important when you have a blind dog.

Mishka’s dog walker arrived a few minutes after I did. We all sat down to discuss the situation and background on the first attempt of having the dog meet the walker.

The dog walker has some experience working with blind dogs, but because Mishka’s eyeballs were completely removed, it was more challenging to read her facial expressions. When she met her for the first time, the dog walker said she snapped when she attempted to touch her while offering a treat.

Thought the session, multiple things came up that showed me that the dog walker had great instincts and intuition and was using many dog training tricks related to working with a blind dog, but was unable to break through and touch her physically.

I asked about the previous attempts to meet as well as the dog’s day to day life. The guardians had done a great job of helping Mishka feel confident by not moving furniture around, sticking to a pretty consistent routine and being patient when she was uncertain or cautious.

I made a few recommendations regarding gear and equipment like attaching a bell to the dog’s harness. Although there is no problem with her hearing, attaching a bell can help other animals identify when a special needs dog is near. It can also be a life saver if Mishka gets lost.

Another recommendation I made was to get Mishka a halo harness.

A Halo harness provides feedback to the dog anytime it gets too close to something and can help protect a blind dog from running into things. This is not the first time I have trained a blind dog and each time I recommend a Halo, the guardians all reported a big improvement in the dog’s ability to move around and a boost in confidence.

In addition to helping the dog stay safe and be more in tune with their surroundings, this Halo rig will help with another common problem that faces many blind dogs, being touched unexpectedly by a human who thinks petting will help calm the dog. Anyone who has been surprised by an unexpected touch can certainly relate to how this may feel to a blind dog.

Another suggestion was to get a leash with the text “training” stitched into it. While this wouldn’t be accurate in Mishka’s case, these leashes generally cause people to avoid reaching out to pet a dog.

Training a blind dog can be a challenge, but its not that much more difficult than training a dog who can see. You just need to have more patience and recognize limitations so you can adjust accordingly.

I shared a great book on living with and training a blind or deaf dog called Through a Dark Silence. This book includes a number of other blind dog training tips and suggestions that will help her guardians provide her with a more fulfilling and rich life.

After discussing these blind dog training secrets and behavior tips, I pulled out a few tools to try with Mishka. A few of these had little to no affect on her and this is normal. One of the things I have learned from various dog behavior expert books and instruction is that improvisation is key. A technique that works perfectly with one dog may not work at all with another dog from the same litter.

I used a combination of many different techniques with Mishka to great success. Many of these involved using her nose. I started out by offering Mishka the scent that was on my boots as I have worn them to countless at home dog psychology sessions.

Mishka showed some interest in my boots but when I pushed them a little closer to her, she backed away so we paused and waited for her to lay back down before trying again. This is a good time to stress the importance of stopping and waiting for a dog when it indicates things are too much for it. Its also a great example of why I prefer in home dog training sessions for dogs with psychological problems. The home is where the dog feels the most comfortable. If something is too much for a dog there, you really want to avoid it in a higher stimulation environment.

Once Mishka was calm and relaxed again, I used the one of most basic dog training tricks out there; motivation through a high value training treat. In this case I used the soft and chewy liver-flavored Tricky Trainers. She took a treat from my hand, but only after I had one of her guardians give her one first. I wanted the first treat to only have familiar human scents.

After she was taking treats from my hand, I had the guardian grab a hand towel and directed the dog walker to wipe if over her arms to gather some of her scent. I knew that the dog had already developed a slightly negative association with the dog walker due to the first meeting not going well. This kind of scent training or scent stimulation is very helpful with blind dogs.

I laid the towel on the floor a foot or so in front of Mishka, and then dropped a half dozen training treats onto it. Yu can see how this dog behavior trick worked by watching the video below.

Because the dog walker had applied her scent to the towel, each time the dog licked up a treat, he was getting a small amount of her scent with it. By combining the dog’s scent with the tasty treat, I was able to help a blind dog build up a positive association with someone without direct contact from that person which would have been overwhelming.

After working with Mishka this was for a few minutes, I was able to transition into the dog walker giving the dog a treat from her hand for the first time. I love being able to facilitate first time experiences like this.

After Mishka got comfortable taking treats from the dog walkers hand, I had her lay down on her back on the floor next to the dog. For dogs, height can be a status thing and a intimidating factor. By having the dog walker lay down, she was in a far less commanding position which helped the dog feel more relaxed.

Shortly after she laid down, I began dropping treats next to and on top of the dog walker. Each time we did this, Mishka came closer and interacted with her more and more. After a few minutes Mishka was laying down next to and leaning on the dog walker. When I saw the dog lay her chin on the dog walker’s arm and doze off, I knew we had made a lot of progress.

Another blind dog tip os to sing to them in soothing tones. This can be helpful for deaf dogs too, they just need to lay on the person’s chest to get the vibrations. They say it helps humans to smile when talking on the phone as we convey brightness and happiness via tones and other subtle ways. Smiling and interacting with a dog through singing can have a similar effect.

Although it may seem silly, having the dog walker sing to Mishka while laying on the floor next to her and her primary guardian can be a constant that helps the dog feel more comfortable through the consistent association.

But with Mishka’s guardians heading out for a trip in a week, I knew I needed to get the dog walking with the dog walker. I shared a few positive dog training tips with the walker and guardians before we headed out.

After observing how the guardian handled the leash, I came up with a way to pass the leash from the primary guardian to the dog walker while keeping the dog moving forward. I added in a few other dog behavior tricks on the walk which you can catch by checking out the next video.

This was the first time Mishka allowed the dog walker to take the lead. This was a big step in Mishka’s canine rehabilitation. It went really smoothly and the few times Mishka started to get lost or confused, I had the  primary guardian make a sound to call the dog and get her to continue moving forward.

Because dogs get over things by literally moving forward, this walk was therapeutic in multiple ways. The various smells, sounds, surfaces will all help keep Mishka’s mind and senses stimulated and pairing it with the dog walker will boost her confidence.

I recommended the guardians repeat this walk a few times a day for the next week (more if possible). The more time the new handler spends leading the dog on a walk now, the more comfortable she will be later when the guardian is not present.

I had the walker record the unique sound Mishka’s primary guardian used to lure her forward so that she can practice this herself at home. If she can get it right, she should be able to convert it into a pseudo command word to keep moving forward.

When we returned home I had the dog walker pull handfuls of kibble out of the bag and run it through her fingers before putting it aside into a zip lock bag. Id like to see the dog walker do this each time she comes over for the next week. Adding her scent to the dog food this way will add another layer of positive association to the dog walker.

I was quite pleased with this session. I always enjoy sessions that require the use of dog psychology and positive dog training to help a dog come out of a dark place, pun intended.

We had quite a few firsts in this in home dog training session; Mishka taking a treat from the dog walker, laying down next to her, falling asleep next to her twice and walking with her while her guardian was halfway down the block.

By the end of the session Mishka was calmer, much more relaxed near and touching the dog walker and the looks on the faces of the dog walker and guardians told me everyone else was as pleased with the progress we made as much as I was.

We wrapped things up by shooting a roadmap to success video to go over many of the dog behavior tricks, dog psychology approaches and positive dog training exercises we covered in the session.

If the guardians and dog walker practice this walking technique a few times a day for the next week, Mishka’s dog walker should have no problem taking her out for a stroll through Santa Monica when her family is traveling. Combine that with the scent games I suggested out of the book, treats on the scented towel, adding scent to her food and the walker laying down on the floor next to her will all help boost Mishka’s confidence with the dog walker through familiarity.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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