My name is Carina Josefine T. Iversen, and I work as a dog trainer and behaviour consultant in Norway. Even with my background in dog training and behaviour, it certainly felt like a proper punch in the gut when my dog went suddenly blind about a year ago. I felt lost.
We saw six different veterinarians in total. Five of these gave NO advice regarding my dog’s mental health. The sixth one said blind dogs would “cope fine in familiar environments.” I knew that would never be enough for me or my dog. The vet went on to give me the following advice:
- Never move furniture (Fair enough, I don’t really need to)
- Always keep your dog on a tight leash (So we are going to take away her independence and opportunity to explore as well?)
- Always walk familiar places (No more new sensory input, no new experiences?)
- Avoid obstacles and uneven terrain (What? No challenges to conquer either? Ever? And no walks in uneven terrain to maintain core muscles and balance?)
As you can see from my comments, this felt wrong. My dog was in need of confidence and content in life, and the only advice was to deprive her of it. From my experience working with fearful and nervous dogs, I had a few ideas on what to do to maintain my dog’s confidence and give her life content. I made her a plan, and three days later we were out in the woods walking, and trick training.
Short story: She is more outgoing, curious and confident than before she went blind. Her blindness has not affected her quality of life at all.
I connected with other people who also had their dog go suddenly blind. Needless to say, this can be a shocking and scary experience for both the dog and their families. Many owners said their dogs seemed depressed, fearful, nervous, and/or bored. I wanted to use my competence as a behaviour consultant to help these dogs and their owners by giving specific exercises that could help both dogs and owners when faced with this challenge.
I believe the “depression” often is a sign of too little stimulating content in life. A blind dog will often need more effort from us in order to stay active and stimulated.
“Blind Dogs – Quality of life” started in January 2018 and has participants from the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and South Africa. The goal is to assess the impact of mentally stimulating activities and confidence-building exercises on dogs that have gone suddenly blind.
I also wish to provide veterinarians with material to give to their clients with blind dogs to advise on mental health. Good quality of life requires us to take care of both the physical and mental health. Eighty percent of the current participants report that they got no advice on mental health from the veterinarians who diagnosed their dogs.
I have focused this project around dogs that have gone blind suddenly (with no time to adjust). I make each dog a customized plan and I follow them for six months. Their plan consists of confidence building exercises and mental activities, such as nose work, problem solving, exploration, trick training, useful commands, and so on. Before joining, the participants fill out a questionnaire where they assess key factors in their dog’s quality of life, such as confidence, interest in activities, curiosity, and so on. They will be asked to repeat this questionnaire at 3 months and 6 months. In addition to this, I follow up through emails and phone calls every month (every week for the first month).
Below you can some temporary results. Here you can see and average of how the owners rated different qualities before participating, and then after 3 months of following the plan.
The results and testimonials so far are very promising. It is worth noting that the results do not seem to be affected by the dog’s age (I have participants from the age of 2-16), or by how long the dog has been blind before joining (I work with dogs that have been blind 3 weeks to 4 years before starting their plan).
Here are a few testimonials from participants:
“I imagine on my own I would have made a safe and comfortable future for Britt. And maybe her life would have been fun eventually one day. But through your words of encouragement and with the plan you developed I felt like I had tools I could use right away to improve Britt’s life and my life. You have made Britt’s blindness become just a small hiccup in our lives instead of a life-changing event. Britt is already back to her old laughing/snorting happy disposition and I am so grateful.”– Lenora and Britt (15)
“I feel that this really brought Daisy out of her shell since going blind. She is very eager to learn. (…) She is wagging her tail again. This makes my heart happy” – Megan and Daisy (4)
“Even with 20+ years of dog training experience, I felt lost and powerless when Andi went blind. It was overwhelming. Having a plan allows me to set goals for him and give us “projects” to work on. I really enjoy reporting on his progress to my loved ones as well. The plan empowers me and makes me feel like I’m actively “doing something” for him to keep us his quality of life.” – Karen and Andi (7)
Carina Josefine Thorbjørnsdatter Iversen Dog trainer and behaviour consultant