Pets are remarkable creatures that can help their owners learn new ways to look at the world. Not only is a dog a constant and loving companion, but a dog can teach humans about adapting to challenges. Many dogs are born with, or develop, disabilities over time. While these disabilities can make learning new commands more challenging, it certainly does not impair their ability to live a full and rewarding life. Teaching an impaired dog new behaviors is extremely possible, as long as the training techniques are adapted to suit the individual dog and owner.
Types of Disabilities
Just like with people, dogs can experience a range of disabilities that are the result of a congenital disease, contracted disease, or even an injury. It is quite common for a dog to experience blindness, deafness, or experience mobility challenges that can require training modifications.
Deafness in dogs is quite common, especially in certain breeds including Whippets and Dalmatians. Dogs can develop deafness over time as a result of chronic ear infections or complications with the structural development of the ear. Similar to deafness, blindness can be attributed to a congenital disease or from ongoing eye infections or injury. Advanced and uncorrected entropion can lead to blindness. As dogs age, cataracts can develop in the eye which can eventually cause a dog to go completely blind. Lastly, mobility concerns are wide ranging and each dog will exhibit his or her own set of symptoms and challenges. Complications with a dog’s mobility can stem from a spinal cord injury or disease, or can result from a limb amputation.
Adaptive Training: Senses Are Key
Many disabilities in dogs take away a key sense, depriving a dog of their hearing or sight. However, dogs already have the amazing ability to see, smell, and hear far better than a human. Just consider a dog's sense of smell. Compared to humans, dogs have a remarkable sense of smell which can be attributed to an increased number of scent glands. A dog has the ability to smell 10,000 to 10,000,000 times better than a human, depending on the breed. A dog’s hearing is top notch too. Not only does a dog have an expanded range of frequencies he can hear, ranging from 3,000 and 67,000 Hz, but dogs are able to detect sounds that are too quiet for humans to hear, often hearing sounds as soft as -15 dB .
Luckily, it is quite easy to take advantage of a dog's heightened senses to help make adaptive learning possible. The key to working with a disabled dog is to focus on his or her available senses, which can often require rethinking the traditional ways a human trains and communicates with a dog. Understanding both your dog's strong senses and weak senses will help you put together an adaptive learning plan to allow you to communicate effectively with your dog.
Focusing on a dog’s heightened hearing can be extremely beneficial when training a blind dog. Many blind dogs learn very well with clicker training. The owner will use a clicker to alert the dog and indicate the start and end of a command. Following a successful command it is important to always use plenty of positive reinforcement, including attention, praise, and treats. While clicker training works well for fully able dogs, it can be a lifesaver for blind dogs.
One of the best senses to draw on is the dog's sense of smell. Training with scent is extremely helpful for dogs that are visually impaired. Help your dog get a visual layout of your home by creating a scent map. This can help your dog navigate corners, stairs, and transitions between rooms. Try rubbing a safe, yet strong, scent like vanilla onto corners to allow your blind dog to create a mental map of your home.
Both deaf and blind dogs can benefit from physical contact. For deaf dogs, it can be difficult to get your dog’s attention without a verbal command. For some owners, simply stomping hard on the floor is enough to alert a deaf dog, while other dogs benefit from using a vibrating collar which is activated when the owner wants the dog's attention.
Blind dogs can have difficulty navigating new spaces, but luckily there are available "halos" for your pet to wear. These structures extend out past your dog's body, bumping into corners and alerting your dog of changing conditions before your dog becomes injured.
Many deaf dogs are able to learn sign language. In fact, dog obedience trainers will regularly include a hand signal with basic commands for hearing able dogs to reinforce the command. This can be helpful if your dog loses his or her hearing as the dog ages. Once you are able to get your deaf dog's attention, a hand signal can help you communicate your commands with your deaf dog.
Prepare For A Disabled Dog
Although disabled dogs can require more attention, time, and training, owning a disabled dog can be a rewarding experience. Not only can a disabled dog be just as loving and caring as an able dog, but a disabled dog has the ability to teach the owner about adaptability and resourcefulness. Before adopting a disabled dog though it is important to consider the long term impact owning a disabled dog may have.
First, be sure that you have the financial ability to cover ongoing medical costs that may be associated with your dog’s disability. While some disabilities do not require medical intervention, others may require ongoing expenses, especially if the disability has the potential to worsen as the dog ages.
You will also want to make sure that you have the time to dedicate to training and working with a disabled dog. Using alternative training techniques for a disabled dog can be time consuming. A great deal of patience is required and you may need to dedicate more attention to training than you would a fully able dog.
Lastly, owning any pet, disabled or otherwise, is a lifetime commitment. A dog should be a member of your family, and will be with you for his or her entire life. Make sure that you are dedicated to ongoing care for your pet and are willing to fully integrate your dog into your everyday life.