Animal Writes
28 October 2001 Issue
Living With Handicapped Dogs


by [email protected]

There are millions of companion animals that die each year because of lack of homes, and there are thousands that die because of their caretaker's inability to cope with the animals' physical handicaps. Oftentimes people are so overwhelmed by the thought of their dog or cat having a handicap that they euthanize the animal before even seeing if they or the animal can cope. Certainly living with a handicap is a challenge, but what isn't a challenge in this life? Following are a few thoughts on living and coping with a handicapped "pet."


There are usually 3 types of blindness in dogs, the type where a dog was born with this infirmity, the type where the dog became blind because of trauma or illness, and the type that comes to some dogs as they age. Dogs that are born blind are probably the easiest to deal with. Their other senses are usually stronger and they cope quite well. As with any other handicap, the "owner" has to take some precautions, making sure that the dog isn't put in a perilous situation, but then even dogs with all 5 senses shouldn't be put in perilous situations either. The second type of blindness caused by trauma or illness is probably the hardest to cope with because it comes on suddenly and takes more adjustment. The third type caused by the dog aging is a bit easier because the owner still has time to work on acclimating the pet to the problem.

Several years back my dog and I were faced with the second type of blindness. Honey was stricken overnight with a luxated lens. This means that the lens of the eye slips out of place. It is painful and though we rushed her into the vets, by the time she got there, she was blind. The eye had to be removed, and since signs showed that the second eye was in danger, a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist decided it was best to remove the lens in that eye as well in order to try to save part of her sight. The operation failed and she is totally blind. It's a devastating experience to pick up your dog from the vets and find one eye stitched closed and the other staring blindly, and many people assume that the dog would be better off dead. Well let me tell you, my Honey has done marvelously. She surprises me every day.

Fortunately, we had obedience trained her when she was younger, and many of the commands came in very useful. But we set about learning a few new ones. Honey knows that the word "careful" means that she is approaching something that she might bump into. She stops, sniffs the air, and approaches with caution. If she is in further danger of this object, my repeated "careful" with more emphasis usually makes her turn the other way, or at least stand still until I can guide her away or around the object. Honey knows the word "step" means that she should slow down and step up or down. Her nose doesn't always tell her when a step is there, so this helps. We've also found that a constant noise source, such as a fan or radio helps her to acclimate herself to where she is and where she wants to go. I have watched her be more confused in a power failure when the noise source isn't available, so I know that it is of a help to her. When outside, the noise source from inside the house helps her to find the door to inside. Any surface that causes a problem, we mark with a light scent - either a very light perfume, or by rubbing a little cheese on it (I'm sure that soy cheese would be fine for the vegans reading this). She never has a problem jumping up and down off of furniture, though she is a little more cautious jumping down because of course she can't see the floor. And she has absolutely no problem finding my pillow <sigh>. There are only 2 times that I have to be extra vigilant for her and that's when we are away from home, at which time I become her "seeing-eye dog" and with the use of a leash, she stays closely next to me, and when she is picked up, sometimes it takes her a moment to acclimate herself when she is put down on the floor again. All this takes is a moment of holding her in place while she locates her constant sound source. She still plays with her toys, and plays with her brother. We use balls with bells in them or any toy that comes with sound. Obviously chasing a Frisbee is no longer her cup of tea, but there are so many other things she likes to do that I doubt she misses the Frisbee much.

When I think that there are some people that would rather destroy their blind dog than to put out that little extra time and energy to help the dog cope, I find it really sad and just give Honey an extra hug.


This is also a handicap that can come at birth or be caused by age or trauma/disease. And again training can make the dogs life so much easier. Those dogs who become deaf later in life are much more likely to adjust well if the owner had trained at an earlier age with hand signals. If the dog is deaf from birth, it needs to learn hand signals. The easiest to cope with is the dog that was trained with hand signals before deafness occurred. The hardest part of dealing with it would seem to be getting the dogs attention, but it only takes a bit of thought and some consistency. This is another time when dogs tend to use their other senses to a greater degree. Stamping ones foot on the ground, causing a vibration can often get the dogs attention. Also tossing an object just in front of the dog (being careful to not hit the dog) is a good visual cue for the dog to look towards you. Another visual cue is to use a flashlight to shine on the ground just within the dogs' visual range. Once one has the dog's attention, then the hand signals work great. "Come" can be achieved by extending one's right arm in front of one's body and bringing it inward across to the left side of the chest. "Stay" is best communicated by placing the right hand up in a "stop sign" position. With these two hand signals, the dog can be guided to almost anything one would want to do, because once the dog comes, then a leash can be snapped on and the "owner" can guide the dog from there. These same things can be taught to a puppy that is deaf from birth, and they learn it just as fast as any dog learns any training technique.

Whether a dog is blind or deaf, it is vitally important to make sure that the dog is never off leash outside the home or in an unfenced area. A deaf dog will never hear a car coming. And though I believe it is safest if all dogs were kept on leash in these circumstances, it is even more important when dealing with a handicapped dog.

Loss of limbs

This is another case where people feel that the quality of a dogs' life is lessened if a leg has to be amputated. I have seen so many dogs with the ability to run like lightening on 3 legs that I know this is something where humans need to get past their own fears of being handicapped, because the dog has no problem with it. There may be a few times at first when a dog may fall when acclimating himself to his new method of mobility, but then if you think about it, puppies fall over a lot when they are first learning to walk. Granted pups are a bit closer to the ground, but the dog will adapt and will adapt quite nicely. A couple of years back I had the privilege of meeting a dog that had both right front and right rear legs amputated, so he was only able to get around on his left front and rear legs. This dog was chasing balls, heeling beside his owner, doing everything a dog with 4 legs could do. It was amazing and inspirational as well. And to think that he could have missed the balance of a happy life if his owner was less enlightened.

The Paralyzed Dog

There are usually two types of conditions that cause dogs to become paralyzed. These are trauma (i.e., those hit by cars) or a genetic illness. Either way, the condition usually occurs in a short amount of time. I once had a Dachshund who was required to have back surgery to remove calcium deposits between the spinal discs. This is a condition that is frequently seen in long-backed dogs. After the surgery, he could no longer walk, and would drag his hind end across the floor. Dogs that suffer trauma are just the same, so both instances would be managed the same. The first thing to do is depend on the advice and counseling of ones veterinarian. Some dogs can no longer express their bladders and this is something the "owner" has to do for them. But with a little coaching by a vet, it is a process that is easily done by just pressing on the right spot on the "tummy." The second thing to do is to invest in a K-9 cart. This is a contraption that enables the dog to become mobile again. It replaces hind legs with wheels, and the dog is up and running again. I've seen K-9 cart dogs jogging with their human companions, and seen these dogs chasing balls. In my opinion, these carts should go down in history as one of the greatest inventions for dogs. They can be found on the web by going this site ~~ K9 Cart Company 


The one that has the hardest time coping is the "pet owner." Finding out that one's beloved companion animal is handicapped or about to be can be traumatic. But the "owner" has to realize that it isn't the dog being traumatized, it is the "owners" feelings that are getting in the way of living successfully with that handicap. When thought of as just another part of training, it is dwarfed by all the training that went into dealing with typical puppy nonsense when the dog first came into the family. Yes, there may be a need to shed a few tears at first, but realize that a dog can have a happy, loving, quality life even with a handicap. My handicapped dogs sure enjoy their lives, and I wouldn't trade them for the world.

** For anyone dealing with a handicap or a potential handicap, and would like further help, please feel free to e-mail me at [email protected] 

Postscript: This article ran in Animal Writes a few years ago, and has appeared on the websites of several humane organizations, and I've received quite a bit of mail from people facing their own problems with handicapped dogs. My thanks goes to Animal Rights Online for allowing me to repost it in memory of my blind dog, Honey, who passed over to Rainbow Bridge this week, taking a very large piece of my heart with her. Because of the experience that Honey gave me in caring for a blind dog, and Animal Rights Online's kindness in giving me a forum for this article, I believe that other dogs (and cats) have been given the opportunity to prove the joys of giving one's heart, time, and a home to a handicapped animal. I only have one thing to add, and that's that every loss of a companion animal rips at our hearts, but the loss of a handicapped or special needs dog (or cat) is especially painful because of that special bond one makes with an animal that needs so much extra attention and care. There is such a large hole in the day caused by the fact that I no longer guide her past obstacles, or let her know when she needs to take a step up or down. I'd become so accustomed to seeing the world from her perspective that I feel at a loss now.

So be aware that if you give your heart to a handicapped dog, your bond will be exceedingly tight, leaving you at loose ends when the time comes to part. There will never be another Honey, but maybe, just maybe, those loose ends need to be tied to another handicapped dog in need. Que sera, sera.

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