Navigation for a Blind Dog
by Ron Kurtus (19 July 2003)
A surprising number of dogs go blind, either from glaucoma or hereditary diseases. Pet owners must make accommodations to help their blind pet navigate throughout the house.
Similar to a blind person, a blind dog must use the senses of touch, hearing and smell to become orientated or determine where it is in a room and to navigate or find its way around.
The difference between blind humans and blind dogs is the degree to which these remaining senses are used.
Questions you may have include:
- How is the sense of touch used in navigation?
- How does a dog use hearing to find its way around?
- How is the sense of smell used?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Using the sense of touch
A blind dog can find its way around a room by bumping into things, feeling the texture of the flooring and temperature changes from airflow.
When trying to move about a room, the blind dog may bump into the wall or furniture. This can be a shock, since the dog usually bumps into things with its sensitive nose. Once it gets an idea of where things are, the dog can usually get around a room fairly effectively, provided furniture isn't moved.
It certainly may take a while to establish a mental map of the whole house, though.
Dog owners may use a special hoop around a blind dog's head to facilitate touching and reduce bumping into things with the nose. (See Resources)
Feeling the flooring
If there are items such as throw rugs or runners on the floor, the blind dog can use them to help navigate a room. It is like following the sidewalk outside.
It is often suggested that owners of blind dogs place rugs or runners in strategic areas to help their pet know what part of the room it is in and to guide it through a doorway.
A cool breeze from an open window or door can give a cue as to where it is. Also, it there is a source of heat, such as an air vent, it can be use to help orientation and navigation.
In the summer, a fan can be located in one area to provide an orientation cue.
Dogs have a more sensitive sense of hearing than humans. Sounds and subtle echoes can help the dog become orientated and navigate itself within a room.
When hunting a small animal such as a mouse in tall grass, a dog can focus in on the faint sounds of the animal. But surprisingly, they don't seem to be able to determine the direction from which a sound comes as well as humans can.
Radio or TV
But still, a radio or TV that is in a set location in the house or a room will help a blind dog become orientated. It is also a good cue to guide navigation.
Speaking to your dog and giving commands will greatly help navigation. Giving commands like stop or stay, step up and step down will will help the dog avoid bumping into things and to navigate steps.
Some owners of blind dogs wear small bells when they walk their pet, so the dog will know where the master is. Tapping on a step or on a food bowl will also help the blind dog find it.
Subtle echoes off the walls and furniture can help navigation. The echoes can come from external sources, like the radio, or by making noises. Echoes from walking on a hard floor that makes noise can help to orientate the blind dog.
Dogs have a very keen sense of smell. A dog in the house can smell the presence of another dog outside, if the wind is in the right direction.
Sniff odors on floor
Blinds dogs use their sense of smell to a great extent to get around the house and to know where they are. Dogs can smell faint odors in the rug and on furniture to help in navigation. Of course, a dog usually has its nose close to the ground.
Marking areas higher up, like on the wall or on doorjambs may not work as effectively as creating a path of smell along the floor. Some people use extracts, such as Vanilla, to mark areas.
A blind dog may be able to distinguish areas, especially if there are scented items in a room. Certainly the kitchen will have smells of food around the stove and table. But note that scents and odors spread quickly through the air and the location of the source may not be distinguishable.
The dog may be able to smell the presence of its food at a distance, but since the odor quickly spreads throughout the area, the dog may not be able to zero in on the food. You actually have to put the food a few inches from the dog's nose for it to tell where the food is.
Blind dogs must use their senses of touch, hearing and smell to orient themselves and navigate about a room. Touch includes bumping into things with its nose, feeling the texture of the floor and noting temperature changes from airflow. Rugs may be used to help in navigation.
Using sound to navigate includes hearing a fixed sound like from a radio, hearing commands from its master, sensing echoes. Dogs have a keen sense of smell, but they mainly use it to navigate by sniffing close to the ground or floor. Scents may be placed there to assist them.
Help others overcome their challenges
Resources and references
Navigating in a Room when Blind - Navigation for people and animals (in this site)
Owners of Blind Dogs - Excellent and comprehensive site concerning blind dog issues
About Blind Dogs - Articles and links from About.com (many irritating pop-up ads
Living With Blind Dogs by Caroline D. Levin, Lantern Publications (1998) $29.95 - Resource book and training guide for owners of blind and low vision dogs
Blind Dog Stories: Tales of Triumph, Humor and Heroism by Caroline Levin (1999) $12.95
Questions and comments
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