6 Adaptations for Disabled Dogs

My friend’s Cocker Spaniel mix, Walter, is losing his vision; so much so he’ll be blind before too much longer. A busy, funny dog, Walter loves to retrieve his favorite red ball and since that’s his choice of play, my friend is researching ways to make sure Walter can continue following, finding, and retrieving his ball. Blindness is just one of several disabilities dogs can face but thankfully concerned owners, veterinarians, trainers, and others have come up with adaptations to help.

Using Scents to Identify Objects

A dog’s most important sense is usually his sense of smell so when a dog loses his vision, he begins to rely on his sense of smell even more. To help a visually disabled dog find his favorite toy or ball, put a drop (just one drop) of peppermint oil on the toy. Then re-introduce it to him so he understands his toy has a new smell. Then play with him, keeping the toy fairly close until he connects the peppermint smell with his toy.

You can use additional scents to identify other objects. A drop of lemon (or another oil) on something your dog is apt to run into (such as the coffee table) can help him locate and then avoid it. A few drops of lavender on his dog bed will help him find it and then relax and sleep on it. Just keep track of what oil you use on what objects so you don’t confuse him.

Head Guards Protect the Head

When a dog who has been able to see normally then loses his vision (completely or in part) he’s more apt to run into things and hurt himself. A head guard of some kind can help protect the dog’s face and head while also communicating to the dog that he’s running into something. These helmet-like contraptions are usually a rubber hose of some kind with a stiff cable running through it that curves in front of the dog’s face to serve as a bumper. The ends of the cable and hose fasten to a shoulder harness.

While the harness absorbs some of the collision shock, saying “Stop!” at your dog before he collides is also a great help. It’s amazing how quickly dogs learn to understand this. You can make a head guard like this for your dog using rubber hose, cable and a harness but some are also becoming commercially available.

Flashlights for the Hearing Impaired

A flashlight can be a wonderful tool for helping owners communicate with a hearing impaired dog. The flashlight can help gain the dog’s attention and then training can teach him to look to you, his owner, for guidance when he sees the light. Some owners of deaf dogs use a plain flashlight while others use one with colored lenses. One training technique suggests flashing the light on and off to attract the dog’s attention. LED flashlights are most often recommended as the light is more intense and an LED flashlight with a colored lense can often be seen even in daylight.

Ramps and Stairs

Dogs with injuries to their back, back legs, shoulders, or hips, or dogs with arthritis, are often faced with changing familiar habits due to their increased lack of mobility. There are many types of ramps commercially available so dogs can walk up or down rather than jumping. Dog supply sources offer a wide selection of ramps made specifically for furniture or vehicles. Some are sturdy and remain in place while others are mobile.

When investigating ramps for your dog, make sure it’s rated for your dog’s weight; a ramp for a Shih Tzu won’t work for a Newfoundland. The length of the ramp is also important as a short ramp might offer too steep a climb for a disabled dog if it’s going to be used for a high bed or an SUV that is raised higher than a passenger car.

Before choosing stairs over a ramp, find a place where you can take your dog up and down some stairs. Does he try to avoid them or does he have difficulty navigating them? If so, a ramp would be a better choice.

Slings and Belly Lifts

If your dog has hurt himself, perhaps a knee, hip or back, or if he’s had surgery, your veterinarian has probably recommended that you use a towel under your dog’s belly to help lift him. If you slide a towel under his belly and then hold the ends in both hands, you can help your dog get to his feet and move around. However, some inventive people obviously found a towel too clumsy to use or difficult to hold on to and a variety of different slings and lifts are now commercially available.

Some are made like harnesses, out of the same nylon straps, and are fitted over the dog’s hips with handles for you to hold. Others are more like a sling and have a wide piece of material under the belly. If your dog has hurt himself, is going to have surgery, or is aging and losing strength, take a look at the variety of lifts and slings available in the online supply catalogs and see which one would fit your dog and help the most.

Doggy Wheelchairs

By now I’m sure you’ve seen photos and videos of disabled dogs using a doggy wheelchair. The first were made for dogs with hip or back leg problems, and supported the legs off the ground with two wheels, a framework, and straps. As these were perfected and made more comfortable, others were created to help dogs with problems with their front legs or shoulders as well. These can be wonderful depending on the dog’s acceptance of the wheelchair.

Some dogs, especially young dogs, will use it right away once they learn it offers them mobility without pain while other dogs may need more encouragement. Learning not to run into people and objects, and not getting the wheels stuck, though, takes practice.

Adaptations for dogs with a variety of injuries or disabilities are available with more being invented and perfected all the time. Whether they’re applicable to your dog, or whether you decide to use one, is up to you, your dog, and your veterinarian.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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