Marta has sent us this beautifully written piece about Wendi’s journey. Thank you, Marta, for letting me share it.
Six months ago our beloved, high-spirited, miniature dachshund Wendi went very suddenly blind. Looking back I suppose there may have been some subtle signs that something was happening with her vision but to us it seemed like one minute she could see and the next she quite literally crashed into a wall never to see again. We immediately took her to the vet, then a veterinary ophthalmologist and she was diagnosed with SARDS. That first week was filled with nonstop research and testing to see if there was anything else physically wrong with her. All of the other test results came back normal and no one could explain why our otherwise healthy six-year-old dog had lost her vision in such a sudden way.
My first search on social media led me to what I’m sure is a very well-intentioned group that I immediately found very depressing. I honestly can’t say whether Wendi was depressed or not, although she was most certainly very subdued and heartbreakingly timid. However, I do know that my husband and I were absolutely sick about it. That first week was awful. We were incredibly sad for our sweet little girl and feeling quite hopeless about her future when a truly gifted trainer named Carina Josefine Thorbjornsdatter Iversen reached out to me. She offered us the opportunity to take part in a study for newly blind dogs. I had not even considered searching for something like this. The study was simply aimed at improving quality of life. Her attitude was entirely positive, and we agreed to begin immediately. What follows is a brief description of our experience in this study and what worked for us.
After our initial consultation Carina provided us with a plan for Wendi’s training. We made the commitment to spend at least 15 minutes a day doing anything from the plan that appealed to us. Finding the time was not an issue as we already spent so much time with our dog. She was crated for just a few hours a day when we were both gone but otherwise she has always been a very active part of the family. That was part of the problem, she was with us almost all the time and a part of nearly everything we did. She would follow us everywhere we went, venturing off into our large yard to explore but always aware of where we were and running back to check on us. Now she was only interested in three things, food, affection and sleep. How would we get her to do 15 minutes of training when she wasn’t interested in doing anything at all?
The exercises were quite simple and varied, broken into different areas of focus such as nose-work, commands, confidence building, new experiences and exploration. Carina also made some good suggestions for “blind dog proofing” our house. One our greatest fears was that Wendi would get hurt so we took the suggestions that made the most sense to us. Fortunately we don’t have stairs and we already had many of what we now call “landing pads” for her throughout the house” since she was always nearby and often underfoot. We added a few floor runners and mats to create a sense of demarcation at the end of hallways and in front of doors. We added extra pillows to line the edges of our bed so she wouldn’t fall off. We also moved a couple of pieces of furniture just slightly to create more open pathways and vowed never to move the furniture again. Finally, we took a couple of small dog beds that were constantly moving around the house at her whim and gave them permanent homes in her favorite spots.
Our first goal was to just get her interested in something and food seemed like our best bet. Since Wendi’s meals took about 30 seconds for her to consume at that point, eating could hardly be considered an activity. Many of the training exercises in our plan included the use of treats for reward, affirmation, creating interest, playing games and self-soothing. Unfortunately using additional food as motivation was a worry since her activity level had gone from running around nonstop to almost nothing at all. We didn’t want her to gain an excessive amount of weight, so we started by switching to a high-quality kibble in the smallest bite size possible. We also started making our own soft food with mostly vegetables and bone broth to expand her actual meals that she ate from a bowl. We measured out her total amount of kibble for the day, turning two thirds (two meals worth) into treats to be used for training (turning two of her meals into activities) and one third for an evening meal. We also used the low-calorie soft food for creating frozen treats that took longer to consume and provide interest and soothing benefits.
Favorite Food Related Activities:
- Lickimats with watered down soft food, frozen
- Kongs with a very small amount of kibble and frozen vegetables filled in with watered down soft food, frozen
- Frozen carrots and green beans, larger pieces for treats, small pieces (along with a few small pieces of frozen meat or kibble) scattered in a small area on the floor for her to find
At this point, after just a couple of days, we already did see some improvement. She would get up and find her way slowly into the kitchen when I was in there, whereas just a few days earlier I could barely get her to leave her bed. Food was working to create some interest but we wanted to start teaching her something useful. While Wendi has always been quite well behaved we have never considered her to be a very well trained animal. She only knew the most basic commands before blindness and obeyed them most of the time but mostly it seemed because she was very connected to us and was always watching us waiting for a treat or a cuddle. We hadn’t done much training with her before so we decided to start with one simple thing. A contact sound. A clicking sound we make with our mouths, much like people use for horses, rewarded with tiny pieces of kibble. At first we were mere inches from her face. We slowly expanded the distance and after a few days she would immediately respond and head toward us, no matter how far away we were, whether we had treats or not. That one simple “trick” changed everything. Today we use that sound all throughout the day, almost like a tracking device. If we are somewhere that echoes, I look straight down at the ground and start clicking. If I’m walking through the house or the yard and notice her looking for me I just start clicking and she finds me every time!
At just two weeks after our diagnosis we were very conflicted about leaving for a trip that we had planned long ago to go to the beach for a week of vacation. It was a very dog friendly place that we had been several times and although we had planned to bring Wendi it seemed that it might be overwhelming at such a confusing time for her. I mention this only because we considered cancelling the trip but Carina encouraged us to go. She prepared us to look for signs of over stimulation or distress and recommended chewing and licking activities to soothe her if she seemed agitated. This is where she had her first experiences with other people and other dogs, all of which went quite well. She has always been very social and especially good with children and other animals. It seems that her interaction and interest in children was virtually unchanged but her interest in other dogs was almost completely gone. She would tolerate other dogs if they came up to her but would lose interest and maybe even give a warning growl if they were too aggressive in their greeting. We did invest in a little vest for her that says “blind dog” on it and I must say that even though she never transitioned well from collar to harness for walking, I do think it was very useful for other people to be more careful and understanding of her with their dogs and children.
I believe that the decision to get her out and into the stream of life right away was a big factor in building her confidence. Even more importantly I believe that was the turning point for us. We realized that this little dog had a lot of heart and that although things were very different, she was still enjoying life. We walked on the beach where she used to run like the wind and at one point even got her to trot along for a moment or two. We dipped our toes in the waves where she used to play fetch and we ate, and cuddled, and ran into things with a laugh and a petting instead of shock and fear. I wasn’t depressed anymore, and I know she could feel that change in me. I am sure that this shift in our attitude and energy made the biggest difference in Wendi’s progress.
When we got home I became more involved in the study’s online group and this is when I really started to get excited about ideas for activities and games. There is no way for me to appropriately express how much of a difference this made for me. Finding Carina and this group that was focused solely on the positive was such a wonderful thing. Seeing videos of other blind dogs enjoying their lives and reading their success stories inspired and encouraged us to do the same. They helped us turn household items into treat holders and find toys on the internet that were simple enough for Wendi to do using just her nose to figure them out. They gave us the idea to turn our grandson’s ball pit into a permanent exploration playground and inspired us with new ideas for exercise and fun. The fellowship and support of this group has been vital to Wendi’s progress and the enrichment of our lives.
Only halfway through the program we had already seen some real positive change and because of Carina’s advice and encouragement I continued to take Wendi with me everywhere. We went on several long road trips to see our daughter and grandchildren with new environments and even met our brand-new grandson who Wendi welcomed with all of the tenderness and love that she had for the older boys when she could still see. She even started to manage her way up the stairs in our daughter’s busy house and had the sense to cry for us at the top when she wanted to come down. All in all she had already adjusted very well, just a slower more careful version of the fiery little pup she used to be.
The only real hurdles that continued to concern me had to do with her love for running and her safety. It seemed that the more confident she became the more I had to worry about her getting hurt. She was climbing stairs and back to jumping up and down onto furniture and taking naps on the arms of chairs and high back couches. I don’t really have an answer for this. Trying to construct too many barriers and borders only seemed to make most of these things more dangerous. I talked to Carina and even to members of the group and I guess the best advice I got was to let her live her life. It is a good thing for her to have regained her confidence and while it might be scary for me sometimes I have had to let that go for her sake. I will say that words like “slow, careful, stop, up and down” are helpful but we really didn’t teach her these words. Most of those commands she learned the hard way by falling and crashing and hearing the words over and over again. Today they are very useful in helping her find her way but as Carina says, for most behaviors dogs need a big payoff to learn new things. Food can be useful, but sadly for Wendi, knowing that obeying the command keeps her from getting hurt seems to have been her primary payoff.
Our final concern for Wendi has been regular exercise and physical activity. She was a very active dog before blindness, chasing rabbits and running everywhere she went. Except for just a few moments, briefly trotting on the beach and a few tiny bursts here and there, her favorite activity was very brief. At 4 months into losing her sight running was no longer a part of her life. Even walking consistently on a leash continued to be a challenge. We live way out in the desert with no sidewalks, only gravel roads which Wendi will only wander. When we would take her to the park she would go straight to the grass to sniff around, only walking on the sidewalk for minutes at a time and pulling on the leash most of the way. The advice I got that helped most for leash walking came from a group member who said that she would take her dog, also a mini doxie, to large empty parking lots so that she couldn’t get sidetracked by smells. Oddly enough we had our first opportunity to try this by chance. We were out for the day without Wendi’s vest, only a spare leash and collar in the car, and had to wait for my husband while he went into a business with a very large empty parking lot at the back of the property. I decided to give walking a try there. For us it was an almost immediate success. After that day we started finding similar places to walk her, using the collar and almost no pressure at all on the leash she walks right next to my foot. I believe she is listening to my footsteps and my only prompt to her is an occasional “slow” or “stop” in warning or the occasional affirmation “good walking” or “good girl” to keep her going. She still doesn’t like walking on the gravel roads much but does very well in parking lots and on sidewalks, especially wide sidewalks with fewer distractions.
So we have arrived at the issue of running. Wendi’s favorite thing. I came to Carina with this concern because it made me so sad to feel that our little gal would never really run again. Her advice to me was to start small and see if we could teach her to run back and forth between us, using treats, calling her to come, starting with short distances in a flat open space where she couldn’t crash into anything. We used our most enthusiastic voices and smelliest treats for this. I have to say it took some time for this one. She was very uncertain at first, understandably so, but we would only do it until she wanted to stop. Short bursts over time have turned into her running alongside us in wide open spaces for considerable lengths of time! What a joy to see her run again! There are moments of hesitation on her part when she isn’t sure about where we are or where we’re going and moments of fear on our part when she goes too fast or veers too far. But it’s worth it. What a beautiful thing to see such a brave little dog doing what she loves.
I am writing this in celebration of our six-month anniversary and graduation from our time with Carina and the Blind Dogs Quality of Life Study. I hope that our experience might in some way help others facing this same challenge with their own four-legged loved ones. I am eternally grateful and so overwhelmed by our progress this far. There are still some crashes and falls reminding me that things will never be the way they were, but I can live with that. Our new normal is feeling pretty normal these days and our lives are not so very different than they were before blindness most of the time. The quality of Wendi’s life and ours is very good. I give Carina so much of the credit for this, if we had not met her I can’t imagine where we be today, I wouldn’t have known where to even start. And of course, I must give our sweet little Wendi credit where it is so deserved, what a wonderful, courageous little soul to have in our lives. Every day she teaches me more about how to love without any conditions and how to appreciate what we have the way it is right now. We are truly blessed.