Going for walks is about so much more than exercise. Being off-property provides essential enrichment to dogs’ lives. The aim is not necessarily to go as far and as fast as possible, but rather to give your dog the opportunity to sniff, read and send weemails, and interact with a novel environment.
I’d say that getting special needs dogs off-property is even more important than for normal dogs. Their lives already lack at least one sensory experience so you need to give their other senses extra areas of focus.
What are your options?
Street walks: Walking around your neighbourhood is without a doubt the most convenient way to get out and about. But, and this is a big but: Being barked at by all-sized dogs from behind gates, coping with dogs who are left to roam the streets, navigating other walkers who think that it’s cool to walk their dogs off-lead (which is illegal) because their dogs are ‘friendly’, and other triggers like lawn mowers can be hugely stressful (for you and your dog). In this case, walks are more detrimental than beneficial. Adrenaline floods your dog’s system and makes it impossible for them to calm down and relax. And, adrenaline dumps like this can take up to 72 hours to dissipate. If you walk like this every day, your dog’s body remains in a high state of arousal. As you can imagine, it’s not a lot of fun.
If your dog is deaf or blind or both, the cacophony of noise and heightened stimulation has an even more profound detrimental effects and they may stop wanting to go out altogether. Consider whether the convenience is worth the cost to your dog’s emotional state and overall quality of life.
Park outings: You’ll have to get in the car for this outing, but there are several advantages. For example, the ground is usually even which is easy for blind dogs to navigate. The exercise is also gentle. A disadvantage is that parks and sports fields are very popular and there are usually a lot of other dogs sharing the space. This may not be a crisis in itself, but again, many people let their dogs off lead and don’t have sufficient control to stop them from hurtling into your dog’s space. For dogs who can’t see or hear them coming, this can be particular stressful and can make them quite reactive when around other dogs, regardless of how far away they are.
This is where a bright vest advertising your dog’s disability can be helpful. Bear in mind that some dogs are so far away from their humans that maintaining any control is impossible. Many people also hold fast to the “my dog is friendly” creed and think it’s acceptable to let their dogs run up to every person, every dog, and everything. This means that park outings can be as stressful as walking in the street.
Hikes: You’ll have to get in your car again and, depending on where you live, you might have to set aside a fair chunk of time for travelling. The rewards are worth it, however, as you get to see your dog enjoying all that nature has to offer. Let your dog take her time. If she wants to spend 5 minutes sniffing one bush, that’s ok. If she needs to spend some time investigating (not tormenting) a tortoise, that’s ok too. A walk that may take 15 minutes with normal dogs can take upwards of half an hour with a blind or deaf dog who needs to stop and give everything, especially any novelty, a thorough going over.
You’ll need your careful cues so you can help your dog step up and down, and be careful of obstacles or holes. Depending on where and when you go hiking, you may encounter other walkers. Again, be wary of the friendly brigade. When you see someone coming, ask them to please put their dogs on lead. Many people will do this happily. Some people are not as considerate, but there is usually room for you to go off the path and bundu bash to create distance.
If you’re going to go hiking, remember that you need to build up your dog’s fitness and stamina so they don’t get injured from over-exercise. So don’t head off on a three-hour hike the first time you get out.
Many hiking areas in Cape Town require an activity card. Take a look at the SANParks website for more information.
If you don’t have proper hiking areas, then a jaunt in the veld can also work – just make sure the grass isn’t hard and prickly and that there aren’t a lot of thorns. Streams and rivers are nice to walk along; the beach can be a good option. Some golf courses allow dogs to be walked, just be respectful of players.
(Wherever you go always and I mean always take poo bags and pick up after your dogs.)
Use a long lead (you can get them from some online dog stores) so that your dog has room to explore but you retain control – safety first, remember.
Bear in mind that you don’t need to go walking every single day. Stacey Greer has an interesting blog about what to do if regular walks are not possible or not recommended for your dog.
The pictures, by the way, are of Rosalie taking her time on a very sniffy walk. It was the first time we’d been to that spot so everything was new and incredibly interesting.
While they may not be blind or deaf, dogs with extreme fear certainly have special needs. The biggest of those needs is patience. Yes, loving your terrified dog is important, but, paradoxically, the more you try to show your dog how much you love them, and how safe they are in your home, the worse the situation could become. What your dog really needs is space and patience to enable them to get comfortable in their own time.
That’s not to say that you do absolutely nothing. It just means that you let your dog set the pace.
A slow start
I met my dog Hazel when I started my second stint at TEARS. Her little came in from a foster home and I was warned that all three puppies were fearful. That didn’t even begin to describe them. As soon as I got near their enclosure, they tried to melt into each other and into the kennel wall.
So I stopped. I took some steps back until they oozed back into their original huddle, I sat down and I started telling them nursery rhymes. It took several days (and my entire repertoire of rhymes and fairy tales) before I could get to the gate and even more before I could go in.
Hazel’s brothers came out of their shells and were adopted relatively quickly, but Hazel was far more challenging. I started fostering her to get her out of the shelter environment. After that it was inevitable that I would adopt this terrified, virtually feral, unadoptable little girl.
A lesson in patience
She was at home for three days before she decided it was safe to sit near me; it took another three days before she initiated physical contact.
My husband was another matter entirely. She barked at him when he came home, when he left the room, when he entered the room, when he moved too quickly, when he did anything at all. Thankfully my husband is a patient man because she barked at him like this for four months. It was another three months before she initiated physical contact.
We danced with progress as I worked on the different aspects of her fear. Two steps forward – three steps back. Three steps forward – one step back. She bonded with me and she bonded strongly with one of my dogs, who also treated her with utmost patience. She played with Hazel gently and Hazel stuck to her like a magnet on walks. Hazel even decided that she wanted to go with her to training classes.
From keeping her distance and barking at anyone who even looked in her direction, Hazel now trains in the class with other dogs and people. It took about 18 months to reach that point. Since then, progress has been rapid. She takes treats from people; she can be close to other dogs. She does agility courses that include the A-frame and tunnels. She even works with her favourite person who always gives her treats.
Rewards you can’t imagine
Not once did we put any pressure on her. She did everything in her own time. And I’m so glad we did it that way because we got to know her quirky personality. We uncovered her brilliant sense of humour, and the delight she gets when she plays like a lunatic and makes me laugh.
Will she ever completely get over her fear?
But that’s ok because we can manage her environment so that she’s not blasted out of her comfort zone and into terror. We work slowly with new events and stimuli that make her anxious. Sometimes we progress and sometimes we just have to let it go and work around it. For instance, she doesn’t like undercover parking, so I just hunt for shade and shop like the Flash so that people don’t think I’ve left her in the car to overheat.
She’s a work in progress, but who isn’t?
I took on a challenge when I brought her home but she’s been a great teacher and has turned into the cutest little munchkin that ever was.
I started teaching Rosalie tricks almost as soon as we brought her home. Some people may ask why? What is the point? And I answer:
Because it is heaps of fun!
Yes, it also builds confidence and teaches dogs to problem-solve and improves their attention and focus. But trick training is also a great way to stimulate your dog mentally and can meet enrichment needs if you can’t go walking regularly. But when you get right down to it, it’s one of the best ways to have fun with your dog.
How to teach your dog tricks: What you need
I find clicker training to be the best way to teach your dog new tricks. I’m not going to go into how clicker training works, but please take a look at Karen Pryor’s website for more information. She revolutionised the dog training industry when she introduced the clicker as a way to exactly mark the behaviour you’re looking for. Clicker training can be used to train virtually every species, from salamanders to budding gymnasts.
So get yourself a clicker and treats. If you’re training at home, you can use your dog’s kibble (pellets) as a training reward. You’ll need higher value treats, however, if you want to take your training to a distracting environment, like the park or training class. I started off using high value treats with Rosalie from the start. Fortunately, she is so food motivated that she will work for kibble in most circumstances. Her favourite is Eukanuba Schnauzer pellets; they magically get her attention when she gets distracted during training.
You might have to experiment to see what floats your dog’s boat. I’ve worked with a dog who only responded to peanut butter toast and I’ve heard tell of a Rottweiler who worked for apple.
Think about how many treats you’ll need and then double it. The better you pay behaviour, the quicker your dog will learn.
You also need a quiet place with few distractions. This could be your lounge (with all the furniture pushed back), your garage, or your garden. You don’t need acres of space to begin with, just enough room for you and your dog to comfortably turn around in both directions.
How to teach your dog tricks: Start with the basics
Set yourself and your dog up for success by starting with basic dog tricks. The most basic trick that I absolutely love to teach is a hand target. It’s a great way to introduce your dog to learning and it demands very little from you. All you need is your hand and some treats. The idea is for your dog to touch your hand with their nose. It has practical applications (you can use it for recall), but I like it because once your dog twigs, their faces light up and they can’t wait to play the game.
The hand target can be used to teach several other tricks, including how to spin in a circle next to you, go around your body, go between your legs, and it can even help your dog learn how to weave.
Even blind dogs can learn to target your hand. You can introduce them to the concept with something that makes a gentle noise, like a tinkling cat toy on the end of a wooden skewer. Rosalie didn’t like the tinkle so close to her face, so she learnt the good old fashioned way.
I like to teach a paw target next. A basic paw target can be used as the foundation for a lot of cute dog tricks, for example, high five, shake, wave, and how to cross their paws.
The step up from simple dog tricks
With the foundations laid, you can move to more advanced tricks. Weave is a fun trick to learn and once you’ve trained the basic figure-8, you can walk forward and backward, travel left and right, change direction mid-sequence, and invent your own moves.
Once you’ve got a couple of weaves under your belt, you can enter dog sports, like progress tests, which are a good launching pad for dog dancing (musical freestyle).
Add in some twists and spins and you can try your hand at Rally-FrEe, which combines trick training with obedience (heel work and sits and downs). The great thing about Rally is that you don’t have to choreograph a routine or wear a costume. You get a preset course which you can practice before you film your final entry.
All three of these dog sports have levels that go all the way from beginner to advanced and championship. And, importantly for those of us with special needs dogs, there are handy dandy and alternate categories that are simpler and which have lower qualifying scores.
YouTube is your best friend if you’re stuck for dog trick ideas or need someone to go through the tricks step-by-step. You can learn useful dog tricks which have great practical applications and can improve your dog’s life skills and manners. And you can learn some truly amazing dog tricks, including how to work more than one dog at the same time.
All of the tricks can be taught to blind and deaf dogs. You might need to tweak the methods somewhat, but there is no reason your pup can’t bring home a championship trophy or two.
Here are few of my favourite YouTube channels for dog trick videos:
And here is Rosalie’s most recent Rally-FrEe entry. It’s not perfect, but it is good (if I say so myself), especially considering the noisy building in the background and the fact that there are no treats.
Life skills for dogs with all their senses mostly include manners around other dogs and people and some emergency skills, such an emergency stop, rock solid recall, and an even more rock solid leave it. Blind and deaf dogs need these skills too, but they also need a bunch of other skills to flourish at home and out and about.
If you have a dog born blind or deaf, you need to include these life lessons with all the other necessary socialisation to ensure you get a well-adjusted adult dog. If, on the other hand, you have a dog going deaf or blind, either as a result of old age or a medical condition, it’s important to start teaching these skills as soon as possible.
Training during this transition phase helps your dog better cope with the loss of their sight or hearing. Instead of being confused by their changing senses, they have learnt coping mechanisms that enable them to continue with their normal activities, including walks, games, and play.
Life skills your dog needs
The first thing your special needs dog needs to learn is how to pay attention to you. They need to do this when you ask for it, and when you don’t ask for it. This is helpful when you’re walking your dogs, as they come back to check in with you every now and then. The more they do this, the easier it will be to get them out of trouble and keep them safe.
A good recall (come when called) is also essential. How to train a blind dog to come when called is obviously going to be very different to how to train a deaf dog the same behaviour.
Blind dogs need a verbal cue, but they also need to learn how to orientate towards you so they zero in on you if they’ve wandered off on an off-lead walk. A great way to teach this is to play hide and seek.
Deaf dogs need a physical cue. Sign language is fantastic for this. Many people use formal sign language, South African sign language, for example. But you can use any hand signals that make sense to you. Just remember that when you’re teaching dogs sign language you and everyone in your family needs to use signs consistently, otherwise your deaf dog is going to get very confused.
When working with a blind dog, you need to include a careful cue to let them know they’re coming up to something best avoided, like a rock, a hole, and a pole. Careful can tell them to slow down when they’re running full tilt and when to jog left or right.
Teaching step up and step down is also valuable when you’re out walking a blind dog. This is helpful for curbs and stairs, as well as navigating rocky paths out in the mountains.
Helpful accessories for blind and deaf dogs
Teaching a deaf dog or blind dog life skills is one of the biggest favours you can do for them. Like all teaching and training, however, it takes time. Sandy will do all the foundation work for you. After a brief handover to bring you up to speed, your only responsibility is to have fun with your dog.
Contact Sandy to book an appointment and begin your dog’s life skills lessons.
Sandy is a qualified dog trainer and behaviourist with a soft spot for special needs dogs.