When my Dachshund mix Smudge went blind, it caught me by surprise. She was getting older — around 11 — when she began smashing into walls. With typical wiener-dog hubris she would just keep smashing into walls, assuming they would at some point give way to 21 pounds of determined dog.
Thinking she’d had a stroke, I took her to the vet, and then an eye specialist to discover that in addition to mild cataracts, Smudge had macular degeneration. It was inoperable.
It had come on gradually, and Smudge had apparently adapted under my nose. She was going up and down stairs a little slower, but I had attributed that to age. Suddenly it made sense that Smudge, a dog who typically tolerated all kinds of obnoxiousness from people, had bitten a neighbor kid who had rushed up and hugged her — she never saw the kid coming.
Signs that your dog is going blind include not only noticing eyes going cloudy, but bumping into walls, being easily startled, and appearing confused and reluctant to move, according to the ASPCA.
When I told people Smudge’s diagnosis, several suggested I put her down, assuming either that I wouldn’t want to deal with her blindness, or that she was somehow too miserable to live. Neither was true. I just had to make some changes to help Smudge adapt (and ensure she didn’t bite again).
Amy Linder, a deputy fire marshal in Lane County with two highly-trained Dalmatians, got the same diagnosis of full blindness when she rushed the Fire Code Inspector (aka Cody) to the vet earlier this year. Cody had lost vision in one eye from glaucoma last year. This was on top of earlier spinal surgeries that had curtailed his career teaching kids about fire safety and serving in the Oregon Fire Service Honor Guard, honoring fallen firefighters and supporting their loved ones.
One morning this August, Linder says Cody awoke able to see, but within an hour had gone blind. She assumed this was also due to glaucoma, but after seeing the vet and getting a neural workup, she discovered the 11-year-old dog’s blindness was due to either a tumor or perhaps stroke. It wasn’t curable, so Linder said the conversation came to be about “How do we help him adjust?” Knowing that in addition to blindness the condition could signal Cody was nearing the day he crossed the rainbow bridge, Linder says, “It was an emotional couple of weeks.”
Linder, who had previously trained a deaf dog, began to research how best to help Cody adjust. Like me with Smudge, people warned her the blindness would be harder on her than the dog.
In my own research, I discovered the importance of scent-marking things like doorways or stairs to keep Smudge safe. I also taught her to follow the sound of my jingling keys on walks, allowing her to walk on a loose leash safely. Linder consulted a friend with a masters degree in working with visually-impaired humans who is a dog trainer as well. She also recommends a book called Living With Blind Dogs by Caroline Levin, which she found at the library.
These tools in hand, Linder began to help Cody live in his new world. She purchased felt stickers used to keep furniture from scratching floors, and dabbed essential oils on them to scent-mark major obstacles. She used a calming scent for the “home bases” of his kennel and his bed, where he could go to reorient himself. She says she taught Cody new verbal cues such as right, left, steps etc. She also bought pool noodles to protect him from sharp edges on furniture.
Because of his spinal issues, Cody doesn’t deal well with slick surfaces, and that brings up the innovation Linder uses, which I wish I had thought of for Smudge before she died at the ripe old age of 15: textures. Cody’s feet tell him where he is. Linder put floor runners on slick floors to give him a path through the house; he also knows when he’s on grass or his Astroturf potty area.
Linder says searching Facebook groups that support people with blind dogs has been helpful. Type “blind dogs” into your Facebook search bar to find them.
Speaking of Facebook, the Internet is full of inspiring videos of blind animals being helped by friends. In my case, my other two dogs were perplexed by Smudge’s blindness. Rhoda, my Pit mix, would stay out of her way. Smudge’s failure to observe cues like play bows or a curled lip upset my Rhodesian Ridgeback, Zella, so I had to keep them supervised or separated.
Linder solved the problem of her younger dog Casey bounding into his big brother with a bell so Cody can hear him coming.
While she has come to terms that Cody’s blindness is linked to a condition that will ultimately end his life, possibly soon, most blind dogs, like Smudge, lose vision due to things like glaucoma, diabetes, untreated eye infections or conditions that mean the dog can still live a long, happy life if his owner helps him adjust.
Smudge lived blind for four or five years, and remained the fierce, happy mixed-breed wiener dog she’d always been. I got her a pair of pink Doggles glasses to protect her eyes, and continued to take her hiking and on walks. To this day, one of my favorite memories is of watching my little black dog trotting down the beach on the Oregon Coast, totally blind and totally happy on the broad, clear swatch of sand.
Camilla Mortensen is associate editor at Eugene Weekly. She is also a folklorist and a community college writing instructor. She has two horses, Flash and Cairo; two cats named Woodward and Bernstein, an assortment of dogs - Rhoda, Zella and Biggie Smalls, and lives in a 1975 Airstream trailer.