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Friday, April 20, 2018

Hearing - or Not Hearing

I am sick - which is a bummer.  But I've also had a chance to experience first-hand something that I counsel so many people about - dogs losing their hearing, or dogs with partial hearing.

My left ear has been clogged now from this cold for several days.  I am not hearing normally from that side.  While this is annoying for me, I had a revelation yesterday.  And then I started to pay more attention to what I was hearing and not hearing.

Sounds that normally I would not pay attention to, or would discount easily and go on with my day, were startling me.  I couldn't recognize what the sound was or where it was coming from.  It's unsettling to hear something and not know what it is.  

Each time I went to investigate, I found out the sound was one that I hear every day and easily would have known what it was from a distance.  Because I would have recognized the sound, it would have been very easy to go on with my day.  

Dogs that are losing their hearing must go through this same thing.  How unsettling for them.  Of course, on an intellectual level I already knew this was true - but experiencing it for myself allowed me to put an actual emotional experience with it.  

I felt myself startle, hold my breath and try to listen harder to figure out the noise I was hearing.  I felt the compulsion to know and went searching to find out what it was.  I felt the unsettled feeling of hearing unfamiliar sounds.  My dogs do the same, and they may jump up barking and carrying on because they've heard something unusual that they can't identify - something that may be a threat and they should warn us about.

Dogs born with partial hearing won't always be able to recognize or pinpoint where a sound is coming from.  Dogs with ear infections or other conditions that affect their ears may become more fearful or reactive as they deal with things not sounding the same and safe to them.  And dogs losing their hearing too.  We have no way to know exactly what they are hearing at any given point in that process.  

Saturday, April 14, 2018

For The Curious - Your Questions Answered

Thank you to everyone who contributed questions and wonderings for this blog post, and for what will probably be several more to come!  (I received a lot of questions!)  Here are a few to get you started:

What kind of commands can you teach a dog that cannot see or hear?
How do you communicate with a deaf and blind dog?
How does your dog (blind and deaf) know what you want him to do?
Dogs that cannot see or hear can be taught tactile cues.  These are cues that the dog can feel through its body somehow.  I can use touch in different ways and on different parts of my dog's body as requests for certain behaviors (sit, lie down, etc) or to provide information (mealtime, car ride, outside, etc).  I can also use anything that my dog can feel as a cue.  I can use differing surfaces as cues.  I also use gently blowing on my dog as a cue, and puffs of air as a cue.  As long as my dog can perceive the information through touch, I can turn that into a cue by using it consistently to mean the same thing each time.  It is also possible to use scents as cues, but these must be used carefully because scent does not usually stay in one place - it drifts around - and scents can mix together or stay in an area for an extended period of time.  So using scents as cues needs to be well-thought out and put into place by someone who has taken the time to learn about scent/odor.

How do you call your blind and deaf dogs to come?
My dogs have a touch cue to come to me - a swipe forward under their chins.  They also recognize that when I blow toward them, they follow my breath back to come to me.  The blowing is handy in the house and sometimes outside.  But if it is breezy or my dog is too far away from me, my breath is not strong enough to always reach them in a direct manner.  I also can sometimes use turning on or off a light in the house to signal that I am leaving a room and want my dog to come with me.  If the difference between light and dark is significant, my blind/deaf dogs can sense the change in light even though they have no vision.  They know that means we are leaving the room and will come with me.  Flashing a porch light at night can sometimes work as well unless they are way far out in the yard and the change in light is not as significant - then they don't notice.

Is it hard to teach blind/deaf dogs new tricks or commands?
There are many variables in teaching any dog new things.  If those variables are put into place with a blind/deaf dog, it is not hard to teach them new things.  All dogs (even blind/deaf dogs) learn new things all the time on their own ... they learn that sitting instead of jumping might bring a treat; they learn that jumping up onto the counter will find them a tasty treat; they learn that pulling on a leash usually gets them to where they want to go faster ... you get the idea.  If you know what the dog finds reinforcing, and you can provide that reinforcement after the behaviors you like, the dog will learn to do those things more and more.  Then you can add a cue to it (see above about tactile cues), and voila!  You've taught your blind/deaf dog something new!  You can also utilize methods of getting the behavior you want, such as luring, shaping and capturing, just like you can with a dog that can see and hear!  Sometimes teaching a blind/deaf dog does require a little bit of thinking outside the box and adding creative ideas to your lessons, but the ideas of teaching remain the same.

What percentage of vision do double merles typically have?
Double merles can have varying visual abilities - ranging from perfectly normal to totally blind.  Some may even have impairments with their sight that will continue to deteriorate over time, as they get older.  Others will maintain whatever level of sight they do have for their lifetime.  There really is no definite answer to this question.  A veterinary ophthalmologist will be able to examine the dog's eyes and give you an idea of what type and extent of impairment there is, as well as a guess as to how or if it will progress.

Do double merles typically have compromised immune systems and more than average health issues?
Do special needs dogs have medical issues?
I am not aware of any studies showing that double merles have any higher incidents of health issues than other dogs.  While there are many double merles with other health issues and weakened immune systems, there are also so many non-double merles with these issues.  And there are many double merles that are healthy for their entire lifetimes, just like there are many non-double merles without major health problems.  It's important when breeding any dog to take many things into consideration and to do health and genetic testing, etc, to make sure the puppies have the best chance for perfect health and well-being.  Of course, we know that most double merles do not come from breeders who have done their homework and tested both parents extensively before breeding.  There are now genetic tests available for so many health conditions that can be passed on from parent to puppy.  It's easy to rule out the chances of these being passed on before the mating is even done.  So, without that testing and attention being paid to a new litter, it is likely that double merles (and non-double merles) that are bred in this way will pass along any health issues that they have.
Some dogs that are labelled as special needs do have medical issues.  There are so many different medical conditions that a dog can have.  It's important to know what these issues are as much as possible when you are considering adopting a dog with special requirements, whether double merle or not.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Hide Him Away?

Here is my handsome, clever, fun-loving boy Vinny on our recent trip to Purina Farms.  This picture was taken at their Visitor Center and he is smiling, which is his normal state of mind.  You see, on this day, it was Saturday morning and the Visitor Center was full of children!  In fact, we struggled at times to get a picture, as children were running up to him trying to pet him and say hello.  Vinny loves children!  They are just at his nose height and he thinks they smell divine!

If you've followed this blog for very long, you know that I love to travel with and do all sorts of activities with my dogs.  This blog just happens to focus on my dogs that are double merles and are therefore blind and/or deaf.  But I do have other dogs too - dogs that can see and hear and aren't double merles.  I enjoy doing things with them as well.

I am a dog person through and through.  My life does revolve around my dogs much of the time.  And I love all my dogs - even the ones that can't see and hear.  Living with them, those differences fade from the forefront.  I don't focus on what they can't do.  We spend our time figuring out how to do more and more together. 

I realize that to most people we meet out in public, my dog is an oddity.  I mean, it isn't every day that people meet a dog that can't see or hear at all, right?  People think I am some sort of rock star to sacrifice my life to care for this poor dog with such devastating disabilities.  But this is not reality ...

You see, that is only their perception.  I have my own perceptions of the situation, too.  To me, my dog doesn't have any devastating disabilities.  He is funny and smart and capable of doing anything - it just happens that he can't see or hear.  He loves to play.  He likes new adventures.  He has a personality.  I am not a rock star.  I am just a person, just like these other people, who happens to see past the differences to see all those things that a blind and deaf dog has in common with me.  And I have chosen to make him my friend.

Some people say that me teaching Vinny to do fun things and earn dog sports titles is somehow encouraging people to want a blind/deaf dog just like him.  They think that me enjoying my partnership with my dog is encouraging people to breed more dogs like him or to go out seeking a dog just like him.  I guess they think I should hide him away somewhere where no one will see him - to keep him a secret that I'm ashamed of?

Again, I don't do these things with my dog because he's blind and deaf.  I do these things with my dog because he's my dog and we like doing things together!  I like earning ribbons and titles with my dogs - all of them!  I like traveling with my dog and watching him explore and learn about new things.

I hate to think about what would have happened had I hidden away all of my differently-abled dogs!  When I started this blog, there was hardly any useful information out there about working with blind and deaf dogs.  So many were killed.  So many people didn't think they were capable of learning anything at all - not even to be toilet trained! 

Without my brilliant dogs showing the world that they are feeling, thinking and learning dogs, there are many dogs that would not have been given the chance to find great homes.  Today, there are many differently-abled dogs out there having great fun doing activities with their people!

I love my dog just the way he is!  But I would love him just as much if he had been born able to see and hear!  It is not his fault that he was born this way.  He wants to play and learn and explore.  I want these things for him too.  I don't want to hide him away.

Yes, that means we do get a lot of attention.  I use the attention we receive to help share with as many people as I can.  I share about the consequences of breeding two merle patterned dogs together.  I share about the realities of living with a blind and deaf dog - it's not all a piece of cake!  There are challenges.  There are rewards. 

I share with rescues and fosters and shelters how to teach these great dogs and find the best homes for them.  I share to dispel myths.  I share with fellow trainers so there will be more who can help clients with differently-abled dogs across the country and even around the world.

I'm proud of my dogs.  Please don't expect me to hide them away somewhere.  How would you feel if someone expected you to hide your dog away somewhere?  I know you're proud of your dog too.

With anything that brings attention, there comes the risk that someone else wants to recreate it for themselves.  If someone makes a movie about Dalmations and the dogs are so very cute, then so many people want a Dalmation whether it is the right breed for them or not.  If someone makes the world agility team with a pyrenean shepherd and it's super fast, then many people want a pyrenean shepherd.  If people see me working with a blind and deaf Collie, will people want to get themselves a blind and deaf Collie too?

You get the idea.  It's not the fact that my dog is blind and deaf that may make people want to imitate me.  It's like this with anything - that is why we have fads.  Someone thought something was cool and wanted it too.  Education and advocating is the way to stop the double merle epidemic.  Hiding them all away just won't work.

I cannot stop the attention I receive from doing what I love with my dogs.  My wish, though, is to teach compassion and responsible breeding.  And to promote adoption of differently-abled dogs whenever it is the best match for that person.  And always, I promote positive reinforcement training.  This is the message I want people to get when they see me with my dogs.  Don't create more of them - but for the ones that are already here, make their lives as full as possible! 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

TriDex 2018

Mom and I spent the weekend at the first ever Trick Dog Expo!  It was amazing to be in a place with so many people and dogs that love tricks just as much as we do!  

Mom started the weekend by giving a presentation, starring ... me (and my friends too)!  She taught people all about how to teach dogs that are visually and/or hearing impaired.  She had a good turnout and people had very good questions.  She even gave away a signed copy of one of her books to a lucky listener!  

I spent the weekend learning about Klimbs - most of the workshops and the stunt dog competitions all used the Klimb.  I liked it and knew right away to put my front feet on it, just like I do with some of our other props.  But Mom wanted me to put all four feet on it, and I am a big boy with a long body.  I had to really practice to figure out how to fit all my feet up on it.  When I got my back feet up on it, I felt like my front feet couldn't fit too.  But I mastered the Klimb and now I hop right up on it right away!  Mom told me I looked best on the purple one.  

When I wasn't enjoying the workshops and learning new things for treats, there were other cool games to try.  This was a maze made out of  hay bales.  Mom started out leading the way and I followed, but soon I got tired of going so slowly and I passed her and led her the rest of the way out of the maze!  It was fun and I wanted to do it again!  

Mom was excited there was barn hunt to try - but when we got there, there weren't any rats.  So we practiced our hide and seek with treats.  I hear they will have this game at the Special K9 Games in May -  maybe I will actually get to meet some rats there!  I wonder if they smell good?

We had so much fun at TriDex!  I hope we can come back again next year.  It was my very first dog Expo/Conference.  Mom was real proud of me and how happy and calm I was with everything going on.  We even finished our very first 2K, and my medal matched colors with my vest and leash!  

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ideas for Touch Signs to Use

You can give touch cues in many ways - you can use your hands, your feet, your body, your breath, the equipment you use with your dog, an extended touch stick, etc.  Any way that you can make contact with your dog's body to provide information can become a touch cue.

The most common way I communicate with my blind/deaf dogs is with my hands.  I do give certain cues with my feet because it is easier for me than bending or because it blends more perfectly into the exercise we are doing.  But for the main part, I use my hands.  I will also use my body to convey to my dogs which direction I'm going and how quickly by brushing past them lightly.  My dogs have learned to read my body and know whether I am standing up, sitting in a chair, lying down, etc.

I use my breath for waking my dogs while they are sleeping and for calling them to come to me from across the room, for instance.  They will notice me blowing in their direction and will come to me or are able to wake up more gently than if I startled them awake with a sudden touch.

My dogs know a lot of cues.  It can be challenging sometimes to find different places and ways to touch the dog's body that aren't too similar to other touches.  But with consistency and patience, you can teach your dog many, many cues, even some that are similar to each other.  There are times, though, that my dog may do a different behavior than what I asked.  I don't ever get angry.  It was probably because I wasn't clear in how I gave the cue.  I just ask again while being intentional to be as clear as possible.

It's important to use any equipment (collar, harness, leash) very gently with your dog.  Equipment used harshly can cause physical damage to your dog, and can cause him/her to be stressed about training time.  Even with a loose leash, my dogs can tell when I change direction, stop and speed up or slow down.

Dogs are sensitive enough to notice a fly landing on them - they don't need to be yanked harshly.  By using consistent and gentle guidance with their equipment, you can teach very subtle cues for stop, start, left, right, etc.  This will help your walks to be more enjoyable for both you and your dog, and will allow you to keep your dog safer by preventing him/her from bumping into things or falling off a curb.

Here's a little video that shows some of the basic touch cues I use:

Teach Your Dog to Cooperate with Grooming and Vet Visits

Brushing, combing, cutting toenails, being held for vet examinations and treatment - these things are a part of life for our dogs.  These aren't events that will happen once and never again.  Instead, these are lifelong skills that our dogs will need to learn to deal with as ongoing events in their lives.  Yet these are also things that some dogs get very stressed about.  

The good news is that we can teach our dogs to think more positively about all of these activities, and we can even teach them to cooperate with us so they are less of a struggle.  The better we can prepare our dogs to feel good about grooming, handling and vet visits, the less stress they will feel, and the healthier they will be.  Teaching them to be cooperative with us, the groomer and the veterinarian will only make our jobs easier as well!  

And teaching every dog to enjoy being touched and handled all over is an important safety skill for daily living.  A dog that enjoys and allows touch will be safer in any environment, no matter what role it is expected to fulfill - competitor, companion, therapy dog, etc. 

I've written about some grooming topics previously in this blog.  Here are some you may have missed or that you may want to revisit:

Also, due to popular demand, our highly recommended online course Grooming, Husbandry and Handling Games is going to be offered again beginning April 7, 2018!  This class is offered for 6 consecutive weeks, with new written and video lessons released each week.  You can view the lessons and practice in your own time from home, and there is a student FB page as well as the option to get instructor feedback through the online classroom.  

Some of the topics we cover are: playing touch games, waking up gently, using a marker, chin targeting and its uses, new surfaces such as tables and scales, introducing grooming tools and creating positive associations, teaching various positions for grooming, nail trimming, techniques for giving medications including ear and eye drops, how to teach common veterinary restraint positions, introducing vet tools and creating positive associations, muzzle training, and tooth brushing.

If you would like to learn how to start a new puppy out right on the path to easy grooming, handling and vet care, this is a great class to learn how to create positive associations from the start!

If you would like to create a less-stressful and more enjoyable grooming and/or veterinary clinic experience for your dog, this class will help you learn the right skills and techniques!  This class is stuffed full of great tips and information to help you and your dog achieve just that! 

Enrollment is open NOW!  Click the link to learn more and sign up!  

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Getting Started with Touch Cues

There are two types of touch cues - these are cues that you give to your dog by touching various parts of his body in different ways, to mean different things.  If your dog can't see or hear you cues, touch cues give you the perfect way to begin communicating with him.  Having a way to communicate is crucial to living in harmony with your dog.  You can tell him what to expect to happen, and how you want him to respond.  And your dog will feel safe, calmer and more confident when these things are clear to him too, and he doesn't need to guess.

The two types of touch cues are information and request.  Information cues do just that - they give information.  These would be signs that tell your dog what is happening or going to happen.  Examples of these would be: mealtime, outside, grooming time, car ride, etc.  Request cues are used when you want to request a behavior from your dog - sit, lie down, come, stay, leave it, etc. When most people think about cues, they are thinking of request cues.  I've added information cues here too, because I believe they are very important.  

Dogs are always gathering as much information from their environment as they can.  Dogs that can hear may notice the jingle of your keys, hear the mail person's footsteps, or hear a knock on the door.  These sounds become cues to your dog - information cues. They let your dog know what is going on or is about to happen.  Dogs that can see are also very good at noticing information cues.  They may watch you putting your shoes on and know what the agenda is for the day.  Are you putting on running shoes, hiking boots, work shoes or fancy heels?  Dogs can learn the difference!  

Blind and deaf dogs will also learn some information cues from the environment, especially if you have other dogs that react to them.  But they miss out on key visual and auditory information cues that we can provide to them in the form of touch.  It's nice for them to know what's going to happen next.  

You may find when you first begin to use touch cues with your dog, that he startles or even moves away from you.  If no one has tried to communicate with him in this way before, this is all new and he won't understand at first.  But he will catch on quickly.  If you are also playing touch = food games with your dog, the startle should diminish quickly.  

As for going the other way, this is something I've noticed in some dogs.  When they are touched, they may react as if they have bumped into something, and they may quickly stop and go the other direction.  This also diminishes as the dog begins to realize that certain touches mean certain things.  But as he is learning, you can help steady him with a calm and steady touch with one hand while you give the new touch cue with the other hand.  By touching and steadying first, the initial surprise of the touch has time to dissipate and the dog is now better able to focus on the new touch cue. 

Don't try to name everything at once.  If this is a new way of communicating for you and your dog, you both need time to become familiar with the process.  You will need time to practice and remember the signs so they become automatic for you to use and give in a consistent manner.  Your dog will need time to learn what the new touches mean and to build his vocabulary.  Decide on one or two touch cues to start out with.  If you are starting with information cues, you can begin with going outside and mealtime, as these are two things that all dogs experience every day.  This will allow you both several opportunities every day to practice and for most dogs, these will be two experiences that they really like and look forward to.  They should pick up on the cues quickly.

When teaching information cues, you can use the chosen cue consistently immediately prior to and during the event that you're naming.  For example, if you are teaching the cue for outside, give it as you are at the door about to open it.  Then use it as you are opening the door and again as you are going out.  Eventually you will only need to use it once, and if you use it across the house, your dog will probably beat you to the door!  But for now, as you are introducing it, try to use it immediately prior to and during the event.  If you are introducing a cue for mealtime, give the cue as you already have the dog's food ready, and then again as you put the food bowl down.

When teaching request cues, it is best if you can to try to initiate the behavior first a few times without the cue, so you can be sure your dog is comfortable doing the behavior.  Once your dog is comfortable doing the behavior (luring into a sit position, for example), add the cue you will use just prior to helping the behavior to happen.  So the order would be, touch cue for sit, then lure dog into a sit, then reward and praise.  In this way, the dog will begin to anticipate and try to do the behavior on his own when he notices the cue.  This will allow you to stop using the lure as the dog learns to respond first to the cue.  

When dogs learn cues, they don't automatically differentiate between them.  It takes practice for the dog to learn to distinguish one cue from another, especially if they are not context specific.  If sometimes you ask the dog to sit, then down, or to shake hands, you may notice him sometimes "guessing" and giving the wrong behavior.  This is a normal part of learning.  Take time to practice, help the dog get it right, and reinforce a lot when he does!  

Try to keep the touch cues as clear as possible.  If cue delivery gets sloppy, the dog may interpret the cue as something else entirely.  This may be noticeable if the dog knows a lot of cues if those cues are given close together on the dog's body.  A sloppy cue can easily shift to another area of the body, which may be where a different cue is given.  Consistency is important if you want a consistent cue response. 

There are no set-in-stone touch cues that you should use.  Use whatever makes sense to you, because you will be the one who needs to remember them!  Be sure that other people in the home or that interact with your dog on a regular basis know the cues so everyone can be consistent.  If they are simple touches, such as a tap on the hips for sit, these can be listed and hung on the fridge.  If the cues are more complex, it may be helpful to video them.  This can be very helpful if you hire a dog walker or pet sitter.  It gives a clear record of how to communicate with your dog.  

I hope this has given you some tips on how to get started teaching touch cues.  Watch for follow-up posts showing some examples of touch cues that I use for my own blind deaf dogs.