I first found out about Winston from Vancouver Shar-Pei Rescue, who had posted an urgent appeal to save him on his last day at a high-kill shelter near Los Angeles. Winston was a very cute, sable male Shar-Pei described as depressed, aggressive, and losing heart. The shelter personnel didn’t like him and he was going to be killed that evening.
Fortunately I happened to have a friend visiting LA right at that time who was willing to transport Winston to my home in northern CA for foster – if VSPR agreed. They did! VSPR sponsored and pulled him … but at his vet check we found out why he had been so frightened and aggressive: he was blind.
The shelter vet also put his age at 10 (he was emaciated, filthy, and had a staring coat), although later my vet said his teeth indicated he was only between 2 and 5 years old. VSPR was concerned and asked me if I would still take him. At his apparent age and in his weak condition, the stress of transport to Canada plus the fostering and adoption process would have been too much … so I would be the end of the line, not just a foster.
I gladly said yes! … although I’d never had a blind dog before. When Winston arrived, he was still terrified, obviously needed neuter and entropion surgeries, his ears were infected and filled with matter, and he had old deep scars on his neck and head plus thick callouses on every joint from untreated decubitus ulcers (one was so large it had to be surgically removed).
Poor little guy! He panicked at any touch – he must have been attacked by other dogs many times – and would violently devour any food.
He was frightened of any soft surface and had obviously never been on a bed, cushion, or rug in his life. He would also try to tear open any garbage bag he found, which he clearly considered a food source. All I knew about his background was that Animal Control had seized him from a home in the Lancaster area, although with my vets’ help we later managed to piece together a likely – and tragic – story.
The first order of business was see an eye specialist and evaluate his vision, then correct the entropion to get his eyes comfortable, and do the neuter at the same time.
The eye specialist evaluated him carefully and concluded that he had advanced PRA and no vision, despite some pupillary reflex in one eye. She said Winston must have started going blind at around 9 months of age and progressed quickly to full vision loss, although his sight could have been prolonged if he had been given antioxidant supplements. She recommended watching carefully in the future for any clouding or sign of cataracts and treating promptly with drops, since the cataract proteins could set up an irritation eventually leading to glaucoma and surgical removal of the eyes themselves.
Happily Winston’s entropion surgery revealed a pair of the most beautiful, bright, warm brown eyes! They have good color and bright white sclera, track perfectly, and are healthy in every way except for the prematurely atrophied retinas and minor corneal scarring from his lifelong entropion, which according to our eye specialist did NOT cause the vision loss. He is so cute! I’m currently looking for any canine retinal therapy clinical trials hoping he can participate in at least some experimental treatment.
After Winston’s physical health was stabilized, I realized I had a LOT to learn about caring for a blind dog. Reconstructing what he had been through began to explain a lot of his behavior. Books about blind dogs plus advice from my vet and other Shar-Pei owners introduced me to the world of blind dogs, and I began to find ways to make Winston happy and comfortable.
When he first came he was very confused and upset by large spaces, had no idea about leading or pressure, and was easily overwhelmed. He also didn’t sleep, but would just assume a crouching position and stay there indefinitely. I’m guessing Winston was a probably a product of bad backyard breeding. His blindness is genetic and he had other genetic problems – dysplasic joints, severe entropion, and extremely tiny ear canals with other structural problems. Piecing the story together, I guessed he had been handled as a puppy enough to be sweet and affectionate but after going blind at about nine months, either returned or unsellable, was neglected and allowed to run freely with other dogs – possibly intact – as an intact male, resulting in being attacked many times by dogs he couldn’t see. He has large, deep scars which show no signs of stitches or treatment.
When his owners got tired of that, he seems to have been confined, either in a crate or on concrete to cause such thick calluses – even his tail had a callus from being backed against a surface. After that, he must have been largely forgotten – starved, ignored, and allowed to develop decubitus ulcers that were left untreated. The vet also said that the sharp joints from extreme emaciation contributed to his pressure sores. I’m guessing his tendency to assume a patient crouching position indefinitely was from endless hours or years in a crate or small space.
After that horrific isolation he loved touch and voice, so the first thing I did was hold and pet him constantly. He began to relax and sleep deeply, stretching out on his side and dreaming with barks and twitching. When he felt me holding him, he almost immediately started to get drowsy, wobble, then crash and start snoring.
I tried to orient him to my voice and a simple “Come” command with food, to have some way to get him moving forward and a way to get out of the house so he could pee. As his traumatized digestive system began to recover he went through a stage of bloody diarrhea … and with only this crude communication, a lot of times we just didn’t make it outside in time.
As his system began to heal from the abuse and the surgeries he spent a lot of time in good-quality sleep. He was chronically cold and craved heat (probably from the starvation), so whenever he’d find the space heater and lie down in front of it, I’d wrap him in warm blankets and put his head up on a pillow – he loved that. After a few weeks his strong young body began to heal and he had the energy to be more curious. He went through several more weeks of an intense mapping stage, trying to make sense of his new environment. He learned about riding in the car and being lifted into the back. At first he panicked – he couldn’t sense a perimeter in the seat and felt high up, as if he was on an open platform and could just fall off. I reduced his riding area by packing it with blankets and pillows he could touch to give him a solid boundary. Whenever I put him inside the car I’d hold him until he relaxed and tap the surrounding area to show him it was solid.
All this was with lots of talking; I tried to use cue words, but he responded better to tone of voice. Some of that may have been due to his ears being clogged with pus and debris. He did have them flushed under anesthesia, but we waited a few months since he’d been so terrified in the kennel during recovery after the neuter/entropion surgery even though I was in there with him the whole time. The barking dogs and disinfectant smells must have made him afraid he was back in the shelter.
He still doesn’t connect sound with direction except to move toward my voice. It took a long time for him to associate tapping his food bowl at meals with walking toward the food, even with guidance. He’s now learned the different floor textures and knows the room with the softest floor is for sleeping. Since he won’t climb on a soft surface, I put sheepskins on the bedroom floor so he can feel a home “spot”, and when he sits down in the evening I pet and hold him till he falls asleep. Then I cover him with his blankets, bring the pillow, and he’ll be out for at least 10 hours.
He’s learned to come in and out of the house all by himself, day or night (up and down four steps!) and loves sleeping in the sun in the grass. He explores the yard every day and covers a lot of ground. He also loves the beach – he knows it’s soft, flat, and safe. He gets up to a pretty fast trot, too; I think the one-sided surf noise helps keep him going in a straight line.
I hooked up a hose attachment to the sink so I can bathe him in warm water outside without wrestling him into the tub or shower, and he stands pretty well for that. His ears will probably require lifelong treatment, and after a month of drops he FINALLY stopped fighting – putting in the drops had been like alligator wrestling for a while. 🙂
One thing I’ve noticed is that he’s often very disoriented waking up after sleep – he forgets everything, all his landmarks. I wonder if he can see in dreams and if the wakeup is like going blind all over again? Does the long overnight silence put him right back in his past of all those years being left alone? Now I leave music playing softly all night to reassure and orient him and it seems to help a lot. Also as soon as he wakes up in the morning I touch him and talk to him, and guide him outside.
Winston is one of the bravest, sweetest dogs I’ve ever known – he has a patience and a gameness that are totally endearing. It’s been wonderful to see his personality bloom with the attention and love, and see him enjoy simple things like trotting on the beach or sleeping in the sun, and thrive in a new security knowing he’ll be fed twice a day. He’s even begun to “ask” for help because he knows someone is listening; now if he gets lost, confused, or needs something he’ll whine – he knows I’m right there.
It’s a huge communication step and I’m very proud of him. He’s very smart, and clearly a survivor.
But now I need to know more. Our basic routine works – Winston is happy, healthy, and thriving – but I have a lot to learn about blind dogs and how to improve basic skills like walking on a leash; coming, moving, or standing on command … ways to give him structure he understands. This has been a real journey for me; I had no idea what I was taking on, and sometimes in the early days I wondered if I could do it at all. Before we developed any communication, I simply had to be with him every second or something would go wrong. But I’m proud we’ve evolved as far as we have… and hope we can go much further, with help and encouragement from other people who know more about blind dogs. 🙂